COMMENTARY | The 2013 Cincinnati Reds broke spring training with lofty expectations.
The team had added Shin-Soo Choo before the season started, and Choo would fix the team's biggest liability from the 2012 season -- leadoff production.
Also, the Reds were returning the core of the 2012 NL Central division title team: the everyday lineup, the starting rotation and the backend of the bullpen. The 2013 Reds were only going to be better than the 2012 team that won the second-most games in the majors.
Not so, and when the expectations are that high and the season doesn't go quite as planned, the manager lands flat in the hot seat. That's where Reds manager Dusty Baker found himself before he lost his job on Friday.
In his 20 years as manager, Baker has taken just one team to the World Series. He lost in his sole chance to manage a champion then and watched his 2012 Reds crumble in the NLDS after taking a two-game lead.
In 2013, Baker managed to lead the Reds to a playoff berth with a second wild-card spot, but the Reds' loss in the one-game playoff only cemented Baker as a postseason bust. As a result, Baker's hot seat officially ignited.
Regular Season Collapse
Baker had a wider margin for error for most of the 2013 regular season because he never had the full roster that was expected to deliver Cincinnati its World Series contender. Minus his cleanup hitter (Ryan Ludwick), his rotation ace (Johnny Cueto), and his eighth-inning relievers (Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton), even his harshest critics in Reds Country were prepared to cut Baker some slack -- just so long as he kept the team above water and had it poised at some point to reel off a big streak when the time was right.
That hope for a clinching streak ended with an absolute collapse during the last week of the season that saw the Reds drop five straight games before never having a real chance during their wild-card playoff loss. The Reds scored a grand total of 10 runs in those six straight losses and suffered untimely pitching meltdowns. During that losing streak, the Reds had all but one of their key injured players (Broxton) back in action, which made the collapse even more glaring.
Baker is a players' manager. He lets his players work issues out for themselves and doesn't seem at all outwardly critical of players when they are at their worst. Ultimately, how the manager coexists with his players doesn't factor into a hot seat equation unless that style become inextricably linked to hostility or -- in the 2013 Reds' case -- underachieving.
Baker's player-deferential style may have a lot to do with how the Reds' once-young corps (Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake) have developed into seasoned professionals in their collective prime. But those same players showed nothing during the last week of 2013 to suggest that Baker's managing style motivated them or otherwise prepared them for the challenge in front of them when the team was 23 games over .500 and on the verge of at least securing home-field advantage for the wild card.
Managers are bound to be second-guessed when the results don't work out and the available alternatives seem much better in hindsight, but Baker perhaps opens himself up to more criticism on this front than other successful managers.
One of the most glaring of these tactics involved the use of fire-balling closer Aroldis Chapman for almost the entire regular season. Chapman only twice pitched more than one inning, which could seem like a waste of one of the top closers in the NL. The end result of not using Chapman earlier and more often may have cost the Reds only a few wins over the course of the year, but not using Chapman more in the eighth inning to help when specialists Marshall and Broxton were on the disabled list made Baker seem unduly stubborn.
This seeming stubbornness of not doing what could prove to be a boost (like playing speedster Billy Hamilton more during his stolen-base spree down the stretch) and sticking to the same thing when it's obviously not working (like playing Ryan Ludwick and his 0 home runs and .224 batting average in 76 at-bats down the stretch).
When Reds owner Robert Castellini signed Baker to a two-year contract extension after the 2012 season, he was banking on continuity. Now that the extension has one year left, Castellini apparently reconsidered, especially since the continued employment of Baker probably translated to an attendance drop that would be greater than the salary Baker is owed.
The money owed Baker in the final year of his contract may have made his job security seem a little more stable, but the last wild card Baker had to face in 2013 was Castellini, and that wild card was a worse loss for Baker than the playoff one.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years. You can read his articles about the 2012 Reds' season here.
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- Dusty Baker
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