Inside Baseball | Theories on Nationals crazy call to let Baker go

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker (12) greets the fans during the the first game of the National League Division Series between the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs on October 6, 2017, at Nationals Park, in Washington D.C. (Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire)

Back in September, Dusty Baker asked someone with the Washington Nationals whether he should renew his yearly rental in Washington D.C. for another year, and word came back that he should indeed renew, reinforcing the idea that he’d be back managing the team next year.

But, as it turned out, word from someone else around the Nats was that Baker still wasn’t sure. Something just didn’t seem right to Baker, his friend around the team said. So Baker decided not to renew.

Baker has his baseball strategy questioned sometimes, but that turned out to be the right call.
The Nats, on the other hand, made the nutty decision to fire someone who’d just won 97 games. While they suggest it was a group decision, word is that general manager Mike Rizzo — not a surprise — wanted to keep Baker but was overruled.

“Rizzo fought for him,” was the way one person put it.

Rizzo is a powerful man who’s built a powerful roster. But one person close to the situation surmised that he lost his autonomy on managerial picks when his handpicked choice of Matt Williams didn’t work out. Had that not happened, Baker — an excellent manager, terrific ambassador and fine gentleman — would likely still be the Nats manager. And they wouldn’t be hoping they can find something better at this late date.

From here, Nats ownership, while providing the money and being very positive in many ways, has its hand in a lot of things — too many. They are as involved as any ownership group going.

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It’s true the whole organization seemed “stung” by the National League Division Series defeat to the Chicago Cubs that seemed to catch them off guard. But the dismissal of a good man who didn’t deserve it turned out to be the far bigger surprise.

What ultimately happened, when the decision-making board finally convened, according to someone in the know, was that the “two or three” key players on the seven-person board — presumably including team owner Ted Lerner — wanted a change after two more playoff defeats in two years under Baker’s watch. Among those who voted to change, the feeling was that they have the talent, they just need the man to push them over the top — or at least into the second round.

No one was more more surprised about the firing of Baker after two years and 192 regular-season victories than Baker. And while Baker started to have his doubts as he waited 10 days for an answer, someone close to him said only the other day that while he took it like a pro, he was a bit “shell-shocked.” (Baker said “too soon” to talk when I texted him for this story.)

It’s no wonder folks were surprised. Rizzo had suggested late in the season to media outlets that they expected/planned to sit down with Baker after the year to work out an extension. And players apparently had that idea as well.

And why wouldn’t they?

(Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

But something changed over the NL Championship Series, and the minds of ownership were changed. There are some other theories going around, but it seems pretty clear the overriding factor was that they lost by one run in the NLDS. Again, they lost.

One person with Nationals ties says that when they hired Baker, it was explained that they knew they had a playoff team and just needed someone to get them over the hump. That person said that after a failed negotiation with managerial candidate Bud Black, who didn’t like a low-ball offer (and maybe some other things), Baker convinced them he was their guy to do it.

And unfortunately, the latest first-round defeat made it four one-round defeats with terrific teams. Baker was only around for two. His playoff record isn’t the best, but it’s a lot better than theirs. No matter. It was their call.

There really hasn’t been an explanation why the decision took 10 days, but someone mentioned that they needed to get “the family” together, meaning the club-owning Lerner family (and the whole board).

Nats players are said by sources to be generally upset, unhappy that Baker got fired, but even more unhappy at the continuing upheaval and uncertainty around the team, and the perception that creates. When Williams was fired, the players understood it and generally agreed (except superstar Bryce Harper, who hit it off with Williams).

But this time it’s different. This time, even those around the team view the situation as a “train wreck.” While they had suffered another bad-luck, disheartening defeat, the players and other employees all figured Baker would be back and they’d all give it a shot again next year.

The decision made little sense, and the timing didn’t help. By taking 10 days, they put themselves well behind in the managerial game of manager search. (It appears for now Davey Martinez may be an early front runner, but they are still “gathering names” according to some.)

Meanwhile, the nonsensical nature of the call has given rise to a few other theories — most of which don’t amount to much, or probably even anything. It was difficult to cite any obvious strategic blunders (who could have predicted five runs would score with ace Max Scherzer on the mound?) and there was a lot of bad luck — like the non-interference call on Javier Baez on the third strike that got past catcher Matt Wieters, and the replay that caught Jose Lobaton a millimeter over the bag and thus out on Willson Contreras’ pickoff.

But while the one-run defeat in Game 5 does appear to be the overriding factor here, the way it went down has fairly given rise to all sorts of theories regarding what else might be at play here. The speculation is fair considering the abruptness of the firing following seeming assurances he’d be back. But we looked into them, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot there. At most, one or more may have been a minor concern, it seems.

One by one, here’s a look at the other theories, as crazy as some of them may seem …

(Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire)

Theory 1: Bryce Harper didn’t love him.

Harper didn’t take sides in questions about Baker at the end of the year, and while Baker was thought to believe he had a good rapport with Harper, word is it was just fine, no better or worse. There was even a rumor out there somewhere that reached the internet that agent Scott Boras, who is close to Nats ownership (they signed Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and have several other Boras players, including Harper) suggested to ownership that Harper would be less likely to sign long-term if Baker were kept.

However, Boras said, “I want nothing to do with the managerial process. If I’m involved in managerial decisions, that would interfere and conflict with my commitment to the players. I represent players. It would be totally against my interest. I would never do that. I refuse to represent managers because I have players on the team. I don’t want to recommend a manager, and then have Bryce Harper come to me two years later and say, ‘How could you have picked this guy?’ “

Beyond that, Boras said Harper had no real negative feelings about Baker, who was generally liked by players (according to other Nats people) and seen as a big improvement over Williams.

“There was no player that came to me to say something negative about Dusty Baker,” Boras said.

Boras also joked that if he were to have recommended a manager in the first place two years ago, he would have recommended Alex Cora, who he represented as a player (but he didn’t do that and, for the record, the Nats didn’t hire Cora last time and they never called on Cora this time). This also isn’t the NBA where players pick managers; let’s face it, LeBron James has a lot more power since one player can win a championship in the NBA; that’s not true in baseball. Theory credibility: 0.

Theory 2: Nats higher-ups didn’t love the way the news conference went where Baker told the media that Tanner Roark would start Game 4, and not star Stephen Strasburg.

It isn’t known exactly what they didn’t love about it, but one thing was cleared up later (Strasburg didn’t throw a bullpen that day but the day before) and one thing changed later (Strasburg went from not pitching to pitching, as his condition improved a bit). Someone familiar with the situation suggested Baker was prepped before the news conference, and apparently they didn’t like the criticism that followed — or, having to correct when Strasburg threw his ‘pen.

Of course, it’s hard to believe one news conference would be a big factor — especially when the end result, that Strasburg pitched and won (maybe Baker underselling the illness, “under the weather” spurred the change of mind?) — in a firing. Piecing it together now, apparently what happened was that Baker went to Strasburg, the obvious choice after the rainout, and Strasburg said something along the lines of “I’ll take the ball. But I should tell you I’m not 100 percent (or I might not have the same energy, something along those lines).”

Baker decided then that Roark would pitch Game 4, and Strasburg, once better, Game 5. A case could be made in retrospect that Baker should have held off another day to see how Strasburg feels or just told him he was pitching. While Scherzer is a “bulldog type,” it’s known Strasburg is “more of a scientist, more analytical” about it, and perhaps Baker should have tried to ease Strasburg onto the mound or delay the call. But in the end, Strasburg pitched, and he pitched magnificently, sending it to Game 5. Theory credibility: Almost 0.

Theory 3: The bosses weren’t happy there was a story about a possible two-year extension that surfaced.

While Rizzo told media outlets they expected to work something out, someone suggested someone wasn’t thrilled that the “two-year” thing was in the media. There was no evidence Baker ever told anyone this, and it could have been speculation from someone inside the organization. Either way, this would seem to be very low on the list. Theory Credibility: Almost 0.

While the Nats’ story is that Baker’s firing was a group decision, that didn’t tell the whole story. But the Nats are probably telling the main truth when they suggest the firing was really just about their continuing inability to get out of the first round.

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