2021 MLB Manager of the Year: Dusty Baker (Houston Astros)
Astros owner Jim Crane called Dusty Baker during his franchise’s darkest days. Baker refused to accept the retirement so many assumed he embraced. For two years, he sat in wait for one more opportunity to complete “unfinished business.”
Major League Baseball’s findings during the electronic sign-stealing investigation that concluded in early 2020 prompted Crane to dismiss A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow, the best manager and general manager in franchise history.
Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training within a month, forcing Crane into a frenzied search for two shepherds of his shaken team. He interviewed “four or five” managerial candidates before bringing Baker to Houston. The two men went to lunch.
“We talked for about two hours and talked about a whole lot of stuff,” Crane said recently. “He’s just a warm guy. He makes you feel comfortable. He certainly made me feel comfortable, and I knew when I left the room I wanted to hire him.”
Yet Crane continued his circuitous search. He interviewed approximately four other men after Baker. Some paired well with the Astros’ forward-thinking front office. Others brought a bevy managerial experience. A mix of the two appeared as Crane's foremost goal. Baker brought the one element others couldn’t.
Leading the sport’s most loathed team requires a remarkable touch. Baker possesses it. He is loved by almost the entire sport, a sage storyteller with a cool demeanor and connections for days. He injected respectability into a franchise that squandered it in scandal. Baker walked into a wonderful situation on the field. His most impressive work arrived off of it.
“I hate that A.J. Hinch lost his job in the manner that he did, but I inherited a good team, much like Sparky Anderson inherited the Big Red Machine,” Baker said.
“But you got to put in the time. You got to put in the effort. You have to get to know each individual player and what motivates them, or sometimes you just leave them alone. It's a lot of work to get to this point.”
Baker did not disturb the Astros’ entrenched clubhouse culture. He galvanized a team and defended them amid a torrent of abuse. He guided Houston to 95 regular season wins in 2021 in his first 162-game season as manager. Houston won the American League West title and its third AL pennant in five years, earning Baker our Major League Manager of the Year honors.
“What's special about Dusty is, like, he's the manager, but you also see him as a friend,” shortstop Carlos Correa said after Game 6 of the World Series. “When you have that kind of relationship with your players and that communication, good things are going to happen in the clubhouse.
“He has our back. We have his back. Communication is key for me and the guys in there, and he did a great job with that.”
Just eight other managers have won a pennant in both leagues. In 2021, Baker became the first manager to win a division title with five different clubs. He guided the Astros to postseason appearances in 2020 and 2021. Before that he managed into October with the Nationals (2016, 2017), the Reds (2010, 2012, 2013), the Cubs (2003) and the Giants (1997, 2000, 2002).
He was previously BA’s MLB Manager of the Year in 2000.
Baker received a contract extension for the 2022 season. Baker needs 13 victories to reach 2,000. When he does, Baker will become the 12th manager in major league history to reach the feat. Ten of the other 11 are in the Hall of Fame.
All 11 have at least one World Series title. Baker is still searching for his, the only missing milestone in his marvelous career. His 2002 Giants and 2021 Astros lost the World Series.
The 2021 Astros afforded him his best chance. Injuries to Justin Verlander before the season and Lance McCullers Jr. during the playoffs ravaged his pitching staff. Baker’s prolific offense, baseball’s highest scoring group in the regular season, withered in a six-game World Series loss to the Atlanta Braves.
“I think you get over it. Other people don't let you get over it. And other people don't get over it,” Baker said. “To me, we did all we could to get to this point. I mean, I had a bunch of young guys that have never been in this situation. I'm proud of these guys. I'm real proud of these guys.”
Baker managed the entire postseason without a contract for 2022. Crane and GM James Click gave him a one-year extension after the World Series. On paper, Click and Baker are a peculiar pairing. Click is a 43-year-old Ivy League graduate groomed by the Rays. Progressive does not begin to describe him. Baker, meanwhile, is from a bygone era.
Finding a way to blend the two is mandatory. Baker discovered it. For most of the regular season, he adhered to the third-time-through-the-order principle with his starting pitchers. He deployed his bullpen aggressively and did not marry himself to set roles. Baker often cites platoon splits and exit velocity—even if he always “prefers exit hits.”
“I was talking to some of our sabermetric guys and they said, ‘I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks,’ ” Baker said. “And they said, ‘Depends on the dog.’
“That was a compliment, I guess.”
At his core, though, Baker remains a player’s manager with an uncanny ability to relate. He is bilingual and bantered with the Astros’ Latin American players in Spanish. He often brought Mexican-born starter Jose Urquidy bowls of pozole. He learned rookie outfielder Chas McCormick had a sweet tooth, so he delivered banana pudding.
"I really love Dusty,” outfielder Kyle Tucker said. “He's a great guy. I know everyone else in there loves him, too. There's a lot of things that factor into that. I know he's meant a lot to a lot of the guys in there, talked to everyone and is a big part of our lives."
Now, Baker has one more year to continue it.
“My son asks me all the time, ‘Dad, are you excited?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but I just don’t jump up and down and show my excitement,’ ” Baker said with a grin. “I feel my excitement on the inside.
“I’m glad to be back. It’s a tremendous city, tremendous opportunity and I have some tremendous players on my team—and I think we are only going to get better.”