Houston Astros: Dusty Baker says no cheating on his watch

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 30: Dusty Baker, left, and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane take questions during a press conference as Baker is introduced as their new manager at Minute Maid Park on January 30, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 30: Dusty Baker, left, and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane take questions during a press conference as Baker is introduced as their new manager at Minute Maid Park on January 30, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

Dusty Baker has well-renowned people skills as a manager. He’ll need them now more than ever to enforce a no-cheat zone while managing the Houston Astros.

This ought to be good. Introduced Thursday as the new Houston Astros manager, Dusty Baker took the Astrogate bull by the horns and said, almost flatly but with his usual blackout-defying smile, “We’ll get to the bottom of it and try to flush it and forget it. We have to go forward and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. It’s certainly not going to happen on my watch here.”

Maybe that’s what Baker was supposed to say, but you got the impression hearing him say it that he meant every word of it. Never mind that his predecessor, A.J. Hinch, neither endorsed (so said the Manfred report) nor thwarted the Astro Intelligence Agency above or beyond smashing an illicit monitor or two which the players availing themselves of the AIA merely replaced. (So said the Manfred report likewise.)

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You wonder if Baker has seen Tony Adams’s analysis of just how deep the illicit electronic sign-stealing went in 2017 at least. You wonder if he’s processed that it wasn’t just spare parts, scrubs, and spaghetti bats but several of the team’s signature swingers at the plate with a bang—or three. Swingers such as Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, Yuli Gurriel, and George Springer. Concurrently, you’re somewhere between amazed and just a little dismayed that Jose Altuve, arguably the soul of the Houston Astros, only got banged for 2.8 percent of the 866 pitches he saw that year.

Remember that when Dusty Baker managed the Washington Nationals in 2017, his troops squared off against the Astros in one interleague series, in Minute Maid Park, August 22-24. The Adams analysis says the AIA banged the can slowly 33 times in the first game, 29 times in the second, and 47 times in the third. The Astros got more buck for the bangs in that second game, winning 6-1, while the Nats beat them 4-3 in the first game and 5-4 in eleven innings in the second.

In the first game, the Astros scored a run each in the first three innings while the Nats scored two each in the third and the fourth and made the score stick to the finish. In the second game, the Nats scored first in the third (Wilmer Difo hit a sacrifice fly with two men on), the Astros tied at one in the fourth (Josh Reddick hit a sac fly right after Altuve’s leadoff triple), the Astros broke the tie in the fifth (Jake Marisnick hit a one-out solo home run), then dropped a four-spot on Nats relievers Matt Grace (a solo homer by Max Stassi) and Shawn Kelley (a three-run homer by Bregman) in the eighth.

In the third game, the Nats scored twice in the fifth to break dueling shutouts between Stephen Strasburg and Dallas Keuchel, and added a run in the seventh, before the Houston Astros scored once in the eighth and twice in the ninth. But the Nats scored twice in the top of the eleventh and the Astros answered only with J.D. Davis hitting a leadoff bomb in the bottom.

Says the Adams analysis: Davis had the highest percentage of bangs per pitches (28.6) seen in 2017, with Stassi third (25.0), Marisnick fifth (22.8), and Reddick (3.9) the third-lowest behind Altuve (2.8) and Tony Kemp (0.0). The 2019 World Series wasn’t the first time the Nats had to smell and overcome Astro rats. And Baker couldn’t possibly have been deaf to the Astros’ can-cans two years before a different Nats manager led them to the Promised Land.

Just how will Dusty Baker keep his promise that there won’t be another AIA on his watch? He’s said that he plans to keep Hinch’s coaching staff. Third base coach Gary Pettis and pitching coach Brent Strom are the only incumbents who were on the 2017 staff. So far, so good. Nobody’s said Pettis had any hand in the AIA yet, and Strom’s job title doesn’t seem to put him anywhere within reach of the furtive television network.

But maybe (big maybe) they, too, heard, saw, suspected, and knew nussing! Nussing! until they talked to Rob Manfred and/or his bloodhounds. Now they’ll have to answer to a skipper who’s gone on the public record as saying not in my house. So will such remaining Astro players as Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Gurriel, Reddick, and Springer. The Astros are many things approaching spring training. Dull won’t be one of them. But little enough of them are flattering.

Owner Jim Crane has said already that he’ll make his players apologize come spring training. Baker might want to get their sides of the Astrogate story before Crane gives the final order. Without giving in to the temptation to open with a horrified “what the hell were guys as good as you guys thinking?!”

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The new skipper’s people skills are documented almost encyclopedically. If Dusty Baker really wants to make the Houston Astros a no-cheat zone, he’ll need those skills more than at any previous point in his career.