Despite young phenom Bryce Harper winning the National League Most Valuable Player award at the end of last season and Max Scherzer throwing two no-hitters, the Washington Nationals finished with a disappointing 83-79 record and fired second-year manager, Matt Williams, as well as the entire coaching staff in early October after missing the postseason.
Individual success for their coveted right fielder in Harper and highly-paid former Cy Young award winner in Scherzer was overshadowed by the team’s frustrating second-place finish in the NL East. The talented ball club underperformed in most people’s opinions and the franchise needed to make a leadership change in an effort to reach its potential and make a deep postseason run.
Enter Dusty Baker.
Baker played 19 seasons in the MLB for four teams from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s. He began his managerial career in 1993 with the San Francisco Giants — a team he played for nine years earlier — and led the team to 103 wins in his first season. In 2002, he managed the Giants to the World Series, and then managed the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds over the course of the next decade.
The past two seasons, 2014 and 2015, Baker was out of baseball, even though he posted a 1669-1504 total regular season record and 19-26 postseason record in seven appearances over the previous 20 years.
A toothpick-wielding, free-spirited baseball traditionalist, Baker is known as a “player’s manager.” A stark contrast to Williams’ more serious demeanor, the funny and funky Baker has everyone buying in to Harper’s “Make Baseball Fun Again” campaign. Baker’s unconventional approach makes him who he is, and it has rubbed off on his new team.
While Baker endures plenty of criticism for how he manages, he has the Nationals in a great groove to begin the season. Coming off last year’s letdown, the team has a 14-4 record through April 24 — the best in baseball thus far.
“You can go out on a daily basis, enjoy the game, have fun, and he lets us do that,” Harper said, of Baker. “There’s no other guy I’d want to be playing for right now.”
A strong start in April is better than the alternative, but it does not ensure success through the entire 162-game season. That being said, a team with as much star-power and depth as Washington may benefit, especially from catching momentum early and jumping out to a quick division lead.
With a pitching staff that includes studs such as Stephen Strasburg and Scherzer, as well as solid starters Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez and veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon, the Nationals have plenty of good arms to complement their top-notch roster of field players led by Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy, among others.
Only time will tell if the Nationals will have a successful year — which would entail a quality postseason run — or if they will wilt once again and allow other teams to steal the spotlight.