Summer of 2015 I wrote a post (Culture of Narrowness) about how nepotism and insider-bias hiring practices and player evaluation were producing serial failure for the Reds. That article was prompted by a report that Barry Larkin had been talking to friends about joining his coaching staff with the Reds. My post wasn’t about Barry Larkin, but about how hiring Larkin could fit a troubling pattern:

When the season comes to its merciful conclusion, odds are that Bob Castellini will fire Bryan Price and keep Walt Jocketty. Jocketty will announce Larkin’s hiring (surprise!). Castellini will express warm, manly feelings about bringing back a hometown hero. Jocketty will say a real hiring process wasn’t necessary because, you know, the obvious guy is obvious.

Sound familiar? Hiring Barry Larkin as the next Reds manager, without seriously and formally considering other candidates, will fit a long pattern – a culture – of insular decision-making by the baseball side of Bob Castellini’s organization.

As we now know, bottom-feeding expectations have permitted Bryan Price to wriggle under the lowest of bars. Not once, but twice. As I wrote in 2015, the concern wasn’t Price per se, it was the flawed process that led to Price’s hiring and the prospect of repeating it:

But the take-away isn’t about Bryan Price; the real lesson is about their myopic process two years ago.

As one of the most respected coaches in the game and one who was familiar with the roster, maybe Bryan Price was the right choice for the Reds in 2014. Other teams seemed eager to hire Price as their manager if the Reds didn’t.

But the Reds front office didn’t come anywhere close to finding out if Bryan Price was the best choice. They talked to one person and hired him on the spot. They didn’t take seriously the possibility an outsider could impress them more.

That old post was written before the Reds replaced Walt Jocketty with Dick Williams.

On the one hand, Williams’ meteoric rise with the Reds itself was the ultimate example of favoring relatives and friends in hiring — a scion of generations of Reds ownership, promoted from within having never worked in another baseball organization. Casebook nepotism.

On the other hand, Dick Williams’s tenure has, in a short time, presented a much welcome contrast to the creaky leadership of Walt Jocketty. Williams is more modern and open. He has taken a holistic view of what it takes to win. Most important, Williams has pioneered a paradigm-flipping expansion of the organization’s analytics department.

That brings us to today and #11.

Zach Buchanan’s terrific article about Barry Larkin includes the nugget that Larkin has a strong interest in managing the Reds. There’s now a near mortal lock the Reds will face this choice. Bryan Price isn’t going to manage here forever. The Reds will need to hire his replacement at some point, maybe sooner rather than later. Maybe not.

We now know, thanks to Buchanan’s reporting, that Larkin will throw his Hall of Fame Reds cap in the ring. The question is whether the Reds will conduct a hiring process with integrity. Sure, look at Larkin, but also give an honest examination to a range of outsiders. As I wrote in 2015:

But while hiring new people might be necessary to fix the problem, it’s not enough. There’s a difference between changing employees and changing culture. If the Reds fire Price and hire Larkin, or even fire Jocketty and hire another old-school GM, nothing meaningful will change. If underlying norms and procedures aren’t modernized, new faces won’t address the problems that have produced a poor record of performance.

I still believe what I wrote then. Barry Larkin may end up being the best available manager for the Reds. If so, then hire him. But I agree with Chad, that the Reds need to conduct a thorough, open-minded process, one befitting a billion-dollar organization.

Let’s not oversell the value of interviews in determining who should get the job. High-class research, which I’m sure Dick Williams has seen, outlines the shortcomings of interviews. But this front office, loaded with insularity, could benefit from a broad search that includes multiple interviews. Listening to smart outside candidates analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Reds organization would have significant value. So would hearing new best practices of winning clubs.

In short-sighted contrast, when the Reds chose Price, the organization patted themselves on the back about the brevity of the process.

The good news is that under Dick Williams, nostalgia for St. Louis, circa 2005, is no longer the organization’s Polaris. Dan Straily-for-Luis Castillo is Exhibit A. But was that deal one-off Marlins Madness or can Williams repeat its wisdom? There’s a ways to go before we’ll have a good idea if the Reds’ new leader will bring meaningful improvement to the way they operate.

The hiring process for the club’s next manager, whenever that happens, will tell us a lot.

5 Responses

  1. Citizen54

    You’ll have to go to Reds Reporter for that. I remember debating with a couple of guys over there who didn’t know why you should have a high OBP guy leading off and felt Price deserved to keep his job well because the Reds’s players seemed to like him.

  2. Bill

    If we are talking about a new manager with no experience I still think David Ross should be considered.

  3. Sliotar

    Excellent summary, Steve.

    A simple question: It’s not that a Williams-Larkin duo can’t necessarily make the Reds a contender, but why have 2 guys at the same time with no experience in their roles?

    This link is an excellent summary of the luxury tax, and why teams want to get under the threshold for at least one year….

    In theory, a team could spend $230 million in 2021 (Dodgers, Cubs possibly in NL) and only pay $10 million in tax.

    The Reds are already severely handicapped revenue-wise. “Breaking in” a GM and manager while trying to compete feels like the decision of an owner fiddling with a baseball play toy, rather than how a $1 billion organization should be run.

  4. cfd3000

    I’d love to see Barry Larkin managing a young, talented, exciting Reds team in 2019. IF there isn’t a better, more innovative, more capable option to helm that club. But just as I agree completely with your basic premise Steve that a thorough, focused, intentional search should occur, I have long felt that one of the least important factors on the managerial qualifications list is experience running a major league team. Is Bryan Price a better manager now than when he started? Maybe marginally so. But it feels like plenty of mediocre managers get hired again and again, simply because their resume says they’ve done it before. I do wish Larkin had managerial experience in the minors. But I’d be much more interested in his viewpoints on lineup construction, bullpen use, playing time management, fatigue, spray charts, pitch recognition and plate discipline, power and OBP and of course, his rapport with players, than how many times he’s given an umpire a lineup card.

  5. Reds Fan in FL

    There was a time when the Reds would look outside the organization for managers and had some pretty good success – L. Piniella, D. Johnson, J. McKeon, D. Baker.