Baseball fans love to question their team’s manager. We interrogate every decision to bunt, steal a base, or use a pinch hitter. We’re never, ever satisfied with the stupid batting order, playing time decisions, bullpen roles, use of platoons and much more.
Second-guessing the manager is as much a part of the national pastime as the baseball itself. Those debates are the beating heart of radio call-in shows, water cooler conversations and, of course, team websites like this one.
That won’t change with the Reds’ new manager.
But David Bell doesn’t have to make out perfect lineup cards to be an inspired choice for the Reds. His most important attributes lie elsewhere and won’t be visible to the public. He has invaluable experience with first-class organizations and can use it to move his hometown team forward.
Over the past five years, the job of big league manager has been torn down and rebuilt.
The grizzly face of the franchise guys with outsized personalities, set in their ways, running games from the dugout on intuition and hunches — think Tommy Lasorda, Sparky, Jim Leyland, Sweet Lou, Bobby Cox, even Tony LaRussa — they’re anachronisms.
For better or worse, front offices are invested in playing a much larger role in in-game strategies. Files stuffed with data are mandatory reading for field managers. Tactical decisions of who to play and where; the batting order; and when to bunt, steal and make pitching changes have become collaborative by design.
Richard Justice, one of America’s best veteran baseball writers, recently said this:
“The wall that once existed between the manager and general manager no longer exists. There is information flying back and forth all day long, emails, texts, memos and all that. The front office is going to have input into your lineups, it’s going to have input into how you play out the game, the game plan that night and they’re going to review everything the manager does.” [The Tony Kornheiser Show, Oct. 17, 2018]
Managing every inning has become a team effort that includes the president of baseball operations, general manager and front office staff.
Given that context, where does a manager’s value-added come from?
Not everyone can do it, let alone excel at it. We’ve all had good teachers and rotten ones. The best are organized, clear and can explain new, complex ideas in ways we understand.
The major league manager has become the person responsible for making sure advanced data is condensed and transmitted to players in a coherent way. More data does not necessarily mean more comprehension. It’s easy to overload players with too much new, technical information. Players also often have to be sold on change.
David Bell and his coaching staff must digest the information provided by the front office and make it understandable without undercutting a player’s natural instinct. That’s an important human element in an analytics-first dugout.
David Bell gets that. By all accounts he’s great at it.
Last week, Bell talked about “bridging the gap” to make sure “everything that is worked on in the front office is part of what we do on the field and player development and scouting. …There’s a real edge to be had there.”
That’s an accurate description of what is expected now from the thoroughly modern major league manager.
But it’s not a complete picture of what’s needed. Not with the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds analytics department has been focused on front office personnel decisions. Nothing wrong there. Where it seems to fall short in comparison to other organizations is having a working structure in place to assist the team’s players.
David Bell is the right guy to address that. In his three years as Mike Matheny’s bench coach, he saw how the St. Louis Cardinals transmit advanced information to its players and the value of it. In fact, Bell’s job was to immerse himself in the new data and do just that. Like many front offices, the Cardinals put priority on supporting their players’ preparation, even real-time during games.
“There’s incredible information, and it has to factor into everything we do,” said Bell during an interview less than year ago. “It’s there. If we don’t access, utilize and implement that information, we’re going to fall behind. The information is the edge.”
Bell must help the Reds develop a better system to do just that. He can let the Reds know what a first-rate analytics department does.
Early signs are promising.
Bell repeatedly mentioned during his introduction the importance of every player being prepared as much as possible. That’s code for downloading information. That means the front office doing research and supplying it to players.
“We continue to learn new things each and every day,” said Bell in an interview about a year ago. “That’s something that’s really important to me, having a mindset and having people around me that have a mindset that we are going to get all of the information we can. Some of it we may not use, but we are going to be open to finding the best approach in every situation.
It’s significant that Bell has asked for his own workspace in the Reds front office. Many managers don’t spend the offseason in their team’s town. For example, Dusty Baker went home to California once the season ended. Bell is moving his family here and plans to be around Joe Nuxhall Way all winter. He wants to be involved in front office decision-making. That’s terrific news.
If David Bell is to bridge the front office and dugout, he must insist the research folks provide more help to the coaches and players. That’s the way it works most successful places. Players who switch organizations now talk openly about differences in information they’re provided. When it comes to information flow, David Bell has to make demands on both the players and front office.
To borrow his metaphor, traffic travels both ways on bridges. So does communication.
The words “family” and “familiar” share a common Latin origin. At David Bell’s introductory press conference, the notion of “familiar with” was never used to explain his hiring. This time Reds didn’t choose an internal candidate. Though Reds fans had reason to be skeptical that’s where the search would finish.
We’ve come to expect a certain pattern of Familiar With employment in the Castellni Era.
Bob Castellini was Familiar With general manager Walt Jocketty from the time they were together in St. Louis. The Reds hired Familiar With pitching coach Bryan Price to replace Dusty Baker. Walt Jocketty brought in a parade of Cardinals retreads because he was all too Familiar With them. The Reds brass has promoted and promoted Familiar With employees, including Dick Williams himself.
David Bell has ties to the Reds. More on that in a minute. But that wasn’t the primary rationale for his hiring. His qualifications were largely built on knowledge and professional development from after he left the Reds. If you took Bell’s resumé and crossed out every connection to Cincinnati, he’d remain wholly qualified for the Reds manager job by today’s standards.
We know that, in part, because Bell was pursued by several other organizations this offseason. Bell’s diverse experience, age and qualities match the prototype manager that successful teams — the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Brewers and more — have hired the past couple years.
In fact, David Bell’s hiring represents an important break from the insularity plaguing the Reds. It’s a victory for Dick Williams’ vision of dragging the Reds into the 21st century.
Much has been said and written about how David Bell can play a vital role delivering a unified message throughout in the Reds organization. Bell’s unique front office experience from his time with the Giants as VP of Player Development makes him suited for that. Bell himself talked about this in his press conference and subsequent interviews.
But the problem Bell must address is much more fundamental. The Reds don’t have a true, single, coherent message.
We’ve watched divisions produce inconsistent personnel management and messaging. The commitment to rebuilding has been jagged. A manager made important personnel announcements that weren’t communicated to players or seemingly even to the front office. To say they were walked back does a disservice to the pacing. Even the recent search appeared plagued by conflicting, head-snapping leaks from Reds leadership.
No split has been more central and debilitating than that between those reluctant to move forward and others ready to. Ownership has held on to players too firmly. The family broadcasting brand mocks change. Ideas like speed-first leadoff hitters linger well past the expiration date. We’ve witnessed a culture of aversion to change.
Can David Bell address all that? Yes. He can and he must.
Bell comes down squarely and loudly on the side of change. He’s said the Reds “entire organization” should not only be modern, but unified “ahead of the curve” He could not have been clearer about his determination to use all available data to help prepare the players.
If you’re concerned that irony is dead, consider this.
David Bell’s last name will afford him latitude with the Old School group to make change happen. Gus Bell’s grandson will hush the chorus of resistance to new ideas on the nightly broadcast. Buddy Bell’s son will be able to shepherd rapid personnel turnover through the owner’s box.
I’ve heard you never go wrong with a Bell.
One Good Man
Is David Bell the right guy to lead the Reds back to regular contending?
It’s a tough division. It’ll be a while until we know.
Whenever you’re talking about the impact of a manager, it’s worth keeping front and center that roster is reality. As I’ve said, when the Reds acquire and develop better players, when those players are healthy enough to be on the field and perform to their potential, only then will the manager make a crucial difference. The encouraging, fleeting peaks (and deep valleys) of the 2018 season demonstrate that truth.
That will be the case for David Bell in 2019 and beyond.
Noted philosopher Janis Joplin wrote, albeit in a different context, “one good man ain’t much, it’s only every little thing.” Can a single person make a profound difference in a major league organization?
Hmm. Maybe. If it lets him.
In David Bell, the Reds have landed a smart, curious guy with meaningful experience. He possesses a valuable skill set that can challenge and align ownership, the front office, dugout and locker room. Bell may well be the smartest, most talented person in the organization. If that’s the case, let’s hope the people who hired him realize it and grant him a broad portfolio.
Maybe, for once, an organization laden with nepotism and insularity punched above its weight because the candidate had sentimental reasons to choose Cincinnati over Toronto, Anaheim and Arlington.
If the wall between manager and front office has fallen, David Bell must take full advantage of his time on the other side. He was hired to be the first modern manager for the Reds. But, for the club to be its best, Bell’s influence must extend far beyond that role. He has to function as de facto co-President, working hand-in-glove with Dick Williams and Nick Krall on everything, especially personnel decisions and information flow to the team.
David Bell is qualified to do just that. He’s built to come home and fix things.