When Dusty Baker was hired in the fall of 2007, I was as optimistic as Charles Dickens’ young Pip—I had great expectations. At first, I’d hoped the Reds would turn to interim manager Pete Mackanin, who had done a more-than-capable job righting the ship after Jerry Narron was handed his suitcase. Still, Baker—an outsider and a marquee name—would bring a gravitas to the Reds’ clubhouse and a leadership style that would have the respect of players and fans alike. Aaron Harang spoke for many:
“He knows how to help teams win and to get them in a winning state of mind.”
But the shine would wear off, as it always does with managers, replaced by the dull reality that while Dusty was beloved inside the clubhouse and provided the kind of dugout bonhomie that often characterizes winning teams, out on the field, his decision-making could be as curious as a cat working on his ninth life.
You see, Baker, a thoughtful man of conviction, had a baseball philosophy born in the benevolent shadow of Hank Aaron and burnished by years in the California sun. There was a right way to play the game, leading to decisions that left me reaching for Advil and the remote: insisting on batting Zack Cozart and his .298 OBP second in the batting order for months; or benching ROY-candidate Todd Frazier in the 2012 NLDS for fading veteran Scott Rolen because in Baker’s own words, it was “Scottie’s last rodeo;” or leaving Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen spitting sunflower seeds while the Giants left Cincinnati with the spoils of postseason war.
It wasn’t just the decision-making that was alarming. It was the knowledge that things could never change. Dusty was a by-the-book guy and many chapters, like the one titled “The Closer,” had become dog-eared and yellowed with age. Bringing Chapman in for a clean ninth to secure a three-run lead was like hunting ducks with a bazooka. As he once said to a writer who wondered why the Cuban Missile couldn’t enter the game before the ninth, Baker’s reply was almost trolling in its dismissiveness:
“That’s just the way it is.”
New manager Bryan Price was going to be different, but it never quite worked out that way. When Jim Riggleman took over and had a soupçon of success, it looked for all the world like the Reds were going to look inward again, and go back in time to those familiar, comforting, old school ways.
It was then a curious thing happened. The heavy hand of ownership appeared to release its grip on decision-making and Dick Williams, with his private equity pedigree, was handed the reins. The Reds’ organizational thinking turned progressive from top-to-bottom. The irony was thick. Williams was a insider by birth, but he was an outsider by philosophy. Part of that philosophy most assuredly led to the hire of David Bell. Bell’s insistence on having an office close to front office decision-makers only reinforced the belief from those of us out on Crosley Terrace that the players in the front office and those on the field making decisions would not just be on the same page, they would be crossing the same t’s and dotting the same i’s.
If a fan unfamiliar with Cincinnati baseball wandered into the world of our local fandom, he/she could be forgiven for thinking the Reds manager’s full name was David Bell Overmanages. Every mention of Bell these days begins with these three words and works backwards from there.
Mr. Overmanages has no feel for the game of baseball. Mr. Overmanages is trying to make too many players happy. Mr. Overmanages doesn’t understand the fierce urgency of this 2.7 season. Mr. Overmanages is only interested in showing us how smart he is.
The first accusation is belied by the fact that Bell spent 4 years on the St. Louis Cardinals coaching staff before being hired as Vice President of Player Development with the San Francisco Giants. Two very successful organizations thought pretty highly of Bell. A stint as Double-A manager with the Reds rounded out the resume. And there is his pedigree as part of a successful baseball family.
That last accusation is interesting because “smart” was once coveted back when most thought the Reds front office was playing checkers while the rest of their peers were playing chess.
“I think it’s an exciting time to be a part of this game. There is so much information, there is so many resources that we have to be open to and we have to embrace because if we won’t, we’re going to put our players at a disadvantage, you know? They’re looking for every advantage they can get. Providing every resource that we can to them is really important.”
Smarter baseball minds than mine have posited that managers are only capable of being worth about 2 wins if they do about everything right. That’s been cited to minimize criticism one might make of a manager du jour. I’ve always insisted that while managers cannot win many games, they can certainly lose them by the bushel full. As Phil Birnbaum said in a very insightful article in his Sabermetric Research blog:
“You gain more by not being stupid, than you do by being smart. Smart gets neutralized by other smart people. Stupid does not.”
That’s David Bell now, the whispers say.
Each night is another opportunity for a new indictment during this spit of a season. Every loss has become a 100-yard sprint to point out where the game would have turned if only the manager had made a different, smarter decision—and decisions abound. They are fertile ground for second-guessing, reinforcing our own perception of how the game should be played. Like Dusty, each of us has our own “book.”
It took years for baseball to realize your best relievers should be used in high leverage situations, not be held in reserve, to accept that often the game is on the line in the 6th inning, not just the 9th.
If you watch NFL football, you know this mentality well. A head coach will almost always take a field goal from near the goal line late in the game, down by two scores. The chances of getting to the 6-yard line again with an opportunity to put the ball in the end zone might be remote, but if a head coach looks at the clock and knows he’s going to get the ball back, he’d rather delay the big decision to the bitter end when no other option remains. Avoid the dreaded Second-Guess at all cost.
So, when Bell pinch-ran for Joey Votto late, with the Reds trailing and desperately needing to score NOW because the offense is woefully inconsistent and opportunities were dwindling down to a handful of at bats, Bell knew the game was on the line in the 8th that night against the Royals and he wasn’t playing it safe, attempting to deflect criticism by passing on the hard stuff until the 9th. Whether one likes the move or not, it was one made of urgency, the same urgency critics insist Bell does not possess.
Raisel Iglesias’s recent meltdown against the Cardinals raised the pitchforks and lit the torches because Bell didn’t intentionally load the bases to set up the double play in an effort to mitigate the conflagration. Whether bringing in Nate Jones and asking him to perform cold with the bases loaded and no breathing room was the optimal way to get out of the inning unscathed or not, it didn’t matter because Jones simply couldn’t execute. Maybe David Bell even knew that the Reds are 29th in baseball in the frequency at which they turn double-plays. Nevertheless, Bell was convicted of malpractice for another night.
Iggy’s latest ibuprofen-inducing struggles may be a reminder why David Bell stuck so long with Michael Lorenzen in high leverage situations early on—too long for many. It may have been a signal of the organization’s fading faith in Rasiel and a hopeful backup plan centered around Mikey Biceps that didn’t pan out.
The daily lineup complaints continue, of course, because lineup construction is ground zero for managerial malpractice, despite the modern belief that lineup construction has little effect on the outcome of the game.
When Jason Heyward left St. Louis as a free agent for the Friendly Confines, Joe Maddon ushered the former Cardinal into the #2 spot in the batting order. For 72 games, Heyward remained near the top of the order, despite an average that had dropped by more than 60 points from the previous season, an on-base percentage pointing nearly 40 points south of where it was the previous year, and a slugging percentage that was off by over 100 points.
Why would the smartest manager in baseball let his free agent right fielder struggle for 72 games at the top of the order during a season so important to the franchise? Had Maddon’s iPad been hacked? Or, did Joe know what everyone now knows and what Joe Posnanski once explained so succinctly:
“Bill James, among many others, have done extensive studies that show lineup construction to be kind of irrelevant when it comes to scoring runs. I mean, sure, there are some basic rules. You don’t want to put your worst hitter at the top of the lineup … And you would generally like to have your best hitters clustered together near the top of the lineup so that they get the most at-bats and can feed off each other.
But beyond that … the numbers suggest that the difference between one lineup and another is so small as to be statistically insignificant.”
Still, Votto at the top, Winker batting 6th, Colon batting anywhere, all are fodder for the vox populi. Almost as bad as signing Phil Gosselin again, right? Or keeping José Iglesias at short. Unless Gosselin and Iglesias are having surprising seasons. We keep forgetting our lessons—or ignoring them as we search for explanations for the losing that fit our baseball belief systems.
Maddon is an object lesson that even genius managers have expiration dates. By the time he left Chicago, many Cubs fans were done with him. If a championship for a city that hadn’t seen one in over a century wasn’t enough to give Joe a long leash, what chance does any manager have in Cincinnati, with the local history of the past three decades polluting any sense of optimism?
Like a well-worn tire, all the miles of criticism and blame laid at the feet of David Bell—fair or unfair—are going to grow thin, as they always do. It’s only a matter of time until blame shifts to the front office—and eventually, ownership.
Reality: If you don’t have a better option you have failed at this as a front office. #Reds
— Lance McAlister (@LanceMcAlister) August 9, 2020
The above was said in the context of another Lorenzen meltdown. The Reds came into spring training with plenty of relief arms and after the signing of Wade Miley, even a potential starter or two that could be pushed into a relief role, supplementing the bullpen. Past administrations might have settled for that. Not this year. Instead, for added insurance, Pedro Strop was added. Sadly, bullpens are notoriously volatile. Fangraphs is littered with the sad numbers of reliable relievers who suddenly lost the magic pixie dust of untouchability.
McAlister’s tweet feels like a harbinger of things to come. As the losses mount, the canons are beginning to turn in the direction of the finely-appointed offices where roster moves are made.
There have been years when the blame for the team’s shortcomings could be fairly laid at the feet of the front office. One must squint pretty hard to do that now. If the meta-narrative is the front office has failed to build, or failed to react, this is a bad place to go. With all the money spent on new personnel and development up-and-down the organization, with the additions of Moustakas, Castellanos, Shogo Akiyama, Miley and Strop, a total of $166M spent, admit it—the suits have done their part.
The Reds have brought up Jose Garcia, who has never played above high-A ball. If Tyler Stephenson doesn’t replace Tucker Barnhart, who is an integral cog of the only part of the team that has been exceptional—the starting pitching—the front office will nevertheless be castigated by some. And don’t even talk about Hunter Greene, who is coming off Tommy John, and has all of 72 innings in 3 years of professional baseball under his belt in Rookie and A ball. Realistically, all three are little more than fever dreams born of frustration and a desire to see something different, even if different is little more than a lottery ticket.
Let’s just put the blame where it belongs: on the players. They haven’t performed as advertised. Collectively, they don’t hit. They don’t catch the ball. They’ve run the bases poorly. The bullpen boys don’t miss bats often enough. And when your best offensive player (Suarez) has been in a season-long slump, when one of your two biggest off-season free agent acquisitions (Moustakas) has been MIA, and your best young player (Senzel) is rarely on the field, is it any wonder the offense has been overmatched? Even Jesse Winker, one of the hottest hitters in baseball recently, began the season 2 for 29. Add in the ridiculously low BABIP numbers and the won/loss record isn’t just explainable, it’s surprising it isn’t worse. Players who we hoped would develop into useful pieces—Josh VanMeter, Aristides Aquino, Cody Reed—simply haven’t.
A year ago saw an ugly start to a season, one that ultimately led to a World Championship. The fierce urgency of a season where results good or bad are multiplied by 2.7 surely makes the task for the Reds a much heavier lift than that of the 2019 Washington Nationals, who had 162 games to right the ship.
It’s important to remember that good teams sometimes get off to bad starts. That doesn’t help the Reds now. However, a compressed season doesn’t stop injuries or streaky baseball. The reality of the game and its difficulty level doesn’t care about the silly rules MLB came up with to create this silly season. And COVID-19 cares even less.
The Reds are playing losing baseball. It’s not mystery why. You could blame the poor fundamentals on the coaches and conclude, “same old Reds,” and that part would be fair.
If we’re being honest, we can admit it’s hard to measure David Bell. All I know is that I don’t want to go back to the old school days, where lineups are set in stone, where managers are afraid to make moves before the 9th inning. By all accounts, Bell is in sync with Dick Williams and the front office. That wasn’t always the case. Information is now a friend in the Reds’ ecosystem. I’ll take a little too much new school tinkering over the ego of the gut every time.
Managers do more than deliver lineup cards and tap their sleeves as they walk to the mound give the sorry news to tonight’s starting pitcher. They set a tone. They toil in the Land of the Ephemeral, a country shrouded in psychology, chemistry, and trust. It’s a world we as fans have no knowledge of, a place with a sign out front that says to those of us on the other side of the railing, “NO ADMITTANCE.”
But that doesn’t stop us. Just as Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee demanded of Colonel Nathan Jessup, we want answers. We think we’re entitled. We want the truth.
Can we handle the truth?