Based on the off-season moves, it’s fair to say that the Reds front office is counting on the change in managers to provide most of the improvement they seek after last year’s epic September collapse. A healthier Ryan Ludwick, Johnny Cueto and Sean Marshall will help. And OMG! Billy Hamilton. But you can’t wish away new or lingering injuries. And the club is replacing the fifth most productive offensive player in the NL with an unproven rookie.
So will we know in April if the Reds are better (or worse) than last year?
It’s tempting to exaggerate the importance of wins and losses in the first month. In their first 25 games, they play the Cardinals six times and the Pirates seven, and have a half dozen other games against teams (Tampa Bay and Atlanta) projected by most analysts to be in the post-season.
But it’s a fool’s errand to predict the importance of certain games before the season begins. While that schedule makes for an exciting April, I’ll leave the misplaced superlatives to others. There will be plenty of the most crucial months, home stands, weeks, road trips, series, games, innings, pitches etc. over the remaining five months of the season.
I won’t be indifferent to the Reds’ record, but that’s not how I’ll measure their progress in April.
What about judging based on the performance of individual players? There are so many important questions to answer. Will Billy Hamilton be more than a slap hitter? Can Devin Mesoraco improve his production at the plate while taking on greater responsibilities behind it? Can other relievers fill in capably for Aroldis Chapman? Will Jay Bruce take the next step to MVP-caliber player? Can Johnny Cueto twist without shouting? What of Tony Cingrani’s new slider and Ryan Ludwick’s old shoulder?
The first few weeks of the season will provide valuable information. But early-season player statistics won’t give us much of an indication on the direction of the team, small sample sizes being what they are.
If not wins and losses and not individual performances what criteria should we use to evaluate these Reds in April?
For a helpful clue, let’s review Bryan Price’s press conference from the day he was named manager. About 22 minutes into that 25-minute public interview, Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer asked the Reds’ new skipper how he expected to have the biggest impact on the team.
Up to that point, Price had dutifully stressed the A-word along with his vision of a team that brings “preparation, energy and effort to the field every day, on a daily basis.”
But Price’s answer to Daugherty’s question (starting at 22:35) provided the most interesting minute of the event. The Reds manager revealed how to judge if his team will be different – better – than Dusty Baker’s.
“I’d like to cultivate an organizational and a team understanding of how we play, a style of play, what are we known for as an organization. Are we relentless? Are we that team that is down by three late in the game that consistently finds a way to rally? Are we a team that consistently knocks out the starting pitcher before he can complete five innings? Are we the type of team that puts pressure on the opponent by the way we run the bases, our defensive play? Do we attack the strike zone with our pitching … I’d like to cultivate an identity of a team that nobody wants to play, for those reasons.”
What should we make of that?
First reaction: skepticism, of course. Athletes and coaches are trained to not make news when they speak. You often see them searching their mind during interviews for which platitude best fits the question they were asked. As much as we admire and worship sports figures for their talents, it’s difficult to take anything they say seriously. And that’s how they want it, mostly. As consumers of sports, we’re constantly confronted with the challenge of discerning cliché from content.
I’ve come to pretty much tune out coach- and athlete-speak. [Disdain for cliché is one of the reasons I’ve been a loyal listener to Tony Kornheiser’s radio program for nearly 15 years. It’s nominally a sports show, but he’ll go an entire year without interviewing a single player or coach.] But back to Bryan Price and his team that no one wants to play.
That relentless team.
Could we meaningfully judge the Reds in April by their perseverance? Going first to third more often, and second to home. Grinding away at pitch counts. Fewer base running and fielding errors. Running hard on ground ball outs. Hitting the cut-off man. All the ways we commonly think of relentlessness.
Last October, I wrote that Dusty Baker should be fired, largely on the grounds that his team didn’t seem to be prepared to play hard at the end of the season. I blamed Baker’s season-long approach of denying the importance of individual games. It seemed to me that he tried to shield his players from stress all year and then they crumbled in the inevitable face of it. The Reds were missing that edginess.
If Bryan Price fixes that, will we know it and should we care?
It’s worth remembering that correlation isn’t causality. Playing with relentlessness may cause greater success. Or the former may simply be the product of the latter, just like with that other intangible “team chemistry.”
But I still cautiously say yes, it matters. While those qualities may be intangible, I believe this: There were times last year when Mike Matheny and Clint Hurdle were managing more aggressively to the moment than Dusty Baker. And their teams’ play reflected it as the year went on. We might not be able to always detect that kicked-up desire, but we often notice and feel its absence.
So that’s what I’ll be looking for the first few weeks of the season. Relentlessness. The Reds have loads of talent and it will be fun to watch. But if they are going to be better than last year, it will be because of greater desire and focus, as cultivated by their new manager.
Is that a fair way to judge the team?
It is, according to the Reds front office and Bryan Price.