The Reds have been a bad, bad team for large chunks of the past two seasons. They finished with the second-worst record in baseball this year.
Injuries indeed played a substantial role. That factor exonerates the manager, who can only play the healthy bodies available to him. The failure to do a better job making the roster more injury-proof lies squarely at the feet of the front office and ownership. Other organizations were hit by similar or greater misfortune. The Cardinals managed 100 wins under worse luck with shoulders, ankles, elbows and quads. Their talent pool was deeper.
As Reds fans move from cheering to reckoning, we hope and expect change with a sense of urgency. A different future can take a number of forms, based on how the organization decides to get there. Let’s take a look at the options.
At the close of the 2015 season, many frustrated fans were calling for firing manager Bryan Price. Yet, CEO Bob Castellini and GM Walt Jocketty decided to bring Price back. The Reds manager will be in the final year of his 3-year contract in 2016.
Then Reds then looked their fans straight in the eye and said part of their reason for bringing Price back was that the team didn’t quit on him. Low bars aside, and with all due disrespect, the Reds were 18-43 from August on. How exactly would quitting have looked worse? Did hustling on ground ball outs save Price’s job?
The Reds have said they will be taking a hard look at Price’s coaching staff. File that under token gestures.
Given how far away the Reds were from a competitive, deep roster, whether Bryan Price is the manager of the Reds next year is trivial compared to who the general manager is and the organization’s approach to talent evaluation. Good players are substantially more important than having a good manager. Compare Randal Grichuk (.276/.329/.548; wRC+ 137) to Brennan Boesch (.146/.191/.202; wRC+ 3) as first outfielders off the bench.
Without changing the organization’s culture, a new field manager wouldn’t matter much. The Reds hired a comfortable insider last time and seemed poised to do it again with Barry Larkin. But unless Larkin planned to bat lead-off and pitch more than a few innings in relief, his hiring wouldn’t generate much change.
The General Manager
According to Castellini, Walt Jocketty’s job was never in jeopardy. Of course, that’s what you say to reporters whether or not it’s the truth. But in this case, despite the team’s record the past two seasons and the powerful case for change, it’s not hard to imagine Castellini keeping on with his friend from back in day.
Unlike last offseason, this year there hasn’t even been a hint of a shake-up in the front office staff. Not that it would matter. Last time, Jocketty replaced one failed, old-school GM with another. Jocketty and his lieutenants are straight outta Jurassic Park, where the dinosaurs devoured the scientists.
The Cardinals fired Walt Jocketty nearly ten years ago for resisting the influence of analytics. He’s still at it. Still looking for RBI guys. Still going on about hitting with runners in scoring position. Still stockpiling pitchers in an age of hitting scarcity. Still setting out narrow roles for bench players then filling them by scouring the ever-shrinking pool of former Cardinals who played for him. Strategies from 1995.
Last offseason, more than a decade after the publication of Moneyball, Jocketty finally talked about bringing in hitters with better plate discipline. Yet he acquired Marlon Byrd, Brennan Boesch and Chris Dominguez.
It’s all part of an archaic, myopic process. When you begin with valuations from a bygone era, it’s no surprise you’re unable to make smart trades or free agent signings for players with the right skills. When you don’t really believe in the value of OBP, you won’t pay the price for it. You might talk about it, but when it’s time to make a deal the Reds end up saying other clubs or players are asking too much or not offering enough. The front office can’t find a match because its general manager’s instinct is to use the pitcher-hitter exchange rate from ten years ago.
In bringing back Jocketty and his staff, along with Bryan Price, ownership is exhibiting breathtaking contentment. But the fans, who can vote with their wallets from one season to the next, won’t tolerate complacency. So some other part of the organization will have to give. If changes aren’t made in the front office or the manager’s desk, that leaves the roster of players.
It’s easier to fire the coach than fire the team. That’s the cliché. The Reds will turn that idea upside down and backward this offseason.
Prepare to see more of your favorite players wearing other uniforms. But unlike Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, who were obvious candidates for deadline moves, the next wave of Reds to be shipped off will be victims of the need to show change to the fans.
The front office will call press conferences to announce these trades with the seriousness of a heart attack. We hate to do this, but something had to be done. One more time they’ll roll out the mantras of accountability and relentlessness. Of course it will ring hollow when ownership doesn’t apply those principles throughout the organization.
Jay Bruce is the most likely player to be traded to “change the clubhouse.” That will make the Bruce-haters and certain announcers smile. But with the same crowd in charge of finding his replacement, there’s little chance that Jay Bruce’s painful departure will be more than symbolic. Gorilla dust.
The accelerating pace of change in baseball means that every year the Reds fail to modernize their thinking they fall further behind.
This will not change until Bob Castellini wants it to change. Read that again.
If the Reds owner does decide to make the real and necessary fixes, he’ll needs to reverse direction and head forward into the future. Castellini needs to take the bold steps to transform the way the club thinks before they look at how the club plays.
Bill DeWitt Jr. demanded the Cardinals adopt modern baseball in 2003. There are similar narratives more recently in Pittsburgh and the North Side of Chicago. Without new vision and leadership from Bob Castellini the Reds will continue to fall further behind in the division. While every major league organization has a unique way of getting things done, this kind of leadership – re-setting what is valued and rewarded – must come from the top.
It should be obvious by now that the Reds need a new general manager, one who is well versed in sabermetrics and up-to-date in thinking about baseball. Second, more resources, including hiring full-time qualified staff, must be invested in the team’s analytics department. Getting smart is cheap compared to staying ignorant. Third, the Reds need people who can communicate the analytics department findings to the manager, coaching staff and players.
From top-to-bottom, the Reds must hire and operate on the principle of being open to new ideas. That’s one of the most important qualities for decision makers in general, but it is especially vital in a time of revolutionary advances in information availability. It’s ironic that the Reds apparently came the closest to firing the one guy – Bryan Price – who does seem a little bit open to new thinking.
The right path to the future is out there. Modernizing a major league baseball organization means using the right metrics and data, implemented by the proper system and people. The data and insights must be easy to collect, merge, break down and share. They must be packaged in a way that is easily understood by non-experts.
But each part of that equation is hard. Changing the culture takes time. It’s not easy to convince a manager not to use small sample sizes when setting the batting order or playing time. Or that he should use relief pitchers based on the game situation, not what inning it is.
“Four years ago, we were known as a free-swinging, aggressive offensive organization,” said Theo Epstein, the Cubs general manager. “We wanted to turn that around. But that’s like turning around an ocean liner in the sea. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a little bit at a time. Now, we have the right approach.”
The fact that the process is so gradual means it’s important for the Reds to get started as soon as possible. Christopher Lloyd isn’t showing up with a flux capacitor. Fortunately, there is a non-fictional solution. Bob Castellini just has to choose it.
Late last night, after I’d finished this post, ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted:
There is a lot of sentiment within the Reds' baseball operations for them to trade veterans this winter and go for HOU/CHC style rebuild.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) October 22, 2015
This rumor is more confirmation that the Reds ownership is missing the point. Houston and Chicago jump-started their rebuilding processes by bringing in modern front offices. That’s the lesson to learn from those two examples. Front office changes were arguably the most important part of the Astros and Cubs resurrection.
An alternative to dumping all the players is to first implement a radical upgrade in the front office including the analytics department. Build the organization on the St. Louis Cardinals model. The Cardinals didn’t go through a scorched-earth rebuild because they had a strong player evaluation system to create roster depth. Since 2008, the fewest wins they’ve had in a season was 86.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine a group less well suited to build the Reds from the ground up than Walt Jocketty and his old-school, former-GM office mates.
Here’s an idea: Start the retooling by hiring someone from the Houston or Chicago or St. Louis organization to be the Reds general manager.
Success isn’t the automatic outcome of mindlessly burning through the player roster.
The key is to get smart first.