If he makes it through September, Bryan Price will have been the manager of the Cincinnati Reds for four seasons. Four long, losing seasons. The stats on Price’s Baseball-Reference page don’t inspire confidence. His Reds teams have had a winning percentage of .424. The fourth-place finish in the division in 2014 will be Price’s high-water mark.
Last September, the Reds took the unusual step of extending Price’s contract for one year, with a 2018 option. The aroma of temporizing wafted all the way up to Findlay Market. The front office, going through its own transition, concluded it wasn’t the right time to install a new manager. Retaining Price signaled the club wasn’t expected to be good in 2017 – not much of a revelation.
Managers generally don’t accept one-year contracts. And clubs don’t offer them. It took a rare intersection of interests to produce Price’s most recent agreement. If the Reds thought Bryan Price was the right guy to lead the team into the rebuilt future, they’d have locked him up with a multi-year contract. If Price had the leverage of better offers elsewhere, he’d have driven a tougher bargain. Re-upping Price in 2017 was a short bridge to 2018.
Now, here we are a year later, with the Reds facing a similar situation.
Price’s balance sheet
Based on all the criticism we give them, you’d think major league managers have a significant impact on wins and losses. They don’t. The quality of the roster and the players’ health are the two largest factors in a team’s success.
It’s just as wrong, though, to say managers have no effect. The vast majority fall in the broad middle. Most guys that reach the level of big league manager have mastered the basics of communication, organization, strategy and people skills. Every skipper makes good decisions and bad decisions in every game. Their tactical choices win a few and lose a few.
The net effect? A small handful of games one way or another each season.
Is it possible that Bryan Price will be a great manager? Sure, there are examples of managers who start with a couple bad years then go on to be Hall of Famers. But they are the exceptions. For every Joe Torre there are dozens of Ray Knights, Dave Mileys and Jerry Narrons.
The idea of promoting Bryan Price to replace Dusty Baker had a reasonable foundation. The 2014 Reds were primed to continue their successful 2010-2013 run, presenting a better-than-usual argument for continuity. Price was one of the most respected assistant coaches in the game. He was familiar with the Reds’ roster and had the support of the players who spoke out at the time. Other organizations were eager to hire Price as manager if the Reds hadn’t. He seemed open to new ideas and held out the promise of taking a fresh look at ancient managerial practices.
The fact that Bryan Price has survived four seasons is a testament to nothing more than low expectations for the club since 2015. To be sure, rosters and player health have been the primary factors for the Reds last place finishes, not Price’s batting order or bunts.
It’s telling that the front office doesn’t offer a full-throated defense of Bryan Price. “Well, his team wasn’t any good” or “boy, they sure had a lot of injuries” and “they kept playing for him” aren’t ringing endorsements. Given the poor rosters and litany of injuries, it’s impossible to know whether Bryan Price can manage. At some point though, excuses collapse as reasons to keep doing the same thing over and over, bringing to mind clichés about insanity.
Price has largely adhered to Old Testament managing (if not church-going language) and lineup construction. The main exception was his much–celebrated experimentation with unconventional bullpen use. That revolution lasted two weeks. Sure, Price is a little more flexible in using his bullpen than Dusty Baker. That’s like being less stubborn than a mule. And then there’s all the, you know, losing.
The short term
The Reds decision on Bryan Price’s option will reveal their ambition for 2018.
The standard practice for rebuilding teams is to wait until they’re ready to win to hire the manager they expect to take them to the postseason. Note the timing for bringing in new skippers for the two heralded, recent rebuilds. The Cubs hired Joe Maddon in 2015, the season they went from 73 wins to 97. Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria sucked up the bad years in Chicago. In Houston, the Astros hired A.J. Hinch in 2015, when they jumped from 70 to 86 wins. Bo Porter and Brad Mills managed the 100-loss Astro teams. Hire the shiny new guy when you’re ready to win. Make a clean break.
Bryan Price is the Reds’ Rick Renteria and Bo Porter. It’s difficult to imagine Price managing The Next Good Reds Team. If the front office follows a similar schedule, picking up Price’s 2018 option means the front office doesn’t think big losing is quite over. It would allow them to take advantage of another one-year deal.
And Bryan Price will have wriggled under yet another low bar.
If, however, the Reds don’t pick up Price’s option, it means one of two things.
It could show the Reds are truth-serum serious about winning in 2018. That they’re ready to bring in their Maddon or Hinch.
On the other hand, it’s also possible the front office anticipates another losing season but concludes Bryan Price isn’t the right guy to handle young players and prioritize rebuilding. Dick Williams recently highlighted Price’s development of pitchers as a point of evaluation. A one-year contract with an option to a new guy – like Jim Riggleman – would be a tell for an ongoing holding pattern.
The long term
Beyond the fate of Bryan Price and 2018, how the Reds handle hiring a new manager will reveal if they’ve learned important lessons from past mistakes.
Major League Baseball is changing rapidly. It’s more than the mountains of new data. A bloodless revolution has taken place in player evaluation and understanding what it takes to win. People who were experts just ten years ago would be lost now if they haven’t kept up with the game’s modernization. Far more important than manager changes, the Cubs and Astros began their rebuild cycles by bringing in new, modern-thinking front offices. In the first half of this decade, the Reds were slow to recognize this.
Instead, the organization became insular. Ownership chose Walt Jocketty to run the club based on familiarity and without a broad search. After a few years of success, resistance to change caused the Reds to fall behind the more nimble Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates. Intransigence also deepened the rebuilding pit. Jocketty’s recycling of former Cardinals became a punch line as well as competitive failure. Nostalgia for 2005 proved to be an unsound operating principle. The parochial pattern of hiring internal candidates was repeated with Bryan Price and Dick Williams.
The good news is that the Reds have begun modernizing their organization, not only at the top but also at its base. From scouting to minor league coaching to injury prevention to a bigger and more influential analytics department, the organization is innovating. The question now is whether the new leadership will adopt a more sophisticated hiring process for the next manager.
They have a glaring, recent example for how not to do it.
When the Reds had to find a replacement for Dusty Baker, it had been a long time since Walt Jocketty had hired a major league manager. His search prior to that pre-dated The Simpsons and DVDs. When Jocketty hired Tony LaRussa in St. Louis, the Grateful Dead had just broken up. Neither Ken Griffey, Jr. nor Alex Rodriguez had started their major league careers. 18 seasons had passed since Walt Jocketty had gone through the process of finding a new big league manager. Despite all that had transpired in the sport over that time, Jocketty interviewed only one person for the Reds manager job, an internal candidate.
“I was convinced that Bryan was our guy just because of the past association we’ve had with him,” Jocketty said at the time, revealing more than he intended.
At a minimum, the front office could have used a broad search to hear the strengths and weaknesses of their own organization from the perspective of others, as well as learn new best practices of winning clubs. Listening to a half-dozen smart outsiders offer detailed analyses of the Reds roster could have helped break down their bias toward the familiar and reveal blind spots. For an organization with a recent history of insularity, there would have been gigantic value in hearing how other successful organizations operated. But the Castellini-Jocketty team, looking ever inward, didn’t care. They cut the process short, hired Bryan Price, and seemed proud of the brevity.
It’s possible that Price was the best choice for the gig. But the Reds had no way of knowing that, since they hadn’t talked with anyone else. It was a perfect example of how the culture of narrowness can be debilitating. The front office couldn’t imagine that an outside candidate might have impressed them even more than Bryan Price. That’s a huge process failure.
The basic win-loss trajectory of the Reds has little to do with who their manager is. The front office gets that. It’s why they brought Bryan Price back in 2016 and again in 2017. We might yet see Price in 2018 if decision makers think the Reds remain a year away from a winning record.
Know this: There is no guarantee the next guy will be better than Bryan Price.
But the hiring process has to improve. Dick Williams must operate by a principle contradicted by his own hiring and that’s not easy. He’s proven to be thoughtful and demonstrated a willingness (even eagerness) to cast off traditional ways as he remakes the Reds. His inclination to scrub the organization’s practices, top to bottom, and spend money to fix them while the major league payroll dips for a few years is tremendously encouraging. Williams should carry that over to important job searches.
Barry Larkin, for example, might be the best fit to manage The Next Good Reds Team. But when it comes time to replace Bryan Price – whether that’s this offseason or the next – the Reds would be well served by a legitimate, wide-open search, with lengthy interviews of external candidates.
Bryan Price’s 2018 option is the undercard. Finding the right next guy is the main event.