Reds manager David Bell is smart, modern and well-prepared. For someone his age (48) he’s had a wealth of top-tier experience, working for the Cubs, Cardinals and in the San Francisco Giants front office. By all accounts, Bell does an excellent job communicating with his players. He sticks up for them without fail. In return, they play hard and with perseverance. Oh yeah, Bell managed the Reds to the postseason in 2020.
Those aren’t all of David Bell’s qualities. But they should be enough. More than enough.
As the 2018 season reached its merciful conclusion, the Reds set about to hire a new manager. Jim Riggelman had taken over for Bryan Price just 18 games into the season, with the team off to a 3-15 start. Riggelman was a solid choice for interim manager but not who the club needed going forward.
The 2018 manager search would become the first real one by the Reds organization since general manager Wayne Krivsky hired Dusty Baker in 2008. When it was Walt Jocketty’s turn to replace Baker in 2013, he talked to one person, the local pitching coach, hired him on the spot and patted himself on the back for how abbreviated the search was.
But in 2018, Dick Williams ran a legit process, one befitting a billion-dollar company. The search was wide and thorough, but not without intramural complexity. Jocketty was hanging around in an undefined role. Unhelpful ownership involvement lurked never far from the surface. Social media leaks about looking for a face of the franchise sent a worrying and mixed signal.
Until David Bell’s name was announced, it wasn’t clear who would prevail in the backroom struggle. Ultimately, Dick Williams and the forces of modernizing won out. Hiring Bell and his staff was an organization-defining statement that signaled an end (for the moment) to the insular, out-of-date ways of operating that had been crippling the Reds for several years.
David Bell has assembled a talented staff of coaches, particularly on the pitching side.
That same October when the Reds front office out-hustled other organizations, beating them to Bell, it also made an audacious play for Derek Johnson. At the time, Johnson was the acclaimed pitching coach for a Milwaukee Brewers team that had just been in the postseason. Bell was part of the small travel party with Williams that flew to Nashville. The new Reds skipper had known Johnson from when both were coaching for the Cubs. The group returned to Cincinnati the next day having convinced Johnson to join a Reds team that had lost an average of 95 games the previous four seasons.
In addition to Johnson, Bell was instrumental in securing Kyle Boddy, now the Reds pitching coordinator, from his company Driveline Baseball in Seattle.
“David Bell is unbelievable. It’s amazing how involved he is with staff development on a consistent message from the top to the bottom,” said Boddy. “A big part of my interview was David Bell. Not a single other organization had the manager call me and not just try to sell me on it — he was involved from day one. … There wasn’t anybody close to the Reds in terms of progressiveness.”
Beyond notable improvements with pitchers already on the Reds staff, ultra-modern, first-class instruction is attractive to free agent pitchers who otherwise might not want to pitch half the time in the comfy confines of Great American.
Does anyone out there really need convincing the Reds have experienced a revolution in pitching under Williams, Bell, Johnson, Boddy and their staff?
Do we need to dredge up memories of the league-worst pitching staffs of 2015-2018? Williams added Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer and Wade Miley through trades and free agency. Every season there’s a new huge internal success story, whether it be Lucas Sims or Tejay Antone. Is Ryan Hendrix the next?
The significant, rapid improvement in Reds pitching lends itself to not one, but two lessons. First, the organization-wide commitment in 2019 to embrace technology and up-to-date ways had a meaningful effect. Second, the Reds were late adopting them. Imagine how that large class of young starting pitchers from 2015-2018 might have developed differently if the Reds had come up with the right plan earlier. Pitching success is not a given that can be taken for granted.
Bottom line: Reds pitching staffs of 2019-2021 have rated in the top five in MLB.
David Bell was signed to a reasonable three-year contract through the 2021 season with a team option for 2022. The renewal situation the Reds face with Bell is one other organizations confront on a regular basis. There isn’t a standard industry practice for when to re-up the current manager. That’s because hiring (and re-hiring) a manager can be complicated by changes in ownership and front office, as well as the team’s record.
But most organizations with plans to bring their manager back figure it out before he starts the final season on his contract. For example, the Toronto Blue Jays hired manager Charlie Montoyo four days after the Reds inked Bell. The duration of Montoyo’s contract is the same as Bell’s — three years, plus an option for 2022. Montoyo’s Blue Jays had a similar record as Bell’s Reds the past two seasons. They were 67-95 in 2019 and 32-28 in 2020. The Blue Jays exercised Montoyo’s option on March 16, 2021, before the regular season campaign started.
Extending the manager ahead of his final season is common. Other recent examples are Mike Shildt (Cardinals), Bob Melvin (A’s) and Kevin Cash (Rays).
I want to address the significant anti-Bell sentiment among some Reds fans.
To a certain extent, it’s natural. Every fanbase — and we’re talking all team sports at any level, down to Little League — blames the manager or head coach for lack of success. It’s easier than attributing failure to the team’s players they love. In this case, fans point a finger at Bell instead of Luis Castillo, Nick Senzel or Eugenio Suarez.
The manager or head coach is also a simpler, more public villain than the front office or ownership, whose failures are often obscured by lack of availability. Imagine where public sentiment would be if the GM or, better yet, a member of the Castellini family had to answer press questions in front of cameras after every loss.
And also let’s acknowledge that second-guessing the manager is not only a right, it’s a rite for baseball fans. We all do it. Although, today every boo from a seat at the park becomes an outrage, yelled to the nation and beyond on social media. Complaints about managers echo more than in the past.
David Bell faces all that in the due course of his job and he knows it.
But one other uniquely Reds factor driving anti-Bell feelings deserves mention. The Brennaman family used their influential jobs to poison a bunch of Reds fans against Bell from the start. They criticized the new manager because he represented modern change in baseball. It was part of their anti-analytics agenda, particularly for Thom. The irony is neither of the Brennamen inhabited their platforms by mid-2020, by the time Bell was taking the Reds to the postseason.
What were the complaints? Bell didn’t bunt enough. He took starting pitchers out too soon. He played too many platoons or matchups. Every move like that received verbal side-eye from powerful voices in broadcast booths. It added up. But David Bell was managing according to common practice throughout his sport. All big league managers have ample data now and most go along with what it tells them. We fans who focus mainly on one team, in this case the Reds, may not recognize Bell is simply part of those broader, inevitable trends.
In other words, managers become the universal depository for fan disappointment related to the team. The Reds have produced more than their share of frustration in recent seasons. Bell has also faced a stronger headwind by becoming the focus of resentment toward change in the sport.
The hiring of David Bell in October 2018 was a profound, positive development for the Reds organization.
If Reds ownership wants a step — one they could take today — that would move the organization forward and give the clubhouse a helpful jolt, it would be to announce they are picking up Bell’s option for 2022 and plan to negotiate a contract that will keep him and the pitching coaches here beyond that.
Instead, Bell has been allowed to twist in freshening winds off the Ohio River. How much the manager’s lame duck status hobbles his effectiveness with players and coaches is open to speculation.
We also have to hope that Bell, Johnson, Boddy and company want to stay. They may be concerned about recent organization changes, the absence of Dick Williams as a driving force, and the ownership transition. Every team in baseball with an opening, and some who don’t, would pursue them.
So here we are, with a Reds ownership and front office lacking the vision and leadership to do what’s necessary. The Reds are lucky to have Bell and his staff. We could do much, much worse with the next guy.
With the way this crowd is now operating, I can almost assure you we will.
Featured image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/1133503666462318593