Thoughts on the David Bell extension

Yesterday, the Reds announced the club and David Bell had reached an agreement on a three-year extension for the 50-year-old Bell to manage through the 2026 season. Bell is currently in the final year of a two-year extension. If Bell makes it to the end of the contract, he’ll become the second-longest tenured skipper in franchise history, with his eight seasons trailing only Sparky Anderson’s nine.

Then-President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams hired Bell in the fall of 2018. The club chose Bell to replace interim manager Jim Riggelman who had taken over for Bryan Price midway during the 2018 season. The Reds had averaged 95 losses from 2015-2018.

Bell’s initial hiring

Looking back at Bell’s initial hiring is not just a dutiful exercise in history, it’s an important component to evaluating the wisdom of yesterday’s extension.

After a thorough but speedy search, Williams chose in Bell a former major leaguer with a hard-nosed reputation. Bell was also a hometown boy, having grown up and played high school baseball in Cincinnati. Bell’s father and grandfather had worn the Reds uniform. David Bell had managed Reds minor league affiliates and later compiled valuable experience in the dugout and front office working for the Cardinals, Cubs and Giants.

The hiring of David Bell was at once conventional and revolutionary.

When the Reds chose Bell in October 2018, it didn’t stand out. By that time, Aaron Boone (46) was managing the Yankees, Alex Cora (43) was the Red Sox skipper, Dave Roberts (47) was in charge of the Dodgers, Craig Counsell (47) managed the Brewers, Kevin Cash (40) led the Tampa Bay Rays and the Phillies would hire Gabe Kapler (43).

(It’s worth noting — five years later — all those men have been successful enough to remain employed by those teams, except for Kapler, who now manages in San Francisco. He led the Giants to 107 wins a couple years ago.)

In selecting Bell, the Reds were following a common industry blueprint. Hire a forty-something former player with an understanding and positive view of the new data available to the sport. That someone also had to be a good partner with the front office, willing to share decision making. Effective communication with players was also part of the template. A manager had to develop an internal system that integrated data into performance with a locker room of players who had varying interest in it.

That Bell’s hiring was in line with industry practice didn’t mean it came easy. Dick Williams had to battle for David Bell, the manager he thought was right. Bob Castellini and Walt Jocketty wanted Joe Girardi, an old-school “face of the franchise” guy.

Winning that inter-office fight made Bell’s hiring revolutionary for the Reds. It foreshadowed profound, positive change. Under Bell, the organization has moved in a sound and modern direction, overcoming years of backwardness. He spearheaded the embrace of advanced technology and methods.

With Bell as manager, the Reds have kept up.

The case for Bell

Evaluating a baseball manager is hard. In the definitive book on the subject, Chris Jaffe explains that a manager’s skill in handling off-the-field issues dwarfs in-game decisions in importance. How a manager establishes the team culture, deals with individual players and works with the front office, are qualities that can’t be observed by outsiders.

Jaffe makes the point that over the course of a season, in-game decisions affect the outcome of few games and even fewer net. Choices like whether to pinch hit, pull a starter or reliever, whether to steal or bunt, are often complex and close calls. Some work, some don’t. Over the season, they tend to average out.

Jaffe estimates manager decisions might make the difference – net — in a handful of games over a year, maybe three or four. But off-field stuff, the culture, clubhouse, etc. play much larger roles. Since we aren’t in the locker room and don’t sit in on manager-player meetings, the main way left for us to judge a manager is by what players say (or don’t say).

Here’s how Spencer Steer described last night’s team celebration of Bell’s extension, per the late-late-night reporting of Mark Sheldon: “It was a pretty cool moment. I don’t think I’ve heard the clubhouse louder after a win than when it was announced that he got the extension. I think it’s just a testament to how great of a leader he is and how much we enjoy playing for him.”

My case for David Bell has always been simple. By all accounts he’s smart, up-to-date, well-prepared and communicates well with his team. It also appears his steadiness has helped the team weather ups and downs. If you buy the “team culture” factor in success, the manager stands at the center.

But what about …

What about that time he didn’t pinch hit? Or when he did pinch hit? Or when he pulled the starter too soon? Or left him in too long? Or used the bullpen in a dumb way? Or had a confusing batting order?

Look, one of the great things about baseball is that fans often know enough about the sport to be dangerous. It’s natural for us, from our couches or ballpark seats, to yell about a manager’s decision. We also tend to remember and highlight the failures – it’s called negativity bias.

We blame the manager when things don’t work out because it’s easier than pointing our finger at the players we adore. Managers also face the media after every game. Imagine if Bob or Phil Castellini had to answer questions about the team’s roster or performance on a daily basis.

Today, every boo from the stands or second-guess from the sofa can echo across social media. What often gets lost in the outrage of the moment is that managers have much more information, experience and insight than we do. They meet with coaches during the day and collaborate on plans for the next game. Consultation continues during the action for often split-second decision-making.

That’s not to say we should quit questioning managers. It keeps us involved and identified with the team. It also can be a blast. But maybe, just maybe we should dial back our certainty that we keyboard skippers know better. And our amateur estimation of blown decisions doesn’t justify firing someone.

David Bell is managing by the book — it’s most recent edition. All big-league managers have a mountain of data – on things like bunting, platooning, when to pull pitchers, etc. – and most use it. Because we follow one team, we think the decision-making is particular to the Reds when in fact it’s common practice industry wide.

The alternative

I’m not here to sell you that David Bell is the best manager in the league. Or that he’s irreplaceable.

If the front office had chosen this to be Bell’s final season with the Reds, the club could find a similar, data-driven former player with many of his qualities. The kind of manager you see heading many successful teams.

But here’s the fine point. Even though suitable alternatives are out there, there’s no guarantee the Castellini family would choose one. This time around, the GM doesn’t have the same clout to run a professional hiring process or to resist a bad decision.

It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with a pick for manager that would take the Reds backward. One the Castellini family would be inclined and empowered to impose.

In that light, Bell’s extension – a welcome product of the 2023 Reds being so far ahead of schedule – may have closed the window on that kind of move for now.

I’m more than satisfied with David Bell in charge of the Reds dugout, even if I do disagree with an occasional decision. The Reds could do much worse with next guy.

Bottom line: David Bell is known to these players. The ones who have astonished the baseball world by competing for first place. The ones who celebrated his good news last night.

Featured image: Reds Twitter

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.

5 Responses

  1. T-Bonus says:

    Very well said, and I whole-heartedly agree. His ability to balance rookies and playing time across the surplus of talent we have has been great.

    If the reds were below 500 and performing more to their pre-season expectations, we’d all feel different. But for now we’re riding the high of an over performing team and hoping that extending bell brings stability and makes the overachievement the actual new norm moving forward.

    Changing managers would have been high risk, low reward at this point.

  2. Brian Van Hook says:

    An overdue decision by the front office. What the Reds have accomplished despite the pandemic, player acquisitions that didn’t pan out, and the latest budget-slashing is almost hard to comprehend. Hard to imagine any manager could have done better under these circumstances.

    “What often gets lost in the outrage of the moment is that managers have much more information, experience and insight than we do.” Exactly.

  3. Mike Petry says:

    Well written. The other problem with second guessing decisions(especially PH) is that we assume the alternative course of action would have worked. In a sport where even the most successful player is making an out 60-65% of time, we’re often choosing which version of the Hail Mary we want to run.

  4. Pinson343 says:

    Excellent article, Steve. It makes a convincing case. Like everyone, I have issues with some of Bell’s decisions – they’re usually along the lines of his thinking long term while I want to win today. In terms of the bullpen he makes gutsy decisions that scare me, but over the course of the season he has to make such decisions.

    I remember what Bell said when he was hired about how he pictured the Reds team he would manage. An aggressive team that would play with confidence, passion, and as a close-knit unit. A relentless team that would just keep coming at the opponent, regardless of the score. In short, he gave an apt description of the 2023 team. One thing this just might indicate is that he’s had a shared vision with Nick Krall. I’ve disliked (and still dislike) some of Krall’s trades and signings, but he’s been willing to make a plan and stick with it.

  5. Justin says:

    He is 40 games under .500 and is on his third contract in less than 5 years. Keep doing the same thing over and over and over and over is…