Bryan Price Becomes a Scapegoat

We thought the Reds were going to be pretty awful. FanGraphs’ preseason projections had Cincinnati finishing last in the NL Central with 71 wins, a 2% chance of reaching the postseason, and zero chance of winning the World Series.

The Reds have been even worse than expected to begin he season, entering play Thursday with a 3-15 record, the most losses in the majors and also (along with Kansas City) the fewest wins. The Reds are also the owners of the major’s worst run differential (-46).

So Cincinnati gave us the most traditional of responses Thursday morning, firing manager Bryan Price. In four-plus seasons with the Reds, Price had a 279-387 mark. He recorded one season of 70 wins or better, a 76-win 2014 campaign. The club also removed pitching coach Mack Jenkins.

It should be noted that Price was not hired by the current regime, the one led by Dick Williams (although former Reds GM Walt Jocketty remains in an advisory role). That said, one of Price’s strengths — as a former pitching coach — was supposed to be working with a pitching staff and developing young pitchers. This is what Jocketty said when hiring Price on Oct. 22, 2013 :

“We’ve all seen his work here with our pitching staff. He has proven himself to be an excellent communicator and leader and clearly is one of the most respected people not only in our clubhouse but in baseball in general.”

While Price didn’t have ideal raw material with which to work on the north bank of the Ohio River, there wasn’t much positive development among the club’s young pitching staff outside of Luis Castillo’s success last year and maybe the emergence of Raisel Iglesias — but even Castillo has underperformed his peripheral numbers early this season.

Since Price’s hiring, the Reds rank last in the majors in ERA- (111) and pitching WAR (24.7), numbers that adjust for whatever advantages Great America Ballpark offers batters. This season, the Reds have the second-youngest pitching staff in the majors (average age of 26.8 years), more senior than only the Phillies. But only the White Sox (141) have a worse ERA- than that of the Reds (138) — and the Reds rank last in the majors in pitching WAR (-0.5) and FIP- (132).

The Reds are a smaller-market team. They have to draft and develop their own pitching to be successful. While the talent level was less than ideal for Price, there’s little argument to be made that he was developing talent and extracting more skill out of pitchers. And that is perhaps more damning — and more of a fireable offense — than his win-loss total. The rebuilding Reds would probably be fine with capturing the No. 1 overall in 2019 if their pitching staff was showing improvement and promise.

That the Reds would want a new voice is not all that surprising.

Buddy Bell, John Farrell, and Barry Larkin are among the names already being mentioned by the Cincinnati Enquirer.

While this change shouldn’t surprise us, while it’s defensible, the idea that a manager is mostly responsible for a team’s failures is becoming less and less credible to the public at large. I doubt few believe Jim Riggleman is going to have much impact on the team’s fortunes, though Riggleman has plenty of experience in this role.

Managers have gradually lost more and more power over roster construction and even in-game strategy. They have generally become more and more extensions of the front office. The manager is working with the players and information a front office hands him.

We understand that talent usually wins the day. And it’s easier to measure value in baseball since we can better isolate pitcher and batter performance, compared, to say, what a left guard’s contributions are in football. Managers undoubtedly make value-add (or value-subtract) contributions in terms of player development, communication, and other intangibles, but their overall share of power and impact has decreased.

And yet, as the game has moved further away from tradition in many respects, the manager — the face of the team who interacts twice a day with the local media before and after games and is posted nightly in the corner of the dugout — remains the most traditional of scapegoats.

Price is not blameless. But when a manager is fired, he also carries the failures of others — poor draft picks, poor development practices, poor trades — in the name of expediency.

A modern organization’s success is the byproduct of a collective effort. While the Reds’ farm system entered 2018 ranked ninth by Baseball America, it ranked in the middle of the pack the previous five year (2013 – 14th, 2014 – 16th, 2015 – 16th, 2016 – 12th, 2017 – 13th). The system did not produce a top 50 trade value asset in our rankings last summer, though Senzel and Castillo are candidates to be ranked this summer.

Of course, teams cannot fire players on guaranteed contracts. General managers and club presidents typically do not fire themselves. So if a club wants to make some sort of statement that a level of performance is unacceptable, the manager remains the obvious candidate.

The Reds have work to do. The club’s star, Joey Votto, began to express some impatience regarding the process this spring. The Reds have suffered back-to-back season of sub-2 million in attendance for the first time since 2001-02. Ultimately the club needs Nick Senzel to be a star, while Hunter Greene and Castillo must pitch near the top of a rotation. That core must be surrounded with homegrown and externally added talent upgrades. A manager and his staff can play little role in that process. A club’s leadership can only fire so many managers.

A generally conservative sport has broken from many conventional beliefs in recent years, but its firing practices remain most traditional. Price shares part of the blame but hardly the lion’s share.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Shirtless George Brett
4 years ago

The obvious question seems to be, if they were this quick to fire him why did they bother to start the season with him?

JupiterBrandomember
4 years ago

I assume they were hoping he’d at least keep them at a respectable level of badness — a Gentleman’s Tank, if you will. 3-15 is just downright embarrassing, even for a fanbase that knows things won’t go well. No one wants to be the 03 Tigers.

Shirtless George Brett
4 years ago
Reply to  JupiterBrando

Still though, its 18 games. That is what, 12% of the season? If you are going to fire a guy because he was 3 or 4 games worse than expected over the first 12% of the season then I refer you to my original question. To put a different spin on it, had the Reds come out and been better than expected would that have given Price and extension in mid aprii? I think we all know the answer to that.

Also, If the Reds management thought the manager was the driving force behind them being worse than expected then there are much bigger questions to be asked in Cincinnati and they should probably also read this very article.

rosen380
4 years ago

I looked back as far as the strike… there have been three other 3-15 starts. On “average” their opening day managers made it 64 games [6, 25 and 162 games] and they averaged 81 wins per 162 games the rest of the way.

For sample size, I guess you should probably expand to 2-4 wins… I have the 2-16 teams [two of them]. With them the managers averaged 82 games [and the teams won at a 78 win pace RoS]

Interestingly enough, one of those 2-16 starts was the 1997 Cubs with Jim Riggleman and they stuck it out with him for the whole year.

rosen380
4 years ago
Reply to  rosen380

15 total teams since 1996 started with 2-4 wins in their first 18 games. Their managers averaged 120 games [with nine of them not getting fired at all].

Collectively they averaged a 74 win pace the rest of the way.

asreitzmember
4 years ago

Lets be real…we all knew he was a shit manager. Putting A. Garrett back in the pen when he’s easily, their 2nd best SP was the death blow.

I take that back…the way he handled L. Castillo the other night, was the death blow.

vivalajeter
4 years ago

In general, I think there could be a few reasons to do this:
1 – I assume he was under contract already, so if they weren’t awful (so that he stuck around all year) then it would prevent them from paying two managers in a transition year. The Front Office was probably just hoping they’d be somewhere in the vicinity of .500.
2 – The expectations are different for a new manager if they come in during the off-season. For one thing, you’re generally getting higher priced managers with long-term contracts.. For another, the fan base dreams about the new manager turning things around. When they predictably stink, as non-Reds fans knew would happen, the new manager can be considered a failure. As things stand now, they can bring in a cheap transition manager with no expectations and make a full-time decision next off-season.

Shirtless George Brett
4 years ago
Reply to  vivalajeter

2018 was a option year in Price’s contract which the Red choose to exercise in Sept of last year. So the money/contract argument doesn’t hold water.
And I doubt he was making that much money, relatively speaking, anyway.

As for #2, they could have easily done what they just did and promote someone from in house to be the interim manager for the year so I dont really see that as a justifiable reason either.

Anyway you slice it, this seems like a bad look for the Reds front office.

vivalajeter
4 years ago

If they actually picked up his option, then yeah, that’s strange. It seems like a waste of money.

For #2, is there any history with teams promoting an interim manager in the off-season? I’ve seen it happen plenty of times during a season, but can’t recall an interim or one-year manager signing in the off-season.

Shirtless George Brett
4 years ago
Reply to  vivalajeter

I honestly don’t know if anyone has promoted someone to manager in the off-season instead of hiring a new one (i suspect somebody has though) but even if no one has that is not a valid reason why the Reds couldn’t have. Kind of relates back to the point of the article about traditional views.

asreitzmember
4 years ago

It’s not, there are always more to these things then we’ll ever know. B. Price has been one of the worst managers in baseball, since he took over. It’s not just about record, it’s about how he handles the pen, the clubhouse, the media. It’s likely, the team was quitting on him and the FO knew it. I’m not even sure how it’s defensible? So what it’s early in the season, he needed to go.

Reflect
4 years ago

Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one. The Reds have demonstrated themselves to not have any idea what they are doing in any aspect of team management. They have completely botched their rebuild and will probably need to rebuild again.

fjtorres
4 years ago
Reply to  Reflect

Minus Votto?

Lanidrac
4 years ago
Reply to  fjtorres

They already had Votto before the current rebuild. He was already a superstar back on their 2010 division winning team.