Appreciating the Rowdy Reds

The team is playing with noticeable intensity, bravado, and fire during an up-and-down start to the season. Will that translate into wins?

With the Reds down 4–0 to the Cardinals over the weekend, Cincinnati’s rookie second baseman Jonathan India was beaned in the helmet by a fastball delivered by young St. Louis ace Jack Flaherty. India hopped up quickly and appeared to be fine, though he was clearly unhappy about being plunked.

 

The umpiring crew gathered to discuss things and soon thereafter issued a warning to both benches. Reds manager David Bell promptly went ballistic. It was the latest in a series of instances over the last two seasons in which Bell has been demonstrative in defense of his players after they were hit by pitches. Much like prior incidents, he was ejected, the 12th time that’s happened in the last two-plus seasons.

Over the season’s first three and a half weeks, the Reds have been up and down, jumping out to a 9–5 record before bad luck and a bad bullpen (more of the latter than the former) led to a seven-game losing streak that dropped the Reds four games out of first place. A comeback win last night in Los Angeles stopped the streak, thanks to a Jesse Winker home run in the 10th inning. The Reds have been inconsistent, as you would expect from a team that most expected to be an average to slightly-above-average team this season.

One thing that hasn’t been inconsistent, however, is the emotion we’ve seen from the Reds all season long. Observers, including your (somewhat) humble columnist, have noticed that the Reds play with a certain level of fire that seems to be present whether they’re winning or losing. I have no stats to confirm this. The baseball analytics revolution has failed us once again, it appears.

Anyway, back to Sunday’s game and Bell’s ejection. Here’s how Cincinnati’s manager described his emotional reaction:

“The most important thing is protecting our players. I don’t like to see anyone get hit. I don’t like anyone on the other team to get hit, anyone on our team, especially in the head. When…my options are pretty limited at that point what to do about it. There’s really not much I can do. When we get hit in the head and then get warned, it doesn’t do us any good. That was the situation.”

For what it’s worth, Bell’s players appreciated the support. After the ejection, right fielder Nick Castellanos made a point of going over and patting his manager on the back. Then, after the game, left fielder Jesse Winker addressed it. “He has our backs,” Winker said. “All of our coaches have our backs, we have each other’s backs. It’s amazing.”

Listen, it’s easy to make too much of these things. I’ve long been skeptical of certain narratives that we can’t measure with actual data. It seems like every time a team wins the World Series, fans and less-enlightened baseball writers are eager to credit “chemistry” for the club’s success. Have you ever noticed that only winning teams are credited with having good chemistry?

But I’m not talking about chemistry here. (Honestly, I’m not even sure what the word “chemistry” means within the context of a professional sports franchise.) What I’m saying is that this Reds team is just rowdy. Whether that will translate into more wins than losses, I can’t say. I can tell you, however, that it means there’s never going to be a dull moment with this bunch.

Think back to game two, when Castellanos flipped his bat after blasting a home run and was later hit by a Cardinals pitch that he clearly thought was intentional. Castellanos later came around to score on a pitch that got past Yadier Molina—a catcher who’s just as overrated as his neck tattoo was ill-advised—and then flexed hard enough to earn a two-game suspension. Benches cleared, causing me to wonder when the last time MLB saw a benches-clearing incident in only the second game of the season.

Here’s what I said in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine after that opening series against St. Louis:

Perhaps most importantly, the Reds played with a fire and intensity I haven’t seen from this team in a long, long time. Sure, this is just anecdotal, but I’m calling it like I saw it. The team was fired up all weekend.

This is another area where it’s easy to overreact. But after Saturday’s win featuring the Castellanos-inspired fireworks, Cincinnati’s right fielder was asked about his reaction to being hit by a pitch and the ensuing craziness. “I’m not here to disrespect nobody or whatever,” Castellanos said. “But I want to win. I’ve lost my whole career, and I ain’t trying to start the season 0–2.”

That intensity, that bravado, that fire, that rowdiness has not abated for a single moment since Castellanos flexed at home plate. Sure, the results have been uneven; get used to that, my friends. This team is good, but flawed. The players support their manager, but there is little evidence that Bell is particularly good at his job. On the other hand, I see no reason that you shouldn’t expect more games that are tense and emotion-filled and worth the price of admission.

“For me, this is all about the Reds, our players, how we go about it,” Bell said this weekend. “It’s all about us.” We hear things like this from big league managers all the time. It’s a well-worn sports cliché: It’s us against the world! So don’t be mistaken: I’m not saying the Reds have great chemistry, because what is that? I am saying that they play hard and play with a chip on their shoulder. It’s a recipe that should deliver a team that’s fun to watch all season long.

In the end, “fun to watch” may be all we can expect out of this team. But that’s more than we’ve had in the last seven years or so. It’s something, right?

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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