Is David Bell a Good Reds Manager or a Bad Manager?

The answer is complicated, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Bell is signed for two more seasons.
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After winning the first contest in the weekend’s home series against Boston, the Reds displayed some particularly sloppy play to lose the next two. There were baserunning mistakes by Elly De La Cruz and Jake Fraley, errors by Jeimer Candelario and Jonathan India, and too many bases on balls issued. It was another in a long series of untidy performances that dropped the Redlegs into the NL Central basement with the fourth-worst record in the league.

Manager David Bell didn’t hang around to see the end of the series; he was ejected in the fourth inning of Sunday afternoon’s game for arguing balls and strikes. Increasingly, Bell has been visibly frustrated. A month ago, he threw a chair in the dugout in the first inning of a game against San Diego. One can hardly blame him for his increasing exasperation. The Reds have been mostly unwatchable lately.

But should he be worried about his job? The Reds came into this season with expectations of contending for a division title, but the club has stumbled along all season, with far too few moments of sunshine interspersed between the lowlights.

I asked this question last season, and the Reds promptly went on a big run that got them into the playoff conversation. (Let’s do that again, please and thank you.) Bell was rewarded with a three-year contract extension through the 2026 season. One year later, though, the Reds seem to have drifted further and further from being a team that can contend regularly. Reds President Nick Krall says “[w]e’re moving in the right direction,” but there’s little evidence to support that optimistic statement. Will anyone ever be held accountable for this mess?

Let’s make a couple of things clear: I don’t root for anyone to lose their job. Ever. (Though I’m not always upset when it happens.) Bell seems like a decent sort from a legendary Cincinnati baseball family. He’s one of our own, as they say. I would much prefer for him to be the manager of a Reds team that wins a championship.

Also: It’s not all his fault. We can’t pin every problem with this club on Bell. He hasn’t thrown a pitch, he hasn’t taken a single at-bat, and I’ve never seen him with a baseball glove on his left hand since he retired as a player. At some point, the names he pencils into the lineup card have to take their share of the blame.

Further, just because Bell seems to be frustrated, we can’t read too much into that. Since he made his managerial debut in 2019, he’s led the league in ejections four of the six seasons, including this year. His three ejections tie him with Bob Melvin (San Francisco) and Mike Shildt (San Diego). I have faith that Bell will be atop that list once again by the end of 2024.

Listen, fans have been screaming for Bell to be canned literally since his very first week on the job. Social media is a dumb thing, and I mostly just ignore most of that noise. I roll my eyes at much of that; social media can be useful, but it’s often best just to ignore it. On the other hand, what are the arguments in defense of Bell? Is there any indication that he’s actually a good manager?

His teams seem to be unprepared to answer the bell every single Opening Day. This year was the first time a Bell-managed team had a winning record after one month, but less than three weeks later they were nine games below .500. If we’re judging his tenure fairly, even the most charitable fan probably has to admit that Bell’s teams have consistently failed to live up to expectations, with the possible exception of two months last summer. Sure, Reds management has never given him a complete roster, and Bell can’t be blamed for that. But shouldn’t there be some indication that he’s actually good at his job?

To his credit, Bell’s players have always sung his praises. “DB has always been behind us,” Andrew Abbott said after the chair-throwing incident last month. “To show emotion like that, it just further makes that point known to us.” Perhaps he’s great behind closed doors at all the things a manager has to do that we don’t get to see every day. Dusty Baker was certainly better at those things than the on-field tactical decisions, which often frustrated fans. But Dusty’s teams outperformed expectations. If Bell is similarly talented, one would think we could see evidence of it on the field at some point.

Instead, on the field, we see Bell hitting a guy like Mike Ford in the third spot in the lineup seven times. Seven times! And every night, we get to watch one of the most careless defensive clubs I’ve ever witnessed in Cincinnati. The Reds are in the bottom third of the NL in defense according to FanGraphs. Only three teams have made more errors than Cincinnati’s 45, and only two have a worse fielding percentage than the Reds’ .983. They’ve turned fewer double plays than any team in the NL. The stats agree with what your eyes are seeing out there.

The baserunning often looks sloppy as well, with the Reds constantly bumbling into outs on the basepaths, and this is consistently cited as an argument against Bell. (What about the fundamentals???) Cincinnati has more outs on the bases than any other team in MLB. But just like last year, however, this isn’t actually a mark against Bell or his strategy. There’s a method to the madness. Though it can often be frustrating, Cincinnati’s aggressive baserunning is actually contributing more runs to the bottom line than any NL team other than Milwaukee. And as Mark Sheldon noted, the Reds lead all teams with 108 stolen bases and highest percentage of extra bases taken (49 percent).

Is Bell a good manager? I can’t find evidence of that. Is Bell a bad manager? I don’t think there’s a ton of evidence to support that conclusion either. He’s one of about 20 or 25 big league managers who are just OK. They’re not the biggest reason their team is winning or losing. If you think he’s the worst manager in the league, it’s probably because he’s the only manager you pay attention to every single day. Other fan bases are just as frustrated with their club’s skipper.

So ultimately, no, David Bell is not on the hot seat. As Wick Terrell has said, “there’s no way this Reds ownership is going to pay two managers at the same time.” Bell is signed through 2026. We’re destined for two more seasons of whatever this is. Just accept it and settle in for a bumpy ride. Or maybe it’ll be a fun ride. Either way, it probably won’t be primarily the manager’s fault.

And, hey, the Reds beat Pittsburgh and scored 11 runs last night. They’re no longer alone at the bottom of the Central standings. Maybe this week is when they turn things around?

Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.

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