A historic event in Reds history passed by earlier this season without even a whisper. When the bullpen melted down and Cincinnati suffered a 5-2 defeat at the hands of Philadelphia on April 7, it represented the 297th loss of manager David Bell’s tenure. That moved him into the all-time top 10 in that auspicious category for Reds managers.
What’s interesting about that particular top 10 list is that most of the managers ahead of Bell were good skippers. Hall of Famer Bill McKechnie tops it, followed by Sparky Anderson and Dusty Baker. Of the 10 losingest managers in Reds history, only two actually have a losing record: Bell and Bryan Price. There’s a reason for that: To manage long enough to be among a franchise’s leaders, you either have to be good enough to survive for a lot of years or have an owner who will let you lose and lose and lose without penalty.
You may have noticed that things aren’t going very well for the Redlegs lately. They were swept by the Pirates over the weekend and had lost six in a row and 14 of their last 18 games until a nice come-from-behind win last night over the Texas Rangers. After every loss, and every time Bell makes an odd move during a game, my Twitter mentions light up with fans demanding that he be fired. In a sense, that frustration is understandable—after all, the Reds just continue to lose year after year and no one is ever held publicly accountable.
I’ve been decidedly quiet on this topic because I’m not in the business of calling for someone to lose their job. Bell, in particular, seems to be a great guy with a super family. I’m rooting for him. But from a sports perspective, there comes a time in nearly every manager’s career where they end up on the hot seat. Is Bell’s seat getting warm? And should it be?
For a definitive answer, I took a completely scientific poll to determine where Cincinnati fans stand on this question. Given the extremely vocal contingent of anti-Bell Reds fans, I was a bit surprised at the early returns:
Professional sports franchises have varying perspectives on when the time is right to fire a manager or coach. In the NFL, the Denver Broncos once fired a coach, John Fox, who posted a 46-18 record in four seasons (a .718 winning percentage) after four consecutive playoff appearances. The NBA’s Toronto Raptors just moved on from a coach, Nick Nurse, who won a championship and led the club to a .582 winning percentage over five seasons.
In European soccer, teams are legendary for moving on from their managers when things don’t go well for a month or two. The clearest example of this is Claudio Ranieri, who guided Leicester City to the English Premier League title in 2016, the “most unlikely triumph in the history of team sport.” He was canned the following season after just 25 league games.
Historically, baseball clubs have been far less reluctant to make quick managerial changes (George Steinbrenner aside), and the Reds don’t seem to be in any hurry to send Bell packing. In his defense, we have to concede one huge point: This whole mess is not really his fault. Sparky couldn’t win with this team.
Fox, Ranieri, and others were fired because their franchises expected to win games. There are countless other examples; think of Terry Francona, who managed Boston to their first two World Series wins in nearly a decade but had his contract expire in 2011 after winning 90 games and narrowly missing the playoffs.
The Reds seem largely unconcerned with silly things like wins and losses. There’s a reason the Castellinis have been so patient with Bell, and Price before him. Most of their teams have been built with the intention of losing, or at least with the expectation that the teams were going to lose and lose big. To their credit, at least Reds ownership and management seem to recognize that Bell isn’t fully to blame.
On the other hand, I struggle to come up with evidence to indicate that Bell is actually a good manager. His teams seem to be unprepared every single April; none of the five Reds squads during his tenure had a winning record after one month, including the two teams that finished barely above .500 at season’s end. Last year, the Reds began 3-22, as I’m sure you’re trying to forget. And once again this season, Cincinnati has stumbled badly out of the starting blocks.
I feel like I have to repeat myself, though: Management has largely given him a collection of lousy players. There’s plenty of blame to go around—to the Castellinis for their continual meddling and occasional refusal to spend money and to General Manager Nick Krall for an inability so far to craft a competitive roster. How much is Bell’s fault?
Here’s one data point. You may be familiar with a concept called Pythagorean Winning Percentage. Here’s the way MLB describes it:
Pythagorean winning percentage is a formula developed by renowned statistician Bill James. The concept strives to determine the number of games that a team *should* have won—based its total number of runs scored versus its number of runs allowed—in an effort to better forecast that team’s future outlook.
Essentially, it’s a way to determine if a team has overachieved or underachieved. In every full season of Bell’s managerial tenure, the Reds have underachieved their Pythagorean winning percentage. Make of this what you will; it’s kind of a blunt tool, and you can’t draw a straight line between a team underachieving and the manager’s performance. But I do find it fascinating that Bell’s teams consistently underperform expectations. And so far this season, in a still-small sample, the Reds are far beneath what our old friend Pythagoras says we should expect from them.
The truth of the matter is this: If the Reds decided to move on from David Bell right now, it would only be because ownership needs a scapegoat to deflect from their own failures. And in the end, what does it matter? Will another manager improve the results this season? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s not going to end well either way.
I think Bell is probably an average, run-of-the-mill baseball manager. There are another 20 guys just like him at the helm of big league franchises at the moment. Look around at the discourse among other fan bases online. Most of them think their team’s manager is an idiot most of the time. It’s the nature of this profession.
Ultimately, to me, the biggest argument in favor of keeping Bell around is this: If he survives and manages to lead the team to at least 92 losses this season (which seems inevitable), he’ll move up to fifth place on the Reds all-time list, just ahead of Bryan Price. There’s something to play for!
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.