The Cincinnati Reds Finally Enter the Analytics Era

But reviews are mixed for David Bell’s moves in his first week as manager.

Let me begin by offering a word of advice to you, dear reader. Someday you might decide to venture outside the comforting confines of I’m not advising you to look at other web sites; in fact, I don’t know why you would. But I’m not blind to the reality that some of you may occasionally visit other spots on the interwebs. I also know that many of you occasionally spend time on that thing called “Twitter dot com.” If you’re both a Cincinnati Reds fan and a “tweeter,” heed this warning: Don’t search the name David Bell over there. Just don’t do it.

As far as I know, the Reds’ new manager does not have a Twitter account, which means that we’re being deprived of his bon mots and witticisms about the issues of the day. (That’s what people do on Twitter, right?) So if you search Bell’s name over there, you’ll instead find a steady stream of invectives, foul language, and demands for his immediate firing and, if possible, tarring and feathering.

And we’re still less than a week into his initial campaign at the helm of the Reds! Welcome home, David Bell, where the natives are restless and completely out of patience with a club that’s been mostly awful for more than a generation.

There’s a lot to like about Bell’s first few games with the Redlegs; he’s made some really nice outside-the-box decisions. He’s also made some curious choices during games. Frankly, it’s way too early to judge him either way, but I think we’re looking at each game for clues to his philosophy. That’s the nature of baseball fandom, certainly among those of us who love to obsess over the team down by the river.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned without a doubt so far, it’s this: Unless the Reds win, and win soon, David Bell is likely to be the most divisive figure in this town. (Well, other than Mike Brown, obviously.)

A funny thing happened when I asked folks on Twitter to tell me what they liked and disliked about Bell in the short time we’ve been able to watch him at work in the Reds dugout. Fans chimed in with a bunch of responses, and many of the answers were cited in both the like/dislike columns.

An example: One person was “thrilled with bullpen usage, shifting, demeanor, etc.” Another respondent was “not a fan of his bullpen usage.” Some like the fact that Bell has had a quick hook with his starting pitchers; others not so much, especially with Luis Castillo on Opening Day and Anthony DeSclafani on Tuesday night. Some fans are excited to have a manager who’s embraced analytics and uses the data to inform his decision-making in the dugout. Others think he’s too reliant on analytics. Many think he “over-manages.” And don’t get me started on the debate over whether Bell needs to be calling for more bunts or fewer.

As you might suspect, I have my own opinions about the new Reds skipper. On the whole, I’m pretty happy with the early returns, other than the fact that the Reds continue to lose baseball games. And we’ve seen four things in these early games that make me really optimistic that the Reds have found a manager unlike any they’ve ever employed.

Batting Joey Votto second in the lineup. This is a prime example of Bell’s analytic bent. The data is clear that batting your best hitter second is a key cog in maximizing run production in a big league lineup. That’s mostly a foreign concept to Reds fans, who have become accustomed to low-OBP hitters at the top of the order over the last decade or so. But the Opening Day lineup featuring Jesse Winker first and Votto second was an easy fix that Bell could implement from day one to help create more runs.

Finding new ways to use Michael Lorenzen. This spring, we all heard the rumblings that the Reds were going to find ways to get Lorenzen, a big-time college center fielder who has become a pretty good big league relief pitcher, onto the field more often. I’ll concede I was skeptical that Bell would actually follow through.

But lo and behold, look at what happened in the seventh inning on Opening Day. Winker walked—because that’s what Winkers do—and Bell sent Lorenzen in to pinch-run for him. In the top half of the following inning, Lorenzen trotted out to center field and finished the game as a defensive replacement. There’s a pretty good argument to be made that Lorenzen is a better defender and baserunner than any of the Reds outfielders, and it was encouraging to see Bell use him in those roles. We’ve never seen outside-the-box managing like that in Cincinnati, and I hope it’s a harbinger of things to come.

Getting creative with his bullpen. Again, on Opening Day, the Reds took a 4-2 lead on the Pirates after seven innings. To start the eighth, Bell inserted his usual closer, Raisel Iglesias. That was the most high-leverage spot of the day, and instead of bringing in a setup guy (Jared Hughes or David Hernandez, for example) and calling on his closer only in the ninth inning, Bell used the pitcher who is presumed to be the best reliever out there in the bullpen. Iglesias wasn’t perfect and didn’t finish the game, but I like the willingness not to manage “by the book.”

Defensive shifts. Obviously, the Reds have used defensive shifts in the last few years, but they’ve seemed particularly aggressive about it so far this year. For example, as noted by C. Trent Rosecrans in The Athletic, Bell likes using a four-man outfield against hitters that have high fly-ball rates and who pull grounders. Again, this is nothing new around baseball, but I love seeing our Redlegs using data to put the club on the field in the best possible position to succeed. In recent years, there has been a stark disconnect between the analytics guys and the on-field staff. No more.

To be sure, I have some questions about Bell’s managing to this point as well. I don’t know if it’s over-managing—maybe he’s just learning the job in his first big league opportunity—but I think it’s fair to question how Bell has used his bullpen. Of note: I really don’t understand why he pulled Amir Garrett after a spectacular performance against just one batter on Opening Day, or why he inserted Zach Duke in the sixth inning on Tuesday when the starter, Disco, seemed to be dealing.

Similarly, I’m a bit frustrated over the fact that Matt Kemp started back-to-back games in left field against right-handed pitchers instead of Winker. I like Kemp a lot, and he needs to be in the lineup often, but I don’t see how sitting Winker against most righties is a strategy that will lead to scoring more runs.

But these are minor quibbles, and I’m willing to wait and see what kind of manager David Bell turns out to be. If I were a betting man—and, as always, no wagering is allowed in this space—I’d put my money on Bell being the best manager we’ve seen in Cincinnati in at least a quarter century.

The fact that he’s open-minded and willing to think outside the traditional baseball manager box, however, is going to open him up to real criticism, especially from old-school fans who couldn’t care less about data or analytics. If the Reds win, that criticism will be muted. But if the Reds continue to scuffle, look out. Things could get ugly in a hurry down at the ol’ ball yard. Of course, at that point, there may not be any fans left to watch.

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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