Understanding the Rebuild Shell Game

Understanding the Rebuild Shell Game

Confused by the Reds’ rebuild? Quit blaming Dick, Walt and the departed Price. Look higher up.

Players come and players go now. Gone are the days when giants like Johnny Bench toiled under the hot Astroturf sun for a single franchise. Gone are the days of Astroturf. For that matter, gone are the days when fans remember Johnny Bench.

So, when the Cincinnati Reds bid adieu to their longtime shortstop, six years filled with sensational fielding, sometimes hitting, intermittent injuries and one goat, I said my own heartfelt goodbye, knowing the rebuild held no place for Zack Cozart, granting him his unconditional release from my baseball consciousness until he reappeared somewhere down the line on the Reds Hall of Fame ballot. But Cozart, not quite done with me, zapped my synapses:

Baseball players eschewing new ideas for old baseball canards is nothing new. So, it’s no surprise that something as radical as “The Opener”—the new-school name for a reliever sent in to work for the first two innings in place of the traditional “Starter”—would provoke old-school side-eye. Still, Cozart got me thinking about the Reds’ hiring of Buddy Bell a few months earlier. On the surface, the hiring of Bell offers the specter of more Old Boys Club meddling, another soldier in the Playing the Game the Right Way war. Bell, however, is that rare old dog with new tricks:

“I don’t think a scout’s eyes or a manager’s eyes are ever going to take the place of analytics,” Bell said. “It’s a huge part of the game now. You’d be ignorant not to take advantage of it, at least to confirm and see things you don’t see with your eyes.”

New manager Gabe Kapler’s early-season woes in communicating some of his out-of-the-box ideas to his Philly players underscored the challenge of reaching players like Cozart, who rock in the cradle of the old game. Ask anyone who has endeavored to infuse analytics into an organization: it’s not enough to hire the right people and gather the relevant data. You need buy-in from the players who take the field. As Eno Sarris discovered, just introducing math into the language of the clubhouse can be fraught with peril:

“I didn’t know who exactly was talking, but the tone of the stream and the intent was clear: ‘we get paid to put barrels on balls man, what the f— is this guy talking about, walk rates, ground-ball rates, barrels dude, barrels … these are some stupid questions, man, … dude needs to shut up’ … There was one last emphatic statement from the trio behind me before they exited: ‘This guy’s the f—ing worst.’”

While Sarris’s problem might have been merely his choice of nerdy words such as “rates” and “ratio,” the message was nevertheless harshly and happily driven home: the language of advanced metrics—often as foreign to baseball players as iambic pentameter is to a schoolboy—is often just as unwelcome.

In light of all this, I saw the hiring of Buddy Bell as another data point—albeit a small one—in the overall effort to bring smarter baseball to Cincinnati.

In fact, much of what a front office led by Dick Williams has said and done presaged a deliberately more forward-thinking organization:

“I’m just a student of the game and I read all of these fascinating websites and articles out there about innovations and I want to bring as much of that as I can to our group and I’ve challenged them to add it to our department and incorporate what we’re doing already.”

Williams has committed monetary resources to player development, the international market, nutrition, analytics and sports science in the service of discovering the cause of pitching injuries. The Reds have added another feeder minor-league affiliate and hired additional scouts.

All the mileposts along Route 162 have pointed to a smarter, more nimble 21st Century baseball operation. Then, the following occurred:

  • The Reds brought in infielders Cliff Pennington and Phil Gosselin instead of fully committing to their future in the forms of Alex Blandino, Dilson Herrera and Nick Senzel;
  • Homer Bailey goes to the bullpen—then he doesn’t;
  • Amir Garrett goes to the bullpen—and stays there;
  • Jesse Winker and his glorious OBP becomes the odd man out in a four-man outfield rotation before suddenly becoming important to the rebuild again a day later.

Collectively, all these decisions and non-decisions have the feeling of a Reds Caravan suddenly veering off the interstate headed for god knows where. That, coupled with the early-season losing has produced a lack of confidence in a front office that many never had much, to begin with. The Jocketty Jihad began anew, as people insisted Walt was working the strings again from backstage, working his flip-phone magic.

No, Williams, Nick Krall and Co. are too smart to engage in the three-card monte playing out down at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way. There’s something else at work and it’s increasingly easier to parse out if you only know which plate of Cincinnati Chili to look under.

I keep going back to a conversation Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer had with owner Bob Castellini back in late April. When Doc asked if he’d been too involved with baseball operations, he was swiftly cut off:

“No. It’s bull. We make decisions collectively. When we meet, we all give our opinions. I will come in and say, this is what I think we ought to do. If I don’t get a lot of opposition, we make the decision based on what I say. I do not get overly involved in our operations.’’

What emerges is a portrait of two entities—front office and ownership—each with their hands on the wheel. Is it any wonder the bus appears to be wobbling down the highway?

In fact, if we harken back to decisions made long ago, it’s remarkably easy to see the thumbprint of ownership on many of them.

Players like Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman and Billy Hamilton all have one thing in common: they were/are fan favorites. Frazier’s heroic Home Run Derby performance in 2015 will never be forgotten. Chapman was a human Redzilla, his circus-like entrances to games jacking up the ballpark’s systolic pressure. Hamilton’s bottom-feeding offensive statistics have become more and more tolerable with each Cirque du Soleil catch and Insane Bolt sprint around the bases.

It’s no wonder the Toddfather and the Cuban Missile were traded too late or the asking price was too damn high. The owner wanted to hold on to his perceived assets for as long as possible—certainly until the All Star Game circus and the national media left town. When discussing the trade of Frazier with Daugherty, the owner said that “he,” Bob Castellini, didn’t deal Todd Frazier soon enough.”

He. Not “we.” He.

Think about that. Because pronouns are damn important. Let’s revisit that quote from the owner:

“I will come in and say, this is what I think we ought to do. If I don’t get a lot of opposition, we make the decision based on what I say.”

Should Homer Bailey return to the rotation at the expense of say, Robert Stephenson, does that decision have anything to do with the hand that Bailey still has in Castellini’s pockets? Should Hamilton remain with the club after the July 31 deadline, will the owner’s love of “Billy Havoc” and the perception he’s putting fannies in the seats have been the deciding factor?

And, of course, there is the recent report that the Reds intend to sign Scooter Gennett to a long-term contract rather than offer him to the highest bidder at the trade deadline.

While the arguments are many on both sides of the ledger for keeping or waving goodbye to the Cincinnati favorite, there can be little doubt upon which side Mr. Castellini’s quill pen makes its mark. Gennett is a Frankenstein creation of everything the Queen City loves. He’s a hometown lad, who as a child laid his head on the pillow each night dreaming of wearing the crescent “C.” He’s a little bit Ryan Freel. A little bit Pete Rose. His bobblehead fairly screams GRIT. And now, his offensive numbers are gobsmackingly great. Expectation is now in the air each time Scooter trudges plateward.

None of that is lost on an owner who wants to see the turnstiles roll like a paddlewheel heading down the Ohio River before he commits to spending money on free agents. The front office has already been told to beseech the fandom to support the club, lobbying for the filling of ticket-window coffers before some unknown sum will be paid to fill the roster’s remaining holes.

These are the arguments that seem to be driving many of the decisions being made as Season Three of The Rebuild plays on. These are the decisions that will define the fate of the Reds in 2019 and beyond.

Many insist the organization has no plan. For the record, I believe the front office knows exactly what it wants to do. None of that matters if the owner succeeds in hindering them, dissuading them from their progressive argument. If you want to know the whys and wherefores of this wandering rebuild, take a peek through the venetian blinds of the owner’s office window. His is the plan for today. Sadly, today is just a promise, a trick of fame.

Tomorrow is all.

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