April 22, 2015
Bryan Price's Other Sins
Bryan Price went rather out of his mind for a little over five minutes Monday. There’s certainly nothing good to be said about Price in this: his harangue of C. Trent Rosecrans was unprovoked and abusive, ranking somewhere just behind Hal McRae’s violent tantrum some 20 years ago in the all-time ranking of regrettable managerial behavior. Venting about an umpire or a fan base or a dirty slide is one thing; a direct, unwarranted five-minute rebuke of a fellow professional is another. Price’s apology was 10 times too soft for my taste, as was the Reds’ apparent willingness to shrug off the incident without some form of disciplinary action. Still, everyone has ugly moments, and perhaps it’s for the best that everyone appears to be moving on from this one.
Still and all, I think we should have a non-rant-based conversation about Price, who has been employed as an MLB pitching coach or manager for 15 seasons now, almost perfectly continuously. He was the Mariners’ pitching coach from 2001-06, migrated to Arizona from 2007 through early 2009 (when he resigned in support of fired manager Bob Melvin), then took over the Reds pitching staff after that season. He turned around the Reds, although one could also say that the Reds’ scouting and development teams turned around the Reds. In either case, Reds pitchers had a remarkable run from 2010-2013. Price successfully developed Mike Leake as a big-league starter without Leake spending a day in the minors. Homer Bailey made start-stop progress for a time, but eventually broke out, under Price’s tutelage. In 2012, the Reds’ top five starters (Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Bailey and Leake) made 161 of their 162 regular-season starts, and only a doubleheader cost them the other game. The team’s bullpen was one of the deepest and most dominant in the league in 2012 and 2013, despite relying somewhat heavily on cast-offs and guys who waited until their late 20s or longer to make good in the big leagues.
We’ve established the premise: Bryan Price is a good pitching coach. His pitching coach abilities are nearly unassailable; he had considerable success in three different places. When the Reds fired Baker after 2013, though, they needed a manager. Their choice of Price as Baker’s successor—a decision made without interviewing any other candidates—appeared even at the time to be a bit too easy. Price had never managed before, at any level. That’s an increasingly common blank space on a manager’s resume, but it’s a glaring one, nonetheless. The Peter Principle put Price in his position, and that’s not a great leading indicator of success. Nor, in general, is it the habit of a successful franchise to replace one leader they felt needed to be terminated with a member of his own staff. It suggests too small a change, and maybe an underestimation of the real challenges ahead.
It became clear almost immediately that Price is not a great big-league manager. He did bat Joey Votto second in his order, a lovely nod to stat-savvy observers, but a false lead in the search for his real managerial level. Aroldis Chapman has withered from merely underused to downright neglected, except that he seems to warm up without entering games more often than ever before. Price observes the hierarchy of the bullpen way too closely, which often means allowing middling middle relievers to face the middle of the opponent’s batting order in key situations while the relief ace waits for the inning to read ‘9’.
The Reds’ April 13th loss to the Cubs illustrates the point. Entering the bottom of the eighth, the Reds led 6-4. Two of the Cubs’ first three scheduled hitters were left-handed, and that included Anthony Rizzo, leading off. Optimally, a manager calls upon his unhittable left-handed reliever in this situation, to get him through the middle of the lineup and allow the second-best arm in the pen to take care of the weak hitters at the bottom in the ninth frame. Price had right-hander Jumbo Diaz take that situation instead, and two batters into it, the game was tied.
Okay, but no one goes to their closer in the eighth inning. Maybe you’d like your former pitching coach to be the one manager creative enough to do it, but that might be asking too much. So give Price a partial pass, and let’s fast-forward to the 10th inning of the same game. Again, Rizzo was due to lead off. Chapman was still available, and indeed, had warmed up during the intervening time, but here, Price called upon Manny Parra. Parra is a decent lefty specialist, but he was facing two pretty good left-handed hitters, so it wasn’t a great surprise that he sandwiched a single between two walks to open the frame. With the bases loaded and nobody out, the Reds needed to miss some wood in the worst possible way. Happily, Price still had Chapman—the greatest strikeout pitcher in baseball history—available. He went to the mound, lifted Parra, and left the ball in the hands of Burke Badenhop.
Burke Badenhop. Look, that tirade calls for a fine, even a suspension, maybe, but Price’s most fireable offense of 2015 took place one Monday earlier. Badenhop got Starlin Castro out, by some miracle, but he then surrendered a walk-off single to Arismendy Alcantara. (Alcantara was optioned to the minors Tuesday. He’s taken the plate 32 times this season. That single represents half of his offensive production.) Price gave away a game the Reds might have lost otherwise, but he lost it without calling upon Chapman at all.
Lest we forget, Mat Latos made some rather damning remarks about Price’s leadership and the state of the Reds’ clubhouse after being traded this winter. It’s unseemly to do that kind of thing only after safely departing the circles within which the comments have consequences—and it’s Latos—but Monday’s malfeasance hints that Latos might have been onto something. The Reds are off to a bad start, and are the worst team in what might be baseball’s best division. There’s no reason to believe they’ll salvage the season, so maybe firing Price would only exacerbate whatever drama surrounds the team, in a season that should be about the All-Star Game they’re about to host. By the next time Cincinnati is a serious contender, though, they should strive to put both a more tactful man and a better tactician in Price’s seat.