Price's removal exemplifies modern managing

Skippers now expected to do no harm, as front offices have the real power

April 19th, 2018

The Cincinnati Reds were in the playoffs more recently than you probably realized. The last time the Reds made the postseason was 2013 -- more recently than, say, the Brewers or the Phillies -- but it went by so quickly that hardly anyone noticed. The story of the Reds' 2013 postseason was their status as supporting players, as extras, in the great unveiling of the Pirates' Wild Card PNC Park Terrordome, a building that roared so loud and rowdy that is still a bit shook nearly five years later.

That loss was the Reds' sixth in a row, and that mattered because three days after that game, Cincinnati fired Dusty Baker, who had begun to be booed at Great American Ball Park. Walt Jocketty, then the Reds' general manager, admitted that the collapse down the stretch was what did Baker in.

"Just the way we played lately was a factor," Jocketty said at the time. "But I think the way the season ended was kind of the final decision. The last six games certainly played a big part in this."

Baker had taken over a team that hadn't put together a winning season in nearly a decade and took them to the playoffs three times in four seasons. This did not stop the Reds from firing him with a season left on his contract.

On Thursday morning, the Reds fired Bryan Price, the man who took over for Baker, after four-plus seasons with decidedly less fanfare than Baker's teams provided. Price, who had established himself as one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game before becoming manager, guided Cincinnati to 76 wins in his first season at the helm and never won more than 68 after that, and this year, the Reds were off to a particularly rough 3-15 start. All told, Price was sort of fortunate to survive this long; the Yankees and Nationals won a combined 188 games last year and still canned their managers in the offseason. The average baseball fan probably hasn't thought of Price once since his notorious 2015 outburst at a then-Cincinnati Enquirer reporter. Everything else about Price's managerial career since then has been epilogue. Those days of Dusty must seem awfully pleasant Cincinnati fans now, considering what has happened since.

It is difficult to make much of a case for Price's tenure in Cincinnati. Sure, few managers could have survived the pitching the Reds had to deal with while he was in charge; they have the worst ERA in the National League this year, just like they did last year, and they were second worst in 2016 and third worst in '15. But, well, Price was the pitching coach in Cincinnati before he was the manager, so surely he has to answer somewhat for the Reds' staff somehow getting progressively worse every year. And the guy did have Joey Votto the entire time he was in charge, and Votto, unlike Cincinnati's pitching staff, got better every year of Price's tenure. You can't win with just one superstar. But Votto is a nice place to start. He has instead been putting together one brilliant season after another without anyone noticing, because his team has not been a contender.

But then again: There's only so much a manager can do anymore. When you look around baseball, and particularly the sorts of managers the new breed of management is hiring, it becomes more apparent that a manager like Price -- a fiery "leader" who made his bones as a specialist in one specific aspect of the game -- is not the direction baseball is going.

As usual, the Yankees are the barometer here: They preferred a telegenic, likable guy like Aaron Boone, who can handle the public-relations aspect of the job over the occasionally cantankerous, relentlessly organized, certain-of-his-own-power Joe Girardi. Managers are becoming much more like their real-world namesakes: They manage, but they're not in charge.

Front offices spend millions on the analytics and research, and they invest in brainpower. They last thing they need is some salty grizzled Baseball Guy thinking he knows better than they do and, in addition, causing huge dustups in the media and being 30 years older than almost all his players. The job of a manager isn't necessarily to lead anymore; it's to do no harm. Front offices are the ones in charge, and a manager is becoming more and more a position for those who can interpret and execute their fundamental principles. Managers are now … middle-managers.

Like middle-managers in the real world too, they are convenient vessels for taking blame when the upper management makes its own mistakes. Middle-managers make terrific fall guys. It is absolutely not Price's fault that the Reds haven't developed any young pitching, or that their farm system has been mostly middling and unable to convert its talent players into MLB stars. It's not Price's fault that Cincinnati gave Homer Bailey a six-year contract and he's been hurt or ineffective for most of it. It's not Price's fault that even Votto is off to a terrible start in 2018, with only one extra-base hit in 73 plate appearance. But he is the guy who has to take the hit when all that happens. Particularly when Price has already exhausted all the goodwill he had when he took over for Baker in the first place.

In this way, it's best to think of managers not as Leaders Of Men, but as a renewing resource of narrative convenience. When a manager is hired, he has a reservoir of faith from the fan base simply by virtue of not being the supposed idiot who ruined everything before him. (The exception that proves the rule is Gabe Kapler, or, more accurately, the city of Philadelphia.) That, by nature of the game itself being so difficult, slowly erodes away as the years go along, before the fans start to see the manager not as the solution to the team's problems, but the cause of them. By the time the goodwill is entirely spent, fans start missing the guy they fired to get this one in the first place. So he gets fired, and we start the cycle over again.

Upper management appears to have realized this, decades after Sparky Anderson ("A baseball manager is a necessary evil") and Casey Stengel ("Managing is getting paid for home runs that someone else hits."), and is beginning to try to make the position as efficient as it tries to make everything else. Bryan Price's initial usefulness was that he was not Dusty Baker. The next manager's usefulness is that he is not Bryan Price. And on and on it goes.

Of the past 12 managers to win the World Series, only four are still employed by their current teams … the most recent four. One (Tony LaRussa) retired. Every other one was fired. If those guys couldn't make it, Bryan Price, with his .419 winning percentage, never stood a chance.

Many Reds fans are cheering Price's dismissal, and it has been a while since they've had the opportunity to cheer. Whether or not that's directly Price's fault doesn't matter; that his firing would inspire cheers is probably the best reason to do it. Price might not have been a great manager, but that's not why he was fired. He was fired because at the end of every manager's tenure with a team, he is worth more as a sacrificial lamb than as manager. That is part of the job description. It is increasingly becoming the most important part.