When you notice the Reds are scoring an average of less than 3 runs per game, you realize that managerial miscues are not this team's biggest problem. But they also aren't inconsequential in close games. Losing three out of four extra inning games looks less like rotten luck when you're coming off season of 33 one-run losses.
In theory, in-game decisions are something the team can choose to improve, where a team-wide slump is an ineffable phenomenon of the universe. Right now, the Reds have a series of on-field and front-office management issues that are exacerbating the simple inability to get hits.
One of the biggest problems is sub-optimal roster use, from holding back the team's best relievers in high-leverage situations to carrying semi-injured players. Like Brandon Phillips, Bill Bray is being treated like a walking wounded. He's faced just nine batters all season. If he's injured, put him on the DL. There are no "special teams" players in baseball. Sean Marshall, meanwhile, has faced just 16 batters and only two of his four appearances were "high pressure" according to the Leverage Index.
I'm of the opinion that most in-game decisions are highly subjective, have little impact on the final outcome of the game and are often based in part on information that isn't accessible to the home viewer. Beyond that, a lot (and maybe most) of what a manager does has nothing to do with stuff like who the most optimal pinch hitter might be.
Those managerial functions have to do with instruction, motivation and directives given to hitters and pitchers during a game. I honestly don't know how much, if any, of the Reds' offensive struggles are either coach-able or the result of misguided strategy. There are a few obvious things he can do, such as shuffling the lineup and moving Rolen down, but that's mostly window-dressing.
Someone has to try and throw the brake when there's team-wide epidemic of panicky hitting. Dusty Baker is at the controls.
Swing is king
Baker recently opined that Reds' hitters are "not going to walk our way out of this slump." On its face, this isn't terribly controversial. By definition, a slump is the inability to hit. Still, with the aggressiveness Baker has preached in the past, it's possible the team is being urged to swing early and often. This approach is very clearly not working. And it's working very well for opposing pitchers.
If you saw how the Cardinals won last night - loading the bases with three walks - you'd conclude that walking does help win games, especially close ones. More important, however, is the general value of being patient and waiting for a good pitch. In the process, you might just make a starter leave before the ninth inning.
The Reds are still dead last in the NL in pitches/plate appearance at 3.68. They're seeing as many pitches as the Phillies, more pitches than the Rangers and not many less than the Rays and Yankees - not bad company. But that number obscures how trigger-happy the bats have been.
Reds are in the middle of the pack for pitches seen in the strike zone, but are swinging as if they're never going to see a ball and have rarely seen one in the past. They're fifth in the majors in swinging at pitches outside the zone, first in first pitch strike % and first in swinging strike %. Part of this is that the pitchers they've faced have pretty good stuff and have been getting ahead in the count by throwing early strikes, but the other part is that Reds' hitters have been swinging early and indiscriminately.
It's resulted in a team that's second-last in the majors in OBP. Their walk rate, at 7.2%, is not horrible until you realize that 1/3 of those walks are from Joey Votto. You can swing a lot and be successful, as the Tigers and Rangers have been, but the Reds are turning their free-swinging into weak contact, trailing only the Twins in ground ball percentage while sitting dead last in line drive rate.
Opposing pitchers know they're swinging, which I suspect is why the Reds are seeing so few fastballs. They're being fed more off-speed and breaking stuff. Pitchers also aren't being forced to expose weaker parts of their attack or battle through long innings or at-bats. Swinging just to swing is getting them nowhere.