June 02, 2013

Do the Braves Bench Struggling But Talented Players Too Often?

The Braves lately seem to want to rest players when they struggle over a certain period.  The idea, reportedly, seems to be that struggling hitters can take time off from playing games to work on their swings.  They’ve done it to Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton at various periods over the past 2-3 seasons.  Does this make sense?  Should hitters work through their struggles in the lineup, against real-life major league pitching or should they take time off and work in the cage?

Obviously there are plenty of outside factors to consider besides whether a player seems to be struggling.  If the Braves have a reliable extra player like Evan Gattis, it makes it easier to sit one of their talented players.  There are some who think Gattis is a bench/part-time player.  There are some who think he’s an all-star caliber player.  Either way, the Braves would love to find out  and, regardless of what you think he truly is, he’s hit so far.  So, right or wrong, things have worked out and you can at least understand that Braves sitting a player who’s been struggling for someone like Gattis or even a Ramiro Pena.

There are also no doubt things that are difficult if not impossible for us to assess from the outside which might influence a team’s decision to rest players.  Jason Heyward was benched often in 2011 in favor of probably a worse-than-replacement-level guy in Jose Constanza.  Come to find out, Heyward had some injury issues which probably contributed to his poor season that year.  Whether you thought the decision was the right one to bench Heyward as much as they did that season, when injury news came out, you had to at least understand.

No matter what you think about the “hot hand” or “cold hand,” it seems very likely that hitters get into mechanical funks for a variety of reasons throughout a baseball season.  I’m not much for the idea that a player gets in a “zone” or goes through a mysterious and mystical slump.  I do think players’ mechanics get messed up due to aches and pains of playing baseball everyday, from fatigue or from just trying to stay focused and energized about playing and doing the same thing every day.

So does this mean it’s a good idea to rest talented players 2-3 games in a row or 4 out of 5 or something when they haven’t performed well over a recent stretch of games?  Possibly but not necessarily.  It seems to me talented players could perform well at any point, no matter their recent results over the past week, two weeks, two months.  If there is nothing else going on, when in doubt, a team should probably go with the more talented player.  What makes this tricky is that I’m sure it’s not always easy to recognize other factors that might make resting a player a good idea and it’s not easy to know whether rest would even be the answer to these factors.  It’s certainly not easy from the outside but it’s also difficult even for the professionals, I would imagine.  The human psyche is complicated, as is a baseball swing.  A player with ugly mechanics, like a Hunter Pence or a Gary Sheffield, can get amazing results.

Still, I think it is fair to at least ask the question as to whether the Braves have been resting their talented players too much the last few seasons.  The best way to get better at baseball is to play baseball, and to play it against equal or better talent.  A team has to balance playing and resting players against winning and losing; winning and losing today and winning and losing in the long run if a struggling player is not getting enough or too many reps.

When in doubt, a team should play it’s best players, regardless of results or statistics over a recent, rather small sample.  There are too many examples of talented players struggling to get results then suddenly playing to their talent, like a switch had been flipped.  Maybe the most famous recent example was the Red Sox sticking with Dustin Pedroia his rookie season throughout a slow start and Pedroia eventually rewarding them, winning the 2007 American League Rookie of the Year Award.

But for every Pedroia, there were probably players throughout the history of the game with injury problems, mechanical issues and God knows what that benefited from being benched.  No team should be above questions about whether they are bench talented players too often.  That’s how we on the outside get answers and maybe there’s an outside chance such questioning from reasonable fans and media presses teams in to giving certain players a chance when they otherwise would not.



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