Last Saturday Tyler Kepner of the New York Times wrote this on the Times’ baseball blog:
“To win [the manager of the year] award, a manager typically must do one of the following: win a lot more games than people expected (like the Padres’ Bud Black in 2010), overcome an unforeseen obstacle (like the Angels’ Mike Scioscia in 2009, after the death of pitcher Nick Adenhart) or win in historic fashion (like the Mariners’ Lou Piniella in 2001, when his team won 116 games).
“The National League winner will not easily fit into any of those models. None of the division leaders — Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco — are terribly surprising. All three first-place managers — the Nationals’ Davey Johnson, the Reds’ Dusty Baker and the Giants’ Bruce Bochy — overcame the absence of significant players. And no team has won a historic number of games.
“The honor, this time, should go to Atlanta’s Fredi Gonzalez, who fumbled away a playoff spot last September but seems to have learned from his mistakes. Gonzalez has managed his bullpen much better this season, and he never allowed last September’s collapse to bleed into this season. Other teams that blew big September leads — like the 1964 Phillies, the 1978 Red Sox, the 1995 Angels, the 2007 Mets and the 2011 Red Sox — could not recover the next year. The Braves have, and Gonzalez deserves recognition.”
Believe it or not, Kepner may just be right about Fredi. It’s unlikely the Braves would be out of contention with another manager other than Fredi. They are a talented team that stayed healthy enough this season to earn a playoff spot. But Fredi seemed to make pretty noticeable improvements from last season.
Managers should be like umpires, we should barely notice them during the course of a game. If we notice an umpire, it probably means he’s done a horrible job. If we notice a manager, it probably means he’s over-managed. Last season Fredi’s decisions were way too noticeable.
For example, last season the Braves had the third-worst on-base percentage in the National League. However, they tied for 6th in the league in sacrifice bunts. So the few times they did get runners on base, they were wasting outs by bunting runners over. A sacrifice bunt is almost never worth it essentially because conserving outs are more valuable to a team than gaining a base. Sometimes it’s excusable. If the hitter is likely to make an out anyway, like a pitcher, perhaps bunting is understandable. But considering how often Fredi called on his hitters to bunt last season, compared to how often they were on base, there is at least some compelling evidence that Fredi over-managed.
This season the Braves have the 7th-highest on-base percentage in the National League. But they rank third from the bottom in sacrifice bunts. The Braves are above average in runs scored per game and total runs scored but are below average in on-base plus slugging. A major factor is that Fredi is letting his hitters hit and is not playing too much small ball and wasting outs that lead to quicker innings for opponents. Last season four position players had at least four sacrifice bunts. This season only two have as many as four sac bunts.
Fredi has also improved the way he fills out the batting order on his lineup card. Last season Nate McLouth and Alex Gonzalez combined to start 38 games in the number two spot in the batting order. Managers often botch the all-important number two spot in the order, not realizing it’s importance. But McLouth and Gonzalez as number two hitters took this to another level. It’s true that the Braves had a down offensive year in 2011 but that’s all the more reason to make sure you have a good hitter coming up early and often in that number two spot.
This season Martin Prado has been in the number two spot for 136 starts. All of the other number two hitters combined have fewer starts there (21) than McLouth and Gonzalez did last season. With the exception of Tyler Pastornicky for two games and Jose Constanza for a game, Fredi hasn’t really botched the number two spot as he did fairly regularly in 2011.
There is all this talk about Fredi saving the bullpen but the Braves played in a lot of close games last season. Even if you weren’t a huge fan of his bullpen strategies, you at least have to acknowledge he went with his best relievers. He’s getting a lot of credit this year for resting his key bullpen arms and keeping their innings down. But his biggest accomplishments and areas of improvement from last season to the 2012 season are in his backing off from over-managing and his use of the number two spot in the batting order.
I wouldn’t call Fredi a progressive manager quite yet but his improvements this season are noticeable. He still manages too often to convention and tradition, as do most major league managers, but at least he hasn’t gone well beyond other traditionalist managers in 2012, as he did in 2011. Perhaps the voters should take a close look at Fredi Gonzalez for manager of the year, if for no other reason than he’s improved pretty dramatically in some key areas in which a manger can make an impact.