Fredi Gonzalez was criticized a lot during his first season with the Braves, some of it deserved. I wasn’t a big fan of Fredi’s lineup machinations last season when he would hit the likes of Jordan Schafer, Nate McLouth and Alex Gonzalez at the top of the order. I was critical of Fredi for benching Jason Heyward for a “hot-handed” Jose Constanza, who is not a a very good major league player. I was critical of all the small ball. The bases loaded squeeze attempt with Tommy Hanson comes to mind.
But, dare I say, the Fredi hate may have gone too far. Some of the more reasonable criticisms of Fredi have gotten lumped in with the unreasonable. When the Braves lose, it’s often interpreted as them being flat and seems to be associated with last season’s September collapse. But how much of the September collapse is on Fredi? I would say not much.
We could probably say Fredi costs the Braves a few runs last season, which may have costs the team one or two wins and a playoff berth. But we can also point to a number of other things, like injuries to Hanson and Jurrjens and the under-performance of the offense. But the Braves were cruising to a playoff berth going in to September. If Fredi’s lack of inspiration or something cause the September collapse, why did it not affect the team significantly until very late in the season?
I strongly believe Fredi deserves criticism for any wrongheaded tactical and strategic decisions. However, we need to recognize that those types of decisions probably do not cost a team that many runs much less wins throughout the course of a season. This is especially true once you consider that most managers manage to wrongheaded conventions. For instance, most managers will not use their closers unless there is a save situation, there is no chance for a save situation (tie game in the 9th or later at home) or they are running out of pitchers. This is not just a Fredi Gonzalez problem. This is a baseball-wide problem. So to say Fredi managing his bullpen this way is costing the Braves is probably disingenuous, in some sense. Since every team is managed this way, it’s not really a competitive disadvantage if Fredi does the same thing.
We should be critical of Fredi and any manager who makes the less-than-optimal move. This is the only way the game will progress, to bring out well-reasoned criticisms of the unwise moves. Often times those moves are going to work out, especially on the defensive side of things, because all hitters usually make outs rather than get on base. So criticism of managers’ decisions should often be separate from results. However, we need to be smart enough to recognize that a manager can’t control everything. If the team looks flat, it may not be because of a manager and it may not even be flat at all. If a team loses a bunch of games in a rather short time frame and blows a lead in a playoff race, it may having nothing to do with a lack of managerial inspiration, especially when the team is battling injury to some key pitchers.
Last season I think there were some less-than-optimal decisions by Fredi that went beyond the typical lunacy of most managers: The aforementioned batting terrible hitters at the top of the order, sitting Heyward too often, too much small ball, etc. But it seems Fredi hasn’t made quite as many of these sorts of mistakes as he did in 2011. Maybe that’s due to the front office getting to him, maybe it’s just that the offense is better so it’s harder to make bad decisions with this personnel, maybe it’s that the Braves now have basically three long-men in the bullpen. Whatever the reason, Fredi deserves some credit for changing.
Fredi now looks more like every other major league manager. Sure we would prefer to see someone progressive like a Joe Maddon, that will do the unconventional because it’s the right thing to do and should lead to more wins. We might want a Bobby Cox, who will not do the unconventional that often but will wear his spikes, constantly and loudly encourage his players and constantly and loudly go at umpires, but those highly-motivational managers are unique personalities. The next best thing might be the conventional guy who just takes his place as the figurehead of the team, deals with the media in a low-key way, keeps the egos in the clubhouse in check and doesn’t earn a lot of attention for bad reasons. That’s not to say I think Fredi Gonzalez is a great manager or even a good one. But sometimes mediocre and ordinary works just fine.