With the Braves’ playoff chances seeming to slip away, as things stand now, there seems to be an un-Atlanta-like finger-pointing among the fan base and the local media. Frankly, it’s kind of refreshing to see some negative passion and a desire for things to get better.
Still, the Braves haven’t completely fallen on their faces. They do have the sixth-best record in the majors over Wren’s tenure as GM and the second-best record in baseball over Fredi Gonzalez’s tenure as manager. This is not meant to be evidence that Wren and Gonzalez are perfect, by any means. But I don’t think the roster construction nor the managerial decisions are the major flaws causing the Braves to slip in this year’s playoff race.
This year’s roster isn’t all that different from last year’s N.L. East champion roster. And at this point I would say the mistakes Fredi makes are the same mistakes made by a vast majority of major league managers who want to stick to convention over what is optimal. Now this should not be an excuse. The powers that be should want optimization over someone who is going to make conventional moves, even if it saves everyone from criticism and doesn’t do all that much harm (since opponents make the same backwards decisions). But I don’t think the GM, front office and manager are the major issues, at least not in regards to roster construction or on-field decision-making. I’m not saying it’s not a concern at all, just that these things aren’t at the top of the list of issues with this organization or with this year’s major league club.
I also don’t completely buy that the leadership void is causing this team to under-perform, although perhaps a veteran hitter with a good approach could help. I’ll expound on that and my thoughts on that will become more clear later. I don’t think Tim Hudson or Brian McCann’s leadership alone would be the difference between this year’s team being ahead in the division or wild card race and it being where is it is now. If the offense was performing up to its strengths and ability, regardless of the makeup of the team, no one would be talking about leadership. And I seem to recall the talk about a lack of leadership after Chipper Jones retired and when players like David Ross and Martin Prado moved on, yet last year’s team won without them. It’s just something one can always point to so when the team wins, no one will remember the complaints about leadership and when the team loses, one can say “I told you so.”
The fundamental problem seems to be that this year’s team just doesn’t seem to be exploiting its offensive strengths this season as much as they did last year and in years past. I wonder how much of this is on the hitting coaches, Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher, almost being too mechanically focused and maybe too good at the mechanical aspects of hitting. This team’s strength offensively is that they have the skills to be fairly patient and hit for power. They aren’t going to hit for a high average and they are going to swing and miss a lot but they have the foundations of a team that can hit for power and draw walks.
With all the chatter from the outside of a lack of situational hitting and too many strikeouts, you have to wonder if trying to merely make contact and to hit ‘em where they ain’t has become too much of a focus. Perhaps the team and its coaches are listening to the critics instead of focusing on their strengths. Remember when Larry Parrish was here, there seemed to be a focus on trying to make the Braves more of a small-ball team and the results weren’t good.
Obviously mechanics are important and hitters want good mechanics ingrained in their muscle memory. But it’s possible the team would be better served going to the plate without thinking so much about mechanics, that they should be going to the plate thinking about getting a good pitch to hit and hitting the mess out of it.
If a hitter has certain strengths, he should use them and not try to be a different hitter. A hitter who strikes out a lot with a relatively low batting average but who can still get on base with a good eye and can hit for power is never going to situationally hit his way to providing value for his team. The Braves aren’t going to be a bunch of Tony Gwynns and Ichiros. They are more like Mickey Mantles. Obviously they are not as great as Mantle but many of them have the same set of strengths as hitters.
If you’ve seen Ken Burns’ “Baseball,” you may remember Mantle recalling someone asking if he ever tried to hit a homerun. His response: “Every time.” Obviously such an approach will work better for someone like Mickey Mantle than it will for most hitters but such an approach, of waiting on a pitch to crush and then trying to crush it, could still work enough.
This organization could use a GM or a front office person that is going to go public with such an offensive philosophy in order to override the critics, they could use hitting coaches and a manager who preach and teach that philosophy, and they could possibly use a veteran player who has and who still does utilize such a hitting philosophy. There will be critics who don’t like this style of offense, regardless of the historical data that overwhelmingly shows the way to score runs is to get on base and slug. So if there is a vacuum, in terms of the organization preaching, teaching and going public with their philosophy, the hitters (and possibly the manager and coaches) may try to please the critics, either consciously or subconsciously, rather than buy into the organizational philosophy.
The Braves need leadership that is going to, with conviction, express a philosophy built on the team’s offensive strengths. This is the only way they keep the outside criticism and everyone else’s preferences from filtering into the clubhouse, dugout and batter’s box. Wren is not perfect but he’s built a talented team, and he’s done so throughout his tenure. But he or someone in the organization needs to take control of the message and let it wash over the players, rather than risk letting the outsiders and critics influence what this team should be.