Braves collapse, and the shine just came off Fredi Gonzalez

Fredi Gonzalez watched as the Braves blew an 8 1/2 game lead in 23 days. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Fredi Gonzalez watched as the Braves blew an 8½-game wild-card lead in 23 days. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Fredi Gonzalez was quietly handed the Braves’ managerial job before Bobby Cox ever stepped out the door in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge deal, and nobody really had a problem with it.

He had the resume and the personality. Everybody liked and respected him. He knew the players, the organization and the city. The Braves weren’t making over the manager’s office as much as they were changing a light bulb.

Something went wrong.

This is not a “Fire Fredi Gonzalez” column. But we’ve just witnessed one of the worst collapses in sports history, and the Braves can’t just assume that a few roster tweaks are going to fix the problem. When a team goes 10-20 down the stretch — including 0-9 against their two biggest competitors (Philadelphia and St. Louis) — and loses three consecutive series to the division’s flotsam (Mets, Marlins, Nationals), this isn’t about just injuries or a few guys going into a slump.

The vibe was missing this season. That’s on Gonzalez. The team fell apart when it needed to come together, blowing an 8½-game lead in 23 days. That’s on Gonzalez. The Braves seemed tight and meek and borderline frightened, as if waiting, hoping, white-knuckle-praying for a playoff spot to just fall into their lap. They didn’t just take it, and didn’t play like they felt they deserved it.

That’s certainly on Gonzalez. The shine just came off the perfect replacement.

I understand this isn’t football. Managers make in-game decisions, but they aren’t calling plays. They change the lineup and the batting order. Gonzalez did that. He pulled Chipper Jones out of the No. 3 spot. He benched Jason Heyward.

Ultimately, the question is whether a manager is making a team better, making it believe. The Braves clearly weren’t, therefore Gonzalez clearly didn’t.

Even with injuries, this was twice the team that reached the postseason last year and lost three one-run games to the eventual World Series champions in San Francisco.

Gonzalez doesn’t need to go. But he needs to change. Or maybe someone. Gonzalez said Thursday that all of his coaches are coming back. But for all the screams from the cheap seats about former hitting coach Terry Pendleton, his replacement, Larry Parrish, didn’t bring anything to the table.

Maybe Gonzalez just needs to change himself. Maybe he came in and, consciously or subconsciously, didn’t want to disrupt things too much in the first season after Bobby Cox retired. It was such a feel-good season last year, that would be understandable. But if that was the strategy, it backfired.

When asked about the collapse following Wednesday’s final loss, Chipper Jones said, “It’s cruel, because probably nobody in Atlanta sports is probably under as much scrutiny as he is filling in for Bobby Cox. To have it slip away in late September, it’s cruel. It’s really cruel. It’s not indicative of the way this team played, the way he managed, and what we deserved in this situation.”

Not sure about the “deserved” part of that quote. The Braves just played 162 games. That’s enough time.

They blew it. They blew it like no team in Atlanta sports history. That blew it like few teams in all of sports history. The only people who aren’t saying today that they blew it live in Boston — because they have their own problems.

What just happened is mind-numbing. But even before the collapse, the Braves seemed to have chemistry issues. They never quite came together like most anticipated. This was a team that figured to challenge Philadelphia in the National League East and possibly for a World Series.

There aren’t a lot of tangible things we can pin on Gonzalez. He certainly stuck with Derek Lowe too long, and the decision to start him Tuesday over rookie Julio Teheran blew up in the manager’s face. He made the bold decision to go with Jose Constanza over the struggling Heyward in right field for several starts, which seemed to ignite the lineup. But then he switched back to Heyward, who is the better player, but still seemed to be a mess.

But it never should have come down to that decision, or to a few starts by Lowe. When a team goes 10-20 to close the season and gets swept at home in the last three games, the issues are bigger than that.

Implosions like this are on the manager. He didn’t make the team better. The Braves underachieved. And Gonzalez just lost the benefit of the doubt.

By Jeff Schultz

Follow me on Twitter @JeffSchultzAJC; friend me at Facebook.com/JeffSchultzAJC

845 comments Add your comment

Nope

September 29th, 2011
9:30 am

Dozer

September 29th, 2011
9:30 am

There is a culture of acceptance that reeks thru this franchise. everyone is up in arms now, but after a couple of weeks everything will revert back to the way its always been – media included. there’s never any real pressure to perform with this franchise.

wuky

September 29th, 2011
9:31 am

Couldn’t agree more, Jeff. Well said.

david

September 29th, 2011
9:32 am

Glad someone is saying this!

The Walrus

September 29th, 2011
9:33 am

The Walrus

September 29th, 2011
9:33 am

Yikes. Not even close.

Nope

September 29th, 2011
9:33 am

Luke

September 29th, 2011
9:34 am

Not much you can do when EVERYONE in the line-up goes cold. Can’t go out there and hit for ‘em. This one’s on the players. Sure, Freddi had to make a few line-up calls (Lowe isn’t his fault, he has the experience, just not the gas). But all in all, the Braves just weren’t clutch. And to say that they didn’t have chemistry is false too. It was one of the best defenses in the game and had the second best fielding percentage in September. Its why he’s the manager and you’re a columnist Shultzie. Get over yourself. Pick up the pieces and move on.

Roadsterron

September 29th, 2011
9:36 am

What idiot makes the decision to pitch to Hunter Pence with a base open to get to Martinez who by the way is hitting less than .200? Fredi—OF COURSE!!! He is the true MASTER OF STUPIDITY!!!

Joe Maddon

September 29th, 2011
9:36 am

My Rays shall carry the torch to the championship, my Southern brethren! Chin up.

DetroitBraves

September 29th, 2011
9:36 am

You are correct Mr. Shultz. Fredi Gonzalez repeated mistakes that have been shown to decrease a team’s likelihood of winning. It is true that even a bad manager, one that constantly fields sub-optimal lineups, can’t effectively deploy his bullpen, and makes win probability in-game strategic errors only costs a team 4 or 5 wins over the course of a season. How many games did the Braves lose by? And is that even the point? By the way, amidst all the understandable negativity just wanted to say that I think Jeff Schultz and Mark Bradley have done a great job following the rise and fall of the Braves over this last month. Good work gentlemen. Haven’t enjoyed the collapse but I have enjoyed the reads.

The Walrus

September 29th, 2011
9:36 am

The problems with this team are so widespread, there’s no way you can point your finger at one thing. However, Gonzales and Parrish deserve part of the blame, IMO.

UGABugKiller

September 29th, 2011
9:38 am

Benching Constanza in favor of Heyward doomed this team.

The offense did NOTHING with Heyward.

The offense was a small-ball dynamo with Constanza.

So of course! We’ll bench the guy who makes the offense work, in favor of the guy with the magazine covers!

The biggest mistake of Fredi’s career so far is benching “Georgie” in favor of JHey.

But hey, that’s the exact SAME kind of mistake Bobby Cox would’ve made, and made often, so maybe fans should treat Fredi the same way, and blame the players?

Luke

September 29th, 2011
9:38 am

Secondly, instead of bashing the manager, how about we look at ways we can fix it? Thoughts? I say we move get a package for Kemp that headlines JJ, move Kemp to LF, have Prado back up Chipper and platoon with Heyward, get Pastornicky ready to take Gonzo’s spot if he doesn’t retire (same with Chipper). Find someone to take Lowe for his last season (or make him the highest paid player in AAA). We have a solid rotation and bullpen (especially if you put Medlen and Moylan back in there, no more Linebrink, Proctor, et. al).

JackDennis

September 29th, 2011
9:40 am

Agree with you, Jeff. PLUS, I was amazed Fredi started Diaz in final game. (please don’t give the the righty/lefty bidness). He’s at best a AAA player. Don’t know whether to hang his bring-back on Fredi or Wren, but it was a flop. Henski and Conrad were bombs the last 4-5 weeks of season. Prado and McCann lost their way. Was a group failure.

Bob Leblaw's Law Blog

September 29th, 2011
9:41 am

While I’m not a 100% fan of sabermetrics, I do want to point out lineup optimization. All sports writers know or that care to comment on it make fun of lineup optimization say it’s only good for 1-2 wins/year. Prado should not be hitting 2. Matt Diaz should not be hitting against Joe Blanton when Heyward is on the bench. There were so many bad lineup decisions Fredi made during the year.

Would’ve been nice to have those 1-2 wins, huh?

Luke

September 29th, 2011
9:41 am

@UGABugKiller,

Not making excuses for the manager, because everyone doomed this team. The opportunities to win games were there. The most telling stat would be the LOB numbers over the time in September.

Roadsterron

September 29th, 2011
9:42 am

It is what it is!!!! Fredi is an idiot!! How many times has he made bone headed moves??? Try and count!! Bottom line—-it all falls on the coach. He earned it for sure. No fire in this team and no leader. What happened to pushing guys off the plate with a high hard one??? All the teams know that the Braves are not going to show any agressiveness in pitching. You have got to find ways to fire a team up. Fredi doesn’t have a clue as to how to do that.

Jason

September 29th, 2011
9:43 am

Can we please just admit that if someone is so beat up and can’t contribute like Chipper was, they should sit. How many times does he get to roll out to second before realizing maybe the knee is a problem?

Robert

September 29th, 2011
9:43 am

Fredi has to take the majority of the blame in my opinion. I think at crunch time you have to go with what got you there. Why was Wilson playing SS so much down the stretch? He can’t hit and apparently can’t field a lick either. Is SS Gonzalez in Fredi’s doghouse or hurt? And what was he thinking putting Diaz (are you kidding me?) in at right field in the stretch run? I would think either Constanza or even Hayward would be better options. At least the potential is there with either of those guys but with Diaz it’s basically written that you’re not going to get much from him. My guess is he was trying to “make a point” with Gonzalez, Constanza and Hayward and it resulted in the detriment of team performance – similar to his position on the SS in Miami last year. If he has an ax to grind he needs to grind it and be over with it; it can’t drag on. Hopefully he’ll learn from this year’s disaster and keep his anger (or ego) in check in the next couple of years. I still think he can be the man for the job but he needs to looks inward a bit.

Bright Idea

September 29th, 2011
9:46 am

Does this team look too much to Chipper to be the big stick and leader? Are they all swinging wildly waiting on Chipper’s double or solo homer?

JeanE

September 29th, 2011
9:46 am

I was in favor of Fredi but it quickly became apparent to me, he was wrong for this job. I think the players had alot of confidence with Bobby at the helm and that confidence just permeated the whole club. Fredi just seemed clueless much of the time and although you can’t blame him for the injuries to JJ and Hanson, misued the bullpen IMHO. He won’t be fired but I wish he would be. Give me someone with some fire like Sweet Lou, I would love that.

Sec 114

September 29th, 2011
9:47 am

He failed to reiterate the fundamentals and basics to his team. When your team is struggling to hit, you must manufacture runs. Bunt people over. Make sacrifices. He didn’t really do that until a little last night. Also, when a hitter has 2 strikes, you saw the Phillies do it all last night; they shortened up and put the bat on the ball. They had at most half of the strikeouts that we had. Because we have guys like Uggla, McCann, Heyward, etc. trying to change the game with one swing with 2 strikes. It’s fundamentals that hurt us, not the lack of the big home run. The Phils didn’t hit 1 home run last night, and still scored more than we did. Pitching was fine. We just can’t swing it, period, the end.

Joe Maddon

September 29th, 2011
9:47 am

The mistake wasn’t benching Constanza for Heyward. It was NOT benching Prado for Constanza.

Rays. Get you some!

jacketinsc

September 29th, 2011
9:47 am

Hey Jeff, what does the schedule say about the Braves keeping up with the Phillies next season?

spoon divy

September 29th, 2011
9:47 am

This from a Phillies fan…send Heyward to winterball, he needs more training. Go find a young 3rd baseman. And spend some money on a pitching staff. Get fans in the stadium and maybe this team will have money to spend. All this talk about teams “buying” a world series. Nope. The yanks, phillies, and red sox (choke) all have money because they consistantly SELL OUT games. Fans actually show up every day. Never gonna happen in atlanta.

@DanWeiner

September 29th, 2011
9:47 am

Organizational enema. That’s what the Braves need. The Bobby Cox way of thinking hasn’t worked in a decade. It’s time for new, fresh ideas.

DetroitBraves

September 29th, 2011
9:47 am

@Bob Leblaw, I think you’re dead-on. Lineups don’t matter much but they can matter a lot at the margins, such as what we have just witnessed. And since we have data to inform better decision making why on earth would we not want a manager that knows how to use that data? There are more issues than just Fredi Gonzalez, I just think that his position is one of which that may be improved. And I just don’t get the Constanza over Heyward thing. Heyward went into yesterday with a .372 on-base percentage in September, second on the team. Should Constanza played more over someone? I don’t know, but asking a minor league free agent to save your season is a bit far-fetched.

Total collapse

September 29th, 2011
9:48 am

I want to see a manager who is pissed off instead of accepting the total collapse, and isn’t complimenting his players for a good effort . Someone earier said braves have ‘a culture of acceptance’ – that’s well put. We need a manager who will light a fire under some guys. Scott Linebrink coming in reminded me of Charlie Liebrandt coming in to end 2 seasons – we basically threw in the towel.

kpokeefe

September 29th, 2011
9:49 am

Blah, Blah, Blah…Let the Thursday morning second guessing begin!!!

The Braves blew it simply because they ranked 29th, 30th and 31st with zero, one and two outs and runners on second base! It was their problem ALL year and it eventually bit them in the @$$. Write ALL you want that it was the manager’s fault. Yet,correct me if I’m wrong, did you see Freddie holding a bat in ANY of those situations? On paper this is/was supposed to be the MOST fire power the Braves have ever had. Freddie mixed it up…called up…benched…in short he managed. Kimbrel, I think put it best after the game. He said, his head was racing. He’s a ROOKIE aand it showed last night!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

TheAntiMe

September 29th, 2011
9:49 am

I had been a supporter of Fredi Gonzalez but it is now very clear that some of his decisions were, to put it mildly, unwise. To start Lowe in a critical game when it was obvious that he hasn’t pitched well in half of a season was bad. To give Jose Constanza such limited playing time while Jason Heyward was still busy biting the big one is very bad.

But the one decision that tells me that Fredi Gonzalez is totally clueless when it comes to strategic game management is when he allowed Linebrink to pitch to the best Phillies hitter (Hunter Pence) with the game on the line in inning 13 instead of doing the obvious in that situation and walking Pence and facing the Phillies scrub (Martinez) who was on deck at the time. That was the no-brainer decision for any manager but Fredi just didn’t seem to have a clue there. Totally unacceptable.

Ted Brogan

September 29th, 2011
9:50 am

I knew the blown call at third base on the steal would come back and haunt the braves. Oh well it really doesnt matter, lose last night or make it to the playoffs and get swept.
Something’s gotta change with the attitude of the braves when it gets closer to October.

GONZO MUST GO

September 29th, 2011
9:50 am

This should be a fire a Freddie article. He was clearly way out of his league in managing all year starting the day he decided to walk a pinch hitter to pitch to the defending NL Batting Champ @ Colorado early in the season just because it was a lefty/lefty matchup. Who does that????

And the decisions last night were ridiculous. Why are we not bunting runners over when we can’t score runs???? Why are we not pitching around Pence when Howard is out of the game and you have a guy batting under the Mendoza line in his place??? Why? Why? Why? is what i said all night long.

JeanE

September 29th, 2011
9:51 am

Oh and Diaz had an infield single against Blanton, you idiots. You can’t blame this on Diaz in any way, shape or form. Also, Matty would’ve had that ball in RF that Jason lost in the lights, not a doubt in my mind. Matty performed fine, lay off of him!!!!!!

Eric

September 29th, 2011
9:52 am

Dozer is right. The culture surrounding this organization is one of acceptance of mediocrity. They could be so much more, but they’re not and never will be. They NEVER make the big free agency moves or trades like teams such as he Phillies, who obviously want to win World Series titles. Then when they have one of the worst choke jobs in all of sports history, they shrug their shoulders and say “wait ’til next year,” as if Braves fans should expect anything less than more choke jobs and perplexing losing to lousy teams like the Nationals, Mets, Marlins, etc. To hell with Braves. I quit on them like they’ve quit on us.

Joey

September 29th, 2011
9:52 am

I like McCann, but when he went on the DL, and Constanza and Ross, as well as Bourn, were inserted in the linup the team took off and went something like 19-4?

When McCann got of the DL, Ross went back to the bench, and we started losing. I know Mac is the better player, but he was awful, terrible the last month.

JB

September 29th, 2011
9:52 am

Hum… I haven’t watched a game since Smoltz and crew left….And I think I’m better off for it. When you get older, you just don’t want to give that much of life to something like Baseball. Maybe when I retire and I’m looking to kill 4 hours.

rooster

September 29th, 2011
9:53 am

Anyone think the loss of 2 starting pitchers late in the season might have been a factor?

Bama Mike

September 29th, 2011
9:53 am

Well at least we still have the Thrashers. Oops forgot. Back to depression.

Don

September 29th, 2011
9:54 am

I do not share your feelings, Jeff. Heads need to roll. We are accepting massive failure and mediocrity unless people in charge (and some on the field) pay.

TheAntiMe

September 29th, 2011
9:54 am

Yet,correct me if I’m wrong, did you see Freddie holding a bat in ANY of those situations?

Going by that logic, no MLB manager should ever be fired.

Eric

September 29th, 2011
9:54 am

This was coming…he overused 3 guys in his bullpen…because he probably had no choice. Sherrill and Linebrink weren’t getting it done.

That said – the fact that we could never put team’s away by 4-5 runs every once and a while also made that necessary. Too many times that we NEEDED O’Ventbrel to pitch…too many starters not going deep enough, too many scoring opportunities wasted.

I can’t put this on the players – my eyes tell me this is a team from 1-7 (and sometimes 8) with all-star quality guys at almost every position.

Fredi tinkered with the things he shouldn’t have, and didn’t with the things he should have…why keep hitting Prado 2nd when he’s hitting .260? Why bench Heyward for Diaz on the last game of the year? Why bunt with your #2 hitter early? Why send Bourn to 3rd when he’s already in scoring position with NO OUTS?

He’s still a relatively young manager – this being only his 3rd full season – but he has to really look at his staff, his methods, and his in game decisions this off-season.

Dr. Warren

September 29th, 2011
9:54 am

This team was always a pitching collapse away from disaster. They simply CANNOT score enough runs. They don’t get timely hits. September has simply been what the rest of the season would have been like if a couple of our pitchers hadn’t healthy and Kimbrel wasn’t playing without the fear he showed last night.

mark p

September 29th, 2011
9:55 am

Yup. Cool crisp analysis. Frank Wren put the pieces there, but Fredi did not build the puzzle. Certainly injuries are a part of the game, but Derek Lowe needed to sit down and we should have started someone else, if just for a change of pace. I am spitting bullets mad, and want to hear more than postgame quip from Fredi.

GB

September 29th, 2011
9:55 am

I would like to offer my congratulations to eeryone who wanted Bobby Cox gone. You got what you wanted.

bibbs

September 29th, 2011
9:55 am

not a pendleton fan, but he did catch hell and parrish seemed to get a free pass this year.

BBrown

September 29th, 2011
9:55 am

Somewhere, Jordan Schafer is smiling today!

TossSweep

September 29th, 2011
9:56 am

Totally agree with your write-up. Who would have thought this was first ever team that had finished last in its division one year went to the World Series the next in 1991 will also be remembered as the first team in baseball to collapse so badly.

steve brown

September 29th, 2011
9:56 am

Who are the geniuses that gave 33% of the teams payroll ($30 million) to two players (Lowe and Jones). Lowe is less than average and Jones is at best average. Imagine that $30 million going to say four players in their prime at $7.5 million each. We would have real depth, possibly a .300 hitter or two and more experience all around. Blame the brain trust in the front office, their long term guesses killed this team.

Ted M

September 29th, 2011
9:58 am

Well said Jeff.