I, Mark Bradley, being of failing body and always-feeble mind, do solemnly swear that I write the following of my own free will. I am not under duress. I am not under the influence of anything stronger than Snapple Diet Lemon. I write this for no other reason than I happen to believe it. And also, I must admit, for the shock value of imagining the faces of those hundreds of thousands who’ve said: “No way this guy ever says anything bad about Bobby.”
Frank Wren took the big heat over the winter, but the general manager of uncertain portfolio, has had a much better season than his Hall of Fame manager. This marks the first time in Bobby Cox’s second tour as Braves manager his team can be said to have underperformed, at least in the regular season. This isn’t a team of vast talent, no, but neither is this a club that should have fallen from contention on Labor Day eve.
The Braves awoke Tuesday with the National League’s fourth-best ERA. Two of the teams above them are leading divisions, and the third, San Francisco, has a real chance of winning the wild card. A team with that sort of pitching could and should be in the playoff hunt, but the Braves are 7 1/2 games behind the wild card leader with 25 to go. In sum, it’s over.
If we fault Wren for not bolstering his batting order sooner — and we can also make the case that fixing the rotation first was the absolute proper course — we must concede the GM attempted correction after mid-course correction. He made three major in-season trades for everyday players, which is as much as anyone could reasonably expect. And there’s also this:
The Braves haven’t hit all that much, but as of Labor Day they had a higher team batting average than the Cardinals, the Phillies and the Giants. Put another way, the Braves have both outhit and outpitched Philadelphia — and yet they lag in the standings by 8 games.
For nearly two decades we’ve assumed Cox will maximize the resources on hand. He hasn’t done it this season. He has overworked his bullpen and done strange things with his two nominal closers and relied on Greg Norton to get the key pinch-hit two dozen times too many. He has also failed to be even slightly creative with his lineup.
It’s one thing to play for the three-run homer if you have men capable of hitting one. The Braves, alas, are 10th among 16 National League clubs in home runs. Brian McCann leads the Braves with 18 but wouldn’t lead 13 other NL teams. Were he a Phil, he’d be tied for fifth.
If you can’t hit the ball over yonder wall, you must find alternatives. The Braves are fourth in the league in hits, which tells us they’ve gotten men aboard, but are next-to-last in stolen bases and fourth-worst at grounding into double plays. You should be able to do more with singles than they’ve done.
I’ve long resisted the notion that the Braves don’t play with passion. (This is baseball, where passion fizzles by Memorial Day and precision trumps all.) That said, this team wasted too many expertly pitched games against bad teams. (Case study: The Braves yielded a total of 10 runs over 30 innings to sub-.500 Cincinnati and just got swept.)
No, this suddenly lost season wasn’t all the manager’s doing. Seasons never are. A manager can’t hit and pitch for his men. But he can put those men in better position to succeed. Even great players have off-years. We’ve just seen a great manager have his.