Bobby Cox said this week he’d give his successor “an A-plus,” but Cox has always been given to bouts of irrational exuberance when it comes to the Braves. Still, we thank the former manager for broaching the topic, and we welcome this opportunity to cast a cold eye on Fredi Gonzalez’s job performance and award him a totally rational …
The new man has been really good. The numbers are one powerful indication — the Braves awoke Friday with the fourth-best record and the best ERA in baseball — but the numbers don’t tell the entire tale. To say everything has broken right for Fredi’s club would be to ignore a run of injuries that sent the starting outfield to the disabled list and the ongoing flailings of Dan Uggla, whose batting average hasn’t topped .200 since May 16.
Uggla didn’t arrive as just another in a series of Frank Wren’s impulse buys: He was a calculated acquisition who figured to become the linchpin of this batting order. (Certainly Wren believed as much, re-upping Uggla for $62 million over five years and making him the highest-paid second baseman in the history of the sport.) Uggla’s struggles might have scuttled an entire team, but the Braves under Gonzalez have been buoyant.
It’s not as if the manager hasn’t done his managerial bit to help Uggla, with whom Gonzalez worked when both were Florida Marlins. He has moved him in the batting order, given him days off, taken pains to praise his hustle and work ethic. On Wednesday, after Uggla hit a two-run homer against Toronto, Gonzalez played the realist: “I tell him, ‘April and May are gone.’ ” Meaning: Look instead to the future, the only thing subject to change.
Cox was legendary for finding the tiniest sliver of sunshine on a dark day, and Gonzalez isn’t much different. He hasn’t agonized — at least not for public consumption — over his team’s lack of offense, insisting that the hits will come. Besides, just because you can’t hit doesn’t mean you can’t win. “Some people thought I was crazy for saying I’d rather have it this way,” Gonzalez said, “but you can’t be losing games 11-10.”
Which brings us, inevitably, to pitching, and every manager rises or falls on his ability to handle a staff. Gonzalez has proved an expert handler, trusting his stellar starters while carving specific niches for his many splendid relievers. (Let the record also reflect that the manager was without his pitching coach for two weeks, Roger McDowell having been suspended for insensitive remarks.)
If there are quibbles, it’s that Gonzalez hasn’t tried a bit harder to kick-start the offense. (Though he did insert Jordan Schafer into the leadoff spot upon his promotion, and that has made a spot of difference.) And he does seem determined to work Jonny Venters (first among big-league pitchers in appearances) and Craig Kimbrel (tied for second) into every single game.
But you know what? When you don’t score much, you play close games. When you play close games, you need your best arms at the end. The Braves have the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors by some distance. Who wouldn’t use those guys?
Best of all, Gonzalez hasn’t worried about doing as Bobby did. That the men are temperamentally similar made for a (John Schuerholz’s word here) seamless transition, but it’s not as Gonzalez went out of his way to emulate No. 6. The new guy is a bit more involved on the field before games — he circulates among players as they stretch, and he throws batting practice and hits grounders — but nothing seems forced. Fredi’s doing in Atlanta as he did with the Marlins.
And it’s working. He has his team, which is hitting .239 (the big-league average is .252), within sight of Philadelphia, which has spent nearly twice as much for its players as have the Braves. So why the A-minus? Why not a straight A?
Old managerial trick: We want to give the new guy reason to work even harder the second semester.
By Mark Bradley