A good sign: The Braves are changing pitching coaches

Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos gives manager Brian Snitker a pat on the back before Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday, Oct 4, 2018, in Los Angeles.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos gives manager Brian Snitker a pat on the back before Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday, Oct 4, 2018, in Los Angeles.

The team that won its division by eight games and finished fifth among National League clubs in ERA has dumped its pitching coach. That was the big news from a state-of-the-offseason briefing at SunTrust Park on Monday. (Well, that and manager Brian Snitker's new two-year deal with a club option for a third season, but we all knew that was coming.)

The parting with Chuck Hernandez sends a clear message: We may have gotten good, but we’re not good enough. The decision, general manager Alex Anthopoulos said, “emanated from me. I left it up to Snit entirely. I expressed some things from a directional standpoint. This is more of a directional thing – where we want to take the program, what we’re doing.”

Said Snitker: “We hadn’t had any discussions (regarding Hernandez) prior to Friday. I’ve been in that seat before. When change was made after we won the division in ’13, I was the guy.”

Snitker was then Fredi Gonzalez’s third-base coach. He was told, he said, that the organization wanted an outfield/baserunning coach. He accepted reassignment as manager of Triple-A Gwinnett. Today he’s the presumptive choice as NL manager of the year. Funny how things work out.

Snitker: “I get in the process sometimes you want to go in a different direction.”

Changing pitching coaches wasn’t an obvious call. Here was Anthopoulos, making what seemed a decent case to keep Hernandez: “If you take a giant step back and look at it, we were fifth in ERA, first in opponent slug(ing), fourth in runs. Even with the walks, we were fifth (actually sixth) in on-base percentage. So we were top five, top two, in a lot of things, and by design we wanted to stay away from slug.”

And yet, and yet: The Braves were last among NL teams in walks. Snitker said “that never came up” in his discussion with Anthopoulos, but it came up almost nightly over the season’s final month. In an era when few teams are capable of stringing together three consecutive singles and even the eighth-place hitter is swinging for the fences, walks hold massive power. Surely Anthopoulos, a numbers-cruncher of the first rank, saw as much. Surely he believed a staff that walks the ballpark, even if it doesn’t yield many hits, is swimming against the current.

Ergo, the champs of the NL East are looking to replace the most important member of their coaching staff. They are not sticking with what yielded 90 wins. They are looking for more. Good for them.

As giddy as the season just completed was, as shimmering as the future of this franchise appears, nobody gets, ahem, a free pass back to the postseason. What the 2018 Braves did mightn’t be enough in 2019. They won a division that saw the Mets start 11-1 and crater, the favored Nationals never get going and the similarly up-from-oblivion Phillies collapse in the final furlong. “So you’re saying nobody in the division was any good?” Anthopolous said, hearing a questioner’s premise.

Then: “Yes, we won the division. But, not to be negative, we need to look at where we can improve. The offense the second half of the season, something happened there. We try to extrapolate from second half, first half, last month. Apart from the market, I spend most of my time worrying about our internal performance. The first goal is to win the division there. That is the focus. It was a battle the entire year, at the end we pulled away. But they’re going to get better. We need to get better.”

From the fullness of Anthopoulos’ remarks, Braves fans shouldn’t hold out massive hope of a Bryce Harper or a Manny Machado. For Liberty Media to break the bank on a big-ticket free agent, Anthopoulos said, that man would have to be “the one final piece for which you scratch and pay top dollar. That 25th piece is going to carry the other 24.”

There aren’t more than a handful of such players, and even a true No. 1 starter mightn’t qualify. (A starting pitcher works every fifth day.) Anthopoulos maintained in July that he felt any growth in his rotation could come from in-house development – as you may have heard, the Braves have a slew of young pitchers – and he added Kevin Gausman not because he was a No. 1 or 2 but because he was a big arm who had two more years under a team-friendly contract.

The payroll will, Anthopoulos announced, increase next season. By how much, he doesn’t yet know – and when he does, he won’t advertise the number. It’s possible the Braves will see Nick Markakis and Kurt Suzuki exit as free agents. It’s also possible both will return, surely on short-term deals.

Bottom line: This will never be an organization that outspends the Dodgers and Yankees and Red Sox. “We’re now in a position where we have that flexibility,” Anthopoulos said. “We may decide to hold back money until July (meaning the trade deadline). … We’re still going to evaluate every deal. We’re not going to walk into a store because we have money in our pocket and just buy. I wouldn’t force a deal right now that would limit you in the years to come.”

That said, the Braves have changed. As Snitker said, “We’ve got that vibe I remember from years ago. It’s solid.”

The Braves enter this offseason in a far better place than they’ve been … heck, this century. They cannot, however, expect to stay good just because they’ve gotten good ahead of schedule. They’re now the team to beat in the NL East. They need to hit better and pitch better. They also need to walk fewer people. This isn’t to say that Hernandez was the sole cause of all those bases on balls. This is to say that the Braves were concerned enough to try something new. Good for them.