One item not discussed in yesterday’s look at the Braves’ to-do list involves manager Brian Snitker, whose contact is expiring. The reason for the omission: This one’s a fait accompli. A new (and longer) deal should be announced any minute, and this time this correspondent would take no issue. Snitker has earned it. He’ll be the National League’s manager of the year on merit.
My previous reservations over Snitker’s continuing employment had less to do with the man himself – nobody in this world doesn’t like Brian Snitker – but with circumstances. He became interim manager after Fredi Gonzalez was fired in May 2016. That was a time when the Braves were on place to lose more than 120 games. That lousy team eventually steadied as much as a lousy team can, and it exited Turner Field having gone 18-10 in September/October.
The managerial coalition of John Hart and John Coppolella were duly impressed and deeply grateful. (Hart especially.) The Two Johns were also torn. Snitker was a Braves’ lifer. He also was a 60-year-old who – let’s be honest – had never been seen as big-league managerial material until a torn-down team went belly-up on Fredi G. The Two Johns (Hart especially) tried to balance their sense of appreciation with down-the-road pragmatism. They gave Snitker a one-year contract with a team option for Year 2.
Translation: They liked Snitker – as noted, nobody doesn’t – but they weren’t sure he was the man to take the Braves where they needed to go. They came very close to hiring Bud Black, who was available. (I’m told the decision was a 51-49 thing.) Instead they chose to commit to Snitker without really committing.
I always considered that one-year deal a half-measure at best and a backhanded compliment at worst. When the 2017 season began in halting fashion, that one year seemed all Snitker would be asked to serve. With 10 days to go in the regular season, the whispers – which were much louder than whispers – held that he was gone, baby, gone. Then another remarkable thing happened.
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On the next-to-last week of the regular season, Snitker had a cards-on-the-table meeting with the Two Johns. (Here we note that Hart, once a Snitker semi-believer, had descended on the clubhouse to scream at the manager for allowing Jim Johnson, who had nothing left, to blow a lead against Seattle on Aug. 23. (As much as Hart was something of a non-presence around SunTrust Park, he also was a terrible loser.)
When that morning session ended, the Johns (Hart especially) were leaning toward keeping their manager. That was, however, another 51-49 call, and it might swung the other way had external forces not intervened.
Mark Bowman of MLB.com wrote last week that Coppolella, usually the more diplomatic of the Johns, was upset that Snitker had used Matt Kemp, on whom the general manager had soured completely, as a pinch-hitter in Miami on the final Friday of the season. Bowman reports that Snitker called a clubhouse worker in Atlanta to say, “Pack my things. I’m not coming back.”
On Saturday, Oct. 1, Coppolella was summoned to Atlanta and informed of the charges MLB was prepared to bring against him for misdoings in the international signing market. By Sunday night, the GM was out. The announcement of his departure came Monday afternoon. By Monday night, Hart had decided to keep Snitker – not to extend him; just to exercise the one-year option – as a nod to continuity. By mid-November, Hart himself was gone.
These two Octobers of back-and-forth’ing didn’t place the stamp of legitimacy on Snitker. On the contrary, he remained the Accidental Manager. Last September, these fallible fingers typed a little something bearing the headline, “Why Brian Snitker isn’t the right manager for the Braves’ future.” I believed that then. I do not believe it now.
The job Snitker did this season was first-rate. He took a team that had forgotten how to win and won a division title – by eight big fat games. He made the galvanizing decision to bat Ronald Acuna, maybe the biggest non-Trout talent in baseball, leadoff. He found an everyday eight – actually nine, counting the catching platoon – and mostly stuck with it, though he interspersed in liberal doses of Charlie Culberson. He got great mileage from a rotation of young guys coming into their own and retreads.
My biggest quibble with Snitker is that he can be a beat slow to change pitchers, but even that quibble bears an asterisk. He has never had Dellin Betances or Andrew Miller or Craig Kimbrel at his disposal. These Braves would end up omitting five relievers who’d made 35-plus appearances from the NLDS roster. I won’t pretend that I agree with every pitching change (or non-change) Snitker makes, but no manager bats 1.000 – or even .650 – on those.
More to the point: He has ceased being a caretaker. This is his team. The guys-like-playing-for-him line never much moved me when those guys were losing 90 games, but they’re winning now. There’s no reason to change what’s working, but that’s not the most compelling reason to keep Snitker. The reason to keep him is that he has helped make this work.
The hope/expectation is that management will treat him like a Real Manager this time and give him nothing less than a three-year contract. He has had 2-2/3 seasons to audition for the job. My fear last September was that Snitker wasn’t the right guy for the Braves’ future, but that future is here and he just went 90-72.
Sometimes a manager deploys a reliever who yields a home run. Sometimes a writer offers an opinion that, over the fullness of time, appears rather less sagacious. Consider this my mea culpa.