It was one of those gorgeous winter days in Florida that makes everything seem better. The sun shined on the spring training home of the Pirates, the visiting Braves took batting practice and manager Brian Snitker explained why he loves his job.
“These guys help keep you young,” he said. “I feel good. I did my walk this morning. You are outside. You are with young people. You stay active. It’s pretty good. It’s not a bad gig.”
Snitker, 64, has never been more secure in his post. Soon after the Braves reported for spring training the team announced an extension of Snitker’s contract through 2021. The team already had a contract option on Snitker for next season. No need to wait. Snitker is their guy.
It hasn’t always been that way. Snitker was interim Braves manager in 2016. He got a one-year contract plus an option after that season. The Braves picked up the option for 2018 , but that probably wouldn’t have happened if the old front office weren’t forced out in the aftermath of being busted by MLB for malfeasance.
You know the rest. The Braves came out of nowhere to win the NL East in 2018. Snitker was voted NL Manager of the Year. The Braves gave him a two-year deal with the option, which now is a three-year deal. They won the East again in 2019.
From rebuilding to contending, Snitker has been a steady hand for the Braves.
“It’s all good,” Snitker said. “I’m enjoying it more. Obviously, we are doing better. That was a grind the first couple years trying to get this thing right. It wasn’t easy for anybody.”
Snitker can send out more good players now than he could back then. That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. They are just different. Some have bubbled up during the spring.
Snitker has to monitor Freddie Freeman’s surgically repaired elbow. Veteran lefty Cole Hamels still hasn’t started throwing, so Snitker must decide which pitcher gets his rotation spot to begin the season. Snitker will have to pick either Johan Camargo or Austin Riley to fill the hole at third base left by Josh Donaldson.
Those issues are relatively minor compared to what Snitker faced when he first moved to the big chair. Good players matter most for winning. Good managers might squeeze out a couple more wins from a bad team, but the players must produce. Snitker has everything else covered.
The Braves kept Snitker on as manager after the 2016 season in large part because they were 59-65 with Snitker, including 20-10 to close, after they’d been 9-28 with manager Fredi Gonzalez. At the time, I opined that it was hard to tell if the Braves improved because of Snitker’s leadership or if factors outside of his control were more important. That’s the tricky part about evaluating managers.
Strategy has a small effect on winning. Managers have little to no effect on how players produce. They do influence clubhouse chemistry, which matters, but how do you measure that? You can’t, which admittedly makes it hard for me to judge managers because I’m more comfortable with the tangible factors.
Watching Snitker work over the years has helped me better appreciate the importance of clubhouse intangibles. So, too, has hearing Braves general manager (and noted numbers guy) Alex Anthopoulos cite their importance. He frequently notes how players respond to Snitker’s character and people management skills, making the team add up to more than its parts.
I think that’s right. For two years the Braves have had a good team spirit that you could see even if you couldn’t put a number on it. Snitker credits players such as Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Nick Markakis for helping build that culture. Give Snitker credit, too.
“Managing personalities and talking to players,” Snitker said. “Being honest with them is the biggest thing. And understanding this is hard. This is a hard game to play.”
It’s good to see Snitker, a baseball lifer, get a chance to manage big-league teams with talent. The 2016 Braves didn’t have enough of it to compete. The 2017 Braves won four more games but, really, they didn’t have better players. But the prospects who started trickling into the clubhouse that year were a harbinger of things to come.
The influx of young talent helped the Braves win two division titles. That’s not enough anymore. The Braves haven’t won a postseason series since 2001, so World Series or bust seems a bit ambitious. It’s not far off, though.
“We expect to win,” Snitker said. “Internally, as individuals and as a team, our expectations are higher now.”
That’s with good reason. Donaldson is gone but Freeman and Ronald Acuna are MVP candidates. The bullpen is deeper. There’s enough organizational pitching depth that the rotation can be sorted out eventually.
Those are concrete reasons to think the Braves can finally make a postseason run. We won’t know about the stuff you can’t measure until the season gets going. On that front, Snitker likes what he sees in spring training.
“I can already tell,” Snitker said. “The base of that clubhouse is very strong. That’s part of the job, too, is that. That’s a big part of it.”
Snitker is good at that part. That’s why he’s got more job security. The Braves know they have a good manager to lead a good team.
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