A baseball man of my acquaintance insists there’s only one difference-making manager working, the one being Baltimore’s Buck Showalter. I’d include Joe Maddon, lately of the Cubs, and I’d suggest Bruce Bochy of San Francisco has made a difference in three of the past five Octobers. But I take the man’s point.
It’s my belief that nearly every manager would, with a given roster, do the same strategic stuff. Some might bunt a bit more, and some would be less inclined to let a starter wriggle out of a sixth-inning pickle, but nobody who’s handed a big-league club is apt to deploy Prince Fielder in center field. You summon your lefty to face their lefty. You call for your closer with a ninth-inning lead. Rocket science it ain’t.
Over a long baseball season, managerial difference-making has more to do with handling people than with ordering a double steal. Fredi Gonzalez earned his one-year contract extension, announced by the Braves on Friday, because he can handle people.
That Fredi G. is never described as a master tactician is no glaring omission. How splendid a schemer is Mike Scioscia, in his 16th season of managing the Angels? Are we to believe Bobby Cox, Gonzalez’s predecessor/mentor, is enshrined in Cooperstown due to his dexterity with double switches?
I cringe at the memory of the 2013 NLDS being lost on David Carpenter’s eighth-inning breaking ball to Juan Uribe — now a Brave; small world — when Gonzalez had Craig Kimbrel warming. I note that he has presided over two September crashes: The 2011 Braves blew a wild-card berth by going 9-18; the 2014 version went 7-18. Those are lasting blotches on this manager’s copybook.
But check the expanded standings on ESPN.com. You’ll find a column labeled “EXWL,” which means “expected wins/losses.” (Also known as the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball.) A Bill James innovation, it’s essentially a measure of runs scored against runs yielded, which the sultan of sabermetrics deemed a better reflector of a team’s worth than winning percentage.
Through the All-Star break, Gonzalez’s record as Braves manager was 400-337. That was seven games better than his “expected” record of 393-344. Only once over 4 1/2 seasons – in 2013, when his Braves won 96 games and the National League East — has his team not outperformed (albeit slightly) its run differential. When that keeps happening, it’s an indication the manager is holding up his end.
This year’s Braves coulda/shoulda been out of contention in May, but five days before the break they were poised to nose above .500. They wasted a four-run lead and lost in Milwaukee and were swept in Denver, but really: Wasn’t such a slide inevitable? (Water does seek its level.)
Nobody thought this team would do much, its architects included. What impressed John Hart, the president of baseball operations, was that his inherited manager never once said — over an offseason that saw the exporting of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and Kimbrel — “How am I supposed to win with this?”
On Friday, the day he and his coaches received their official extensions, Gonzalez said: “You feel enough confidence in yourself and your coaching staff that you believe we can win games.”
And his relationship with Hart? “He’s great. How many organizations would make a move (the extensions) like this in the middle of the season? That shows loyalty; that’s what John Schuerholz calls the gold standard.”
One of the reasons Gonzalez has gone along with the Braves’ addling array of moves — they made two more Friday, acquiring pitchers Jason Frasor and Ross Detwiler — is that he knows what’s coming. “I’ve been involved in every decision,” he said. “John shoots you a text saying, ‘What do you think of this?’”
If Fredi G. isn’t the best manager in baseball, he’s closer to the top than the bottom. He’s no pushover. Note that Chris Johnson, who didn’t run hard on what should have been a double in Colorado, didn’t play the next day. Note also that Julio Teheran, the opening-day starter, was pulled Friday with two out in the fifth because, as Gonzalez said, “nothing I was watching made me feel good about the at-bat right there (with Anthony Rizzo).”
Fredi G. has done better than anyone could have expected with a team in reset mode, and he wasn’t the reason for the resetting. If he’s allowed to stick around, he could well be a reason for the rebirth.