Alex Anthopoulos on the playoffs: ‘At the end of the day, you need to pitch’

Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, left, and manager Brian Snitker celebrate the Braves' 4-2 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers to advance to the World Series in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Truist Park, Saturday Oct. 23, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, left, and manager Brian Snitker celebrate the Braves' 4-2 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers to advance to the World Series in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Truist Park, Saturday Oct. 23, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /

As Braves general manager, Alex Anthopoulos has built teams that have taken six consecutive division titles. The 2021 club, which by winning percentage was the worst of the lot, won the World Series. He was Toronto’s GM when the Blue Jays won the American League East in 2015. He was assistant GM for the Dodgers in 2016 and 2017, when they were National League West champs.

That makes nine consecutive postseasons in which Anthopoulos has had a vested interest. Not long ago, he shared – at great length – the fruits of his accumulated knowledge.

Q: What have you learned from your many postseason experiences?

A: I can look at all of those, right? In ‘17 in L.A., we went to the World Series. In ‘16 in L.A., we lost to the Cubs. In ‘15 in Toronto, we lost to the Royals. ‘18 here, eliminated first round. ‘19 here, eliminated first round. In ‘20, we get to Game 7 of the CS (League Championship Series). ‘21, we win the World Series. ‘22, eliminated in the first round. Moral of the story is that we’ve had every outcome there is. My view of it is, you’ve got to get there first. And when you get there, you’ve got a chance. The only time I thought we maybe weren’t as good as the other playoff clubs was 2018. That was the one time (I felt), “Happy to be here, had a wonderful year,” but felt undermanned compared to the Dodgers and some of the other teams. Every other year, you felt you had a team capable of going to and winning the World Series.

You just don’t know. Are guys going to be healthy? Are guys going make an error? Is a ball going to fall in? I could go through all (five) in Atlanta, and I could pinpoint plays that are to our advantage and plays that didn’t go our way that could have changed the outcome of the series.

Q: Because this team has been so dominant, do you go in with a stronger feeling about it?

A: I think you go in feeling every postseason is totally different. I definitely have spent more time studying ‘21 because that was the only World Series I’ve been a part of that we won. It’s human nature to think, “That was the year we won. What was the formula?”

Q: Buy a whole new outfield?

A: (Laughs.) Exactly. I think my big takeaway from that is that you need a great bullpen. Part of the (Raisel) Iglesias acquisition last year was that this (was) going to make our bullpen that much deeper and shorten up starts. What I didn’t account for at the time was that our rotation was not healthy or not sharp and we couldn’t get to the bullpen. You can have the greatest bullpen in the world, but if you’re down three, four runs, it doesn’t matter. In that World Series run, in 11 wins we gave up 18 total runs. As much as we could talk about all the homers, at the end of the day you need to pitch.

Q: You’ve been in baseball for a while. Is this year’s lineup as good as you’ve ever seen?

A: I never viewed it that way, not once. Candidly, at the deadline we were exploring all kinds of things – bullpen, rotation. At one point, we said, “Why don’t we try to add more offense?” We actually pushed pretty hard in trying to add a middle-of-the-order bat. Yeah, it didn’t happen. There’s a lot of ways to win: You can either prevent runs or score more runs. The name of the game is to score more runs than the other team.

I’ve seen all the numbers, definitely the home run totals. But the lesson from 2018 was that we didn’t have enough power, and that led to the (Josh) Donaldson acquisition. After we lost him, that led to the (Marcell) Ozuna acquisition. Even my last year in Toronto, we had plenty of power – three MVP candidates in the middle of the lineup. I feel like we’ve had strong offensive clubs. I don’t know where we rank in the six years since I’ve been here, but at least in the last five I’ve felt like we had deep offensive clubs. It’s definitely been a staple of what we’ve tried to do.

I’ve never once thought, “Wow, this lineup …” I think it’s a really good lineup, and that’s not to take anything away from them – I know the numbers – but I look at some of those other lineups – 2019, 2020, 2021 – I think those lineups were great, too. Look at that World Series lineup. I understand statistically that what (this team) has done is historic.

Q: Having grown up around Cincinnati, I remember the Big Red Machine. For lineups, that’s my point of comparison. Their fifth-best player was George Foster, the 1977 National League MVP.

A: I know our guys. I’ve been around them. There’s not a lot of new faces. (Eddie) Rosario has been around for a while. (Orlando) Arcia has been around for a while. Sean Murphy is obviously new. Everyone else has been here. I look at the Phillies’ lineup, the Dodgers’ lineup – those are great lineups, too. I understand statistically we rank in certain spots, but we’ve had moments we’ve been shut down many times over the year. It doesn’t guarantee anything. I know people talk about the home run record the Twins set in 2019, but they didn’t win the World Series. That doesn’t guarantee anything. You need to have a complete (team).

People talk about ‘21. If they’d had an MVP of the first round, Joc Pederson could have won it with his pinch-hit home run. Rosario won the CS MVP. (Jorge) Soler won it (in the World Series). But as much as those three offensive players were MVP, the bullpen could easily have won the MVP as well.

Q: Do you have a good feeling about this year’s bullpen?

A: Yeah. I do. I could tell you that, going into the ‘21 playoffs, we still felt we could get better. We called up Dylan Lee at the end of the year, and we called up (Spencer) Strider. It was essentially a quick tryout to see if they could make the roster. Strider didn’t; he had two outings against the Mets on a Friday-Sunday. We were looking for a power arm from the right side. Luke Jackson was our only righty reliever. (Jesse) Chavez was the second. We had a bunch of left-handers. Even as good as Tyler Matzek was, he had an up-and-down season. There was a game we lost against the Pirates; he walked in the winning run.

We absolutely have the talent to have a strong bullpen. Guys need to lock in and get hot. Will Smith had an up-and-down year (in 2021), and he didn’t blow a save, didn’t give up a run in the postseason. Eddie Rosario didn’t hit .600 in the season; he did in the CS. As good as Jorge Soler was, I think he was 1-for-11 in the Brewers series, and then he missed the CS pretty much – he got COVID. The sample sizes are small. Matt Olson set the Braves’ franchise record for home runs; just before he went on a tear, he went 18 games without a home run. That can happen to anybody.

Q: Are you superstitious?

A: I want to say no. I would say more no than yes. But when the rubber meets the road, if I think it’ll help …

Q: When Stan Kasten was the Braves’ president, he was listening to a playoff game driving home and wound up going 20 miles past his house. He couldn’t stop because the team was rallying.

A: I would say I absolutely get nervous to the point I can’t watch and I’ll want to listen on the radio or I’ll (check) the MLB app. It’s much harder to watch than to see green or red or “in play” on the app. Or listen on the radio. I did that in 2021. There were moments I couldn’t watch, moments I got in the car and drove. I remember where I was for much of the CS against the Dodgers, and it wasn’t at Truist Park. Because I couldn’t take it. Even though I had no control, I was powerless. It was just too hard to watch.

Q: You couldn’t attend the final three games of the World Series after testing positive.

A: I don’t have to test anymore. (Being there) just wasn’t meant to be. We got a ring, and that’s all I cared about.

Q: Standing on the field in Houston during the celebration, I looked at the stage and thought, “Someone’s missing.” We didn’t yet know you had COVID.

A:I didn’t want to take away the moment for anybody else. I didn’t want to be a distraction or a story. I didn’t need anybody to know until they got through. Just because I couldn’t be out there on the stage in that moment, no one else should have had to pause, thinking, “Oh, the GM’s not there – he got COVID.” I didn’t want to ruin it for anybody else.

Q: At what point in 2021 did you think, “We’re really going to do this”?

A: When Freddie (Freeman) hit the home run to left-center field. That put us up 7-zero (in the seventh inning of Game 6 of the World Series). Even when we were up six, you’re still worried, right? Right when he hit it, I told my wife, “I think we’re going to win the World Series.” (That was) the first time I ever really thought it. Because I’ve seen it happen too many times. You blow a lead, things happen, the Astros are a tremendous team. Then you’re looking at a Game 7, and who knows what happens?

Q: That night, I asked Brian Snitker when he began to believe his 88-win team was onto something. He said after you went up 2-0 in the Dodger series.

A: Wow. Oh, I was nervous the whole time. I could never get (confident) with the Dodgers series because we had a 3-1 lead the year before. I know this sounds crazy, but (winning the LCS) was more of a relief. We had struggled so much against L.A. and had such heartbreaking losses. To think about that happening to us again, and then you start thinking about (the history of) Atlanta sports: “Oh, we’re really going to be the topic.” And even that Game 6, was the final score 4-2?

Q: It was.

A: Tyler Matzek got through the seventh and the eighth. Will Smith came in for the ninth. It’s a two-run lead. Anything can happen. For me, the World Series … I just remember being so relaxed. I couldn’t be more stressed than I was in the L.A. series.

Q: Well, you’d worked there.

A: It wasn’t that. It was just that we had lost (to L.A.) in ‘18. That wasn’t a surprise necessarily. The heartbreak of ‘20 was so severe. It was such a crushing series loss, and to think for that to happen again … Look, they’re such a well-run organization, great team. That was a mountain we needed to climb.

Q: You’re not wearing your championship ring.

A: Oh, I don’t ever wear it. Not because I’m not proud of it. I just don’t want to look like I’m being arrogant or boasting. I would wear it if I had someone else to wear it with. I wouldn’t want it to look like I’m showing off. If there was an event where everyone else is wearing a championship ring, I would wear it. Not offending anybody who wears a ring, it just doesn’t fit my personality. It feels for me very much like, “Look at me,” and that’s just not the way I’m wired.

Q: Looking beyond this postseason – I know that’s hard to do – but are you comfortable with this team going forward?

A: I worry about it all the time. I’m stressing about moving forward, probably in an unhealthy manner. It’s hard to sustain success. Six in a row is crazy to me. I worry about ‘24, ‘25. I’ve seen really successful franchises, and I know that one down year, things can change quickly. And I know how competitive the ownership in our division is, how well-run these front offices are. … It’s one of the rare divisions where all five teams are going to be gunning for the playoffs. Just getting to the postseason is really hard. I know the expectation of our fan base is for this to continue. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with that, self-imposed.

I know our community wants us to have a chance to win the World Series every year. No matter who you are in sports, having a six-year run is a great run. Can we sustain it another two, three, four, five, six? I hope so. That’s definitely what we’re trying to do, but I worry about it a lot.

Q: What’s your contract situation?

A: My (last) contract that was announced was expiring in ‘24 … My personal preference is that no one would ever know what my contractual status is. But I can tell you I expect to be here as long as (team chairman) Terry McGuirk is here, and he wants me in this role. As long as he wants me and he’s here as the control person, I expect to be here.

Q: Do you care about winning executive of the year?

A: No. I won it in Toronto (in 2015), and it was the day I left the organization, and I didn’t ever realize it. (Team patriarch) Pat Gillick is a Hall of Famer, and I was the first person in Blue Jays history to have won it. That shocked me. How does Pat Gillick not have 10 of them? Not to take anything away from it. It’s rewarding because it comes from your peers. I never thought about it. It was totally the last thing on my mind at that moment. It was nice. But the biggest thing for me is doing a job that people are proud of the work you’ve done. The No. 1 thing for me is that the employees of the Braves are proud of the team and the fan base is proud of the team.

Q: Have there been times – not just this year, but maybe especially this year – when you look at your team and think, “We’re pretty darn good”?

A: I think I’m just always in the moment. Sometimes I tell myself, “I’m not enjoying this the way I should.” I know we’re having success. I know this is great. The most rewarding thing for me is when fans come up to me, whether it’s at my kids’ sporting events or the airport, and they thank you for how much they enjoy the team. It’s source of pride and entertainment. That’s probably the most important thing. But I’m constantly worried about, “How’s this going to look a year from now?” Whenever my career is over, maybe at that point I’ll look back.

But to be completely honest, it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business … I remember the first half of ‘21. I don’t think anyone was really excited about the way the Braves were playing. We’d just come off three division titles in a row, Game 7 of the CS and we weren’t playing well. I didn’t have too many people coming up to me saying how excited they were. You don’t get to bank any success. Even the World Series. You win the World Series and it’s great in that moment and for 10 days, and then it’s on to the next one.

I think the joy you get is for yourself. You have to understand it’s sports, and one bad year, two bad months, you’re old news. And I’m not upset about that. I understand it’s reality.

Q: Do you go into a postseason confident? Or nervous?

A: I think the longer I do it, the less nervous I am about it. Snit talks about how John Schuerholz would say his No. 1 responsibility was to get the team to the postseason, which is obviously hard. When the games start, am I nervous? Sure. But because I’ve been fortunate enough to experience a lot of postseason play, I know how quickly things can change. I look at our 2015 team in Toronto. That team could easily have won the World Series; it didn’t happen. 2020, that (Braves) team could have won the World Series; that didn’t happen. ‘21 was the year it happened. I thought we had a great team in ‘22 and it didn’t happen.

I’ve come to understand that things happen in short series in playoffs. That’s not to make excuses if you don’t win, but realistically you’re not going to win the World Series each year. The goal is to be a postseason club. At least you’re giving yourself a chance each year, and once it starts, let the chips fall where they may.

Q: So you don’t look at this as, “This is our best team – we’d better win it all with our best team”?

A: No, because I’ve had other GMs tell me, “This was our best team’ or “That was our best team.” Bobby Cox told me his best team didn’t win the World Series. I just don’t think it works that way. The Mariners won 116 games (in 2001). Remember some of the Philadelphia teams – Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, they lost to (St. Louis’) Chris Carpenter 1-0. The No. 1 goal is to make the postseason every year so you have a chance. And then, once you get in, hope that you’re healthy and hope you’re prepared.

We talk about controlling what you can control: It’s the biggest cliché in sports. But it’s true. If you have no regrets about your prep … I know Snit and the coaches and the players will do everything they can; we’ll do everything we can as a front office. But if an error happens or a ball falls in or the other team plays well, you’ve got to tip your cap. The unfortunate thing is that 12 teams make the postseason, and only one’s going to be happy.