Monday, June 9, 2014

Fredi's Flaws

This weekend, the Braves fell in back-to-back games to drop a series to the Arizona Diamondbacks. It didn't have to happen like that, of course. Craig Kimbrel, fresh off a franchise record, blew a save in Saturday's game. Jason Heyward gave the Braves the lead in extras and they blew it again and ultimately lost. On Sunday, the Braves had a 2-0 lead after six-and-a-half with the help of a two-run homerun from Justin Upton and some lucky pitching from Aaron Harang, who had given up only two hits, but five walks in six innings.

The outing continued a string of underwhelming performances for Harang, whose start to the year had him the front-runner for the Comeback Player of the Year. However, since falling back to Earth on April 30th against the Marlins, Harang has a 5.01 ERA with outings that aren't often awful, but rarely that great. Basically, he's pitching like the fifth starter the Braves thought they would be getting. In his last two starts, he has walked ten in 12.2 ING. That won't get you very far even if you don't give up many hits.

However, the loss has been placed on the decision-making of Fredi Gonzalez. Seemingly every loss is put on Gonzalez and often, the criticism is either overstated or not even justified. Gonzalez is a manager, not the guy with the ball in his hand or the bat on his shoulders. Players have to play.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, the manager's primary job is to put his players in position to produce and succeed. Playing a bad defensive outfielder in center field might sometimes be a necessity, but it's often bad managing as well. Starting a veteran over a rookie simply because of "experience" might also be bad managing. In Sunday's game, the Braves manager's strategic flaws came to a head in an ugly couple of decisions.

On Saturday night, Gonzalez started Uggla. I went over my issues with that decision, but you could justify the decision if you badly wanted to do so. On Sunday, what was the justification for the decision to allow Harang to bat in the seventh inning? To set the scene, Atlanta was leading 2-0 and with two outs, Gerald Laird, who was getting the getaway start he often receives behind the plate, doubled to bring up the pitcher's spot with a chance to add a key third run. However, Gonzalez sent up Harang to bat for himself. With nearly 100 pitches in the tank and several disaster innings narrowly avoided, Gonzalez could have gone to a full bench, but chose instead to bank on Harang.

He struck out. Don't mistake me. Gonzalez wasn't banking on Harang provided an ounce of offense, he was counting on Harang to throw another inning.

In the bottom of the seventh, Aaron Hill rocketed a single to center. Gonzalez could have gone to the pen at that point. He could have played the "short leash" shtick that truly deserves to be retired. Either be confident in your decisions or get out of the business. You are paid to make decisions and letting the players make those decisions is gutless.

But even that managing process would have been better than sticking with Harang. Gonzalez felt the bullpen couldn't get the out and there is some truth to that as the bullpen has struggled of late, especially David Carpenter. Nevertheless, Harang, who labored through six innings with runners on all day, was not effective enough to deserve to be in there.

David Peralta hit a two-run homer to tie it up. Gonzalez still didn't get Harang out and he walked his final batter. Finally, Gonzalez acted, but his decisions didn't help either. Luis Avilan walked a batter and was gifted an out via a sacrifice bunt before David Hale was brought in to stop the bleeding. Imagine that...a guy who was a starter and now is your long reliever brought in to stop a rally. I know it sounds like Gonzalez was damned if he did and damned if he didn't, but it's much easier to score from first than home and putting the added stress on your pen to strand runners when you don't have to is a sign of a manager that lacks confidence and fortitude.

Despite all of this, the Braves had a chance to win in the end, but weren't able to scratch across one more run. However, they should have never been in that situation. You're supposed to win games when you have a two-run lead and nine outs to get. You're also supposed to make sensible decisions, including removing a starter that has struggled to locate. The Braves are a very good team. Most of the time, they will play like it. But their manager needs to play his part, however small, and decisions that are made or, worse, not made like what we saw in Sunday's game are concerning. Gonzalez is a graduate of the Bobby Cox School of Managing. However, he doesn't have a trio of aces to glossy over his poor decisions. Gonzalez must put his players in position to succeed. He failed at that Sunday. Hopefully, Monday is a different story.

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