There are people we love to love, and there are people we love to hate. Then there is Fredi Gonzalez.
The recent news of his contract extension through 2016 (with an option for 2017) highlights just how emotionally conflicted the Atlanta Braves fan base is concerning the team’s skipper, with reactions ranging from cheers of jubilation to series of puking memes.
For full disclosure, I was once a card-carrying member of the #firefredi club. But my views have tempered to a more mellow meh lined with a hopeful glimmer.
Here is my progression of thought:
The Horrible, No Good, Very Bad 2011 Season
Fredi G. was just the worst his first season with the Braves. The 2011 season “collapse” was worth forgetting, and our skipper captained that sinking ship into a powder keg and blew it to pieces. There is much anecdotal evidence of how awful he was. Two that come most quickly to memory are bench utilization (highlighted by playing Jose Constanza over the much superior Jason Heyward), and most infamously his bullpen usage (highlighted by the parody flow chart that was a little too hard to tell apart from his actual bullpen utilization).
But my issue with Fredi in 2011 could be summed up in one phrase: “gut-reliance.” Fredi stated publicly that he relies on his gut when making decisions, and in 2011, his gut told him to follow the Old School Manager’s Book for Managing, even when it didn’t make sense in the context of a specific situation. For instance, there is this gem from an interview with David O’Brien following a game early in his Braves’ tenure. In the game, Fredi skipped over an available Eric O’Flaherty, deciding instead to protect a one-run lead in the 7th with the much inferior arm of Scott Proctor (who gave up the lead in a game the Braves would eventually lose in the 11th):
When you’re on the road, you’ve got to push guys back a little bit, because you can’t use your closer on the road in the ninth inning of a tie ballgame.
I am rational enough to know there are reasons not to pitch a guy; maybe there is an undisclosed injury, or maybe the guy needs a night off. But Fredi himself gave a reason based squarely in an unbendable, unproven mantra. Also, the quote implies he was concerned about extending a close game “just in case” it was tied later on instead of worrying about protecting the lead late in a game THEY WERE WINNING!
After the September collapse, the Braves were left one game out of the playoffs, and a lot of people called for Fredi’s head. Not all the collapse fell to Fredi, but some of it did, and the fans were quick to point to the strategic blundering and his inability to hold the team together down the stretch.
For many fans, that blundering image carried forward into the next year and the next. Unfortunately for Fredi, first impressions are hard to shake, and the collapse in the first season left a very bad taste with many fans, including me…and obviously that kid in the photo above. But I challenge any Braves fan look me in the eye and tell me you didn’t cry, too. That’s what I thought.
Baby Steps Forward
However, perception is not always reality. The thing about people is that they are capable of change, and in my opinion Fredi has shown a willingness to learn from his mistakes. I don’t think people whose bias was shaped by the 2011 collapse give him enough credit for this.
As much as the Fredi haters want to cling to their first impression in order to build their case by inconsistently nit-picking every bias-confirming managerial decision, he has changed to be a little less rigid in how he follows the old school mantras. He’s even made some decisions that have been downright new school. He’s not doing it all the time, and he really doesn’t seem to grasp how to apply the newer statistics in the context of the game situation, but there are ways that I have noticed Fredi trying to grow in a good (in my opinion) direction.
For instance, compare the following blurb from The Score to the quote cited earlier:
It’s a bit unusual that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez elected to use Grilli in extra innings in a tie game on the road rather than holding him back to protect any lead they might get in the top half of a frame, but it worked out for Atlanta. Grilli now has a solid 3.22 ERA and 29:8 K:BB ratio in 22.1 innings, and the biggest threat to his spot as the team’s closer is the possibility that he’ll get dealt before the trade deadline.
There is an entire debate about how to use the “closer,” and that’s neither here nor there for my current point (but this is an easy read for the right answer). The point is that Fredi has shown a willingness – on several occasions the last couple of years – to do something very “sabery” and very opposed to his own recent thinking on bullpen management. The idea of using a closer outside of the ninth in a non-save situation is scoffed at by managers (and many others). Fredi was one of those managers, but now he is not.
One more example is sacrifice bunts. I watch a decent Braves hitter bunt a guy over and grumble about how frequently Fredi uses this strategy. The general managing philosophy is that it is productive to bunt with a runner on first and less than two outs in order to get the runner into scoring position. The data derived from real baseball games shows, however, that giving up an out reduces the probability of a run scoring more than moving the runner up increases it (depending on the hitter quality, of course, which is why it’s still usually a good idea to employ this strategy with pitchers). In other words, even if the sacrifice is successful, it generally reduces the chances of a run scoring.
But this is less an example of Fredi’s growth and more an example of how my bias lead to a perception that did not reflect reality. Fredi has almost always been well below league average in sacrifice bunts by non-pitchers. The one year he wasn’t was 2011.
Sac Bunts: Fredi versus the NL
* Fredi was fired by the Marlins on June 26, 2010
This year he has an ideal “get ’em on, get ’em over, get ’em in” team, and they are on a similar pace with 11 successful non-pitcher sacrifice bunts 55% of the way through the season, a similar pace to the prior three years.
Don’t take these few instances of praise as me hailing Fredi as the next John Farrell or Joe Maddon. There are still plenty of head scratchers that show he doesn’t quite get it, such as Chris Johnson starting against a right hander despite a larger sample of data showing he can’t hit them, but a small sample showing he went 2-for-3 one time against Pitcher X in Park Y. And I wonder if he’s ever even heard the term “leverage.” But there are positive signs that Fredi is not going to dig his heels in. He’s willing to learn and grow, and that’s important.
The final piece, and perhaps the most important, is how much managers matter. When we think back to the collapse of 2011, we like to point to the overtaxed bullpen that Fredi mismanaged; however, we tend not to remember that Tommy Hanson was lost to injury late in the season (August 6th), and others such as Jair Jurrjens struggled with health and performance in the final month. The team’s best player that year, Brian McCann, missed more than two weeks with an injury, returning in mid-August to hit only .180/.292/.346 (73 wRC+) down the stretch. It is hard to find fault with Fredi for these injuries, but the impact of the players’ struggles on the field far outweighed Fredi’s in-game strategic shortcomings.
Last year, Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEightSports analyzed manager impact on player performance. He based manager impact on how well the player actually performed under that manager compared to how well the player was expected to perform that season. While there are multiple variables that could impact that performance gap other than the manager, his findings were pretty consistent with the general research into the area.
…if we look at effects on player performance, it’s evident that hardly any manager can distinguish himself from his counterparts. Based on my analysis, 95 percent of all managers are worth somewhere between -2 and +2 wins per 162 games. Last year alone, 21 batters and seven pitchers were worth more to their teams than nearly every manager of the last 112 years.
In terms of “in game strategy,” the managers have a lot less impact on the overall success of a season than we like to think. Maybe we should consider this more when we tear apart every decision a manager makes that leads to a bad outcome. (It’s not always the wrong decision, but even the right strategical decision is maligned if it leads to a bad outcome).
Another Good Move by John Hart?
Classifying this extension as a good move might be a little strong, but I think it is reasonable for the front office to stick with Fredi. If a chance comes along to hire a stronger strategist who can also manage the clubhouse well, then take it. The cost of firing him and paying him not to manage for a year will be much less than we are paying Dan Uggla, Carlos Quentin and Trevor Cahill not to play this year (a combined $26 million), and at worst he will have a minimal negative impact on the record, unlike Uggla or Melvin Upton. Sure, I’d love to see a field manager for the Braves who is adept at taking statistical probabilities and applying them to a specific game situation. (I think Fredi struggles more with tying these two components together than anything.) But if hypothetical manager guy isn’t a real option right now, then stick with Fredi. I think with his growth, he is at worst a break even manager, a safe play.
To me, managing the clubhouse over a long season is more important to the success of the team than in-game strategy, and Fredi appears to do that well. I would much prefer to have a mediocre strategist who holds the team together than a strong strategist with the personality of Ozzie Guillen or Bobby Valentine. Those type of managers cause more problems than they solve (and this is the reason I have concerns about people championing Chipper Jones as a future manager).
It’s interesting that Paine’s analysis highlighted Bobby Cox as one of the best at having players outperform expectations. He is a known disciple of “old school” strategy, and Fredi’s managerial guru, but he is also known to run a strong clubhouse and work well with the players.
It might surprise some people that a guy like me who leans toward statistics values the hard to quantify qualities in a manager more than the more quantifiable impacts of in-game strategy. But I do this in part because the numbers tend to indicate that in-game strategy plays a smaller role in team success than we like to think while criticizing managerial decisions, and whatever your armchair managerial philosophy, we all like to flex our hindsight bias when telling our Facebook groups and chat rooms (if anyone still uses those) what the manager “obviously” should have done.
Fredi does a good job of managing the clubhouse and an adequate job of managing the games. For all those still waving their Fire Freditiot flags, I ask you to consider the options and find an available manager who can do as good job of managing the clubhouse and a better job of managing the games. Until that person comes along, just put the flag down and walk away. Sure, continue giving Fredi a hard time when he bats Chris Johnson against a righty, or brings his worst pitcher into a high leverage situation because it’s only the sixth – I will – but criticize with the understanding that Fredi is showing some growth, and with the understanding that the “season changing” blunder he made likely isn’t as big a deal as we think it is. I mean, who knows, the Braves might have lost that playoff game against the Dodgers even if Craig Kimbrel had pitched to Juan Uribe. (I know, still too soon. Some stings don’t fade.)
I claimed “gut-reliance” was one of my major issues with Fredi’s managing in 2011. Really, though, gut reliance is data driven. It is simply using a heuristic – a mental shortcut – to make a quick decision from what is readily available in the memory. Fredi’s “gut-memory” often relies on bad sources (oft used rules of thumb that are proven by data to be less effective) and limited data (less robust statistics and small sample sizes). My hope is that as sabermetrics becomes more integrated into the game and the data becomes more accessible and well understood, he learns from it and allows that to inform his gut. Maybe, just maybe, his gut will start leading him to more reliable decisions. Therein lies the hopeful glimmer.
As a final note, my personal preference is not to change managers, but to hire a special assistant to the manager who is very well versed in the statistical probabilities of run creation and run prevention based on different scenarios. Have that person in the dugout advising Fredi as he needs it throughout the game, but allow Fredi to retain final decision-making authority. He could call him his gut trainer. Maybe this gut trainer could convince Fredi of the value of a defensive shift while he’s at it…I know, I know, it’s probably not as big of a deal as I think it is.