What’s next? That’s always the question, isn’t it? Fans argued for weeks – really years – whether Fredi Gonzalez should stay or go as manager of the Atlanta Braves. But now that he is actually gone, what’s next?
A Look Back to Move Forward
Fellow OFR writer Brent Blackwell takes a look back at Fredi Gonzalez, digging into some of his strengths and weaknesses as the former manager. In this article, I want to look forward by digging into the qualifications the Braves need to find in their next manager (and at the end I’ll throw out a name I like that I haven’t heard a lot, and a name I don’t like that I’m tired of hearing). But in looking forward, I do need to touch on the Fredi Gonzalez era of Braves baseball in the context of what is expected of managers.
When people irrationally shouted for Gonzalez’s head every time a pitcher was pulled too early or left in too long, I didn’t defend Fredi. Instead, I asked, “if not Fredi, then who?”
It’s easy to blame, but it’s much harder to find someone who could perform his difficult job significantly better. And that’s the real issue, isn’t it?
Fans tend to overestimate the impact of in-game strategy on the outcome of games, and seasons. Fans also tend to underestimate the importance of managing the many personalities in the clubhouse. If we point to Craig Kimbrel standing in the bullpen as an example of the former, then we also have to point to the story of how Fredi handled the unintended email foreshadowing his firing as an example of the latter.
Fredi Gonazalez is a good guy who can control his emotions and roll with the punches in a high stress situation, and to an extent, that’s what a manager has to do day-in-and-day-out. But he also demonstrated some “old school” tendencies and strategic shortcomings that held him back from separating from the managerial pack.
Firing Gonzalez has always been an acceptable outcome for me, not because I thought he was a terrible manager, but because he wasn’t much better than everyone else and sometimes a change is nice. However, I’ve also been mostly okay with keeping him because he wasn’t much worse than everyone else. When people hopped on the #firefredi train, I wasn’t so quick to hitch a ride because I didn’t know where the train was headed. It is the more important question that often was lost in the #firefredi fanaticism: what’s next?
Are the Braves closing in on the next Joe Maddon with a unique, outside the box hire that propels them into the new age of analytic managing, possibly pulling a bench coach from Maddon or Bruce Bochy? Are the Braves going to continue on “the Braves way” with one of the many in-house options, such as interim manager Brian Snitker or former player Mark DeRosa? Are they going with a safe outside pick that’s really just more of the same traditional approach, such as Bud Black? Could the Braves do even worse and hire a fire-starter like Ozzie Guillen who burns the whole thing down?
It’s easy to speculate by throwing out random names. The virtual Braves world is flooded with them already, but I want to thoughtfully consider “what’s next” by outlining the qualifications we should demand to see in the next person to take the helm of the Atlanta Braves. The Braves are at a crucial junction if they are to reascend the mountain of success; they do not need a “maintainer” but a leader who can help a young team gel and take steps upward with the many talented pieces collected during the rebuild.
The following list is the qualifications in order of importance:
1. Relationship Formation
Forming positive relationships is the most important job of a manager. It’s hard to quantify the importance of forming a strong working relationship with others inside and outside of the organization, but this overarching variable has at least as much impact as in-game strategy. In fact, it has more. If you can’t relate and build a “front of the jersey” approach with buy-in from the front office through the 40th man, then it does not matter how effective the strategy is.
Forming relationships also must extend outside the clubhouse. Managers must keep a team focused on the job rather than distracted by the never-ending circus surrounding them, whether that comes in the form of player conflict, team performance, front office meddling or media scrutiny. The manager must take as much of the circus on himself and not allow it to permeate the focus and culture he is building in the clubhouse.
The Braves need a leader who can relate to a group of young players and mold them into a team. The Braves must consider how well a candidate can form strong relationships, not just with players, but with the front office, coaches, scouts, fans, and the media.
2. The Right Personality
This ties to the ability to form relationships, but also stands alone. Think of it as qualification 1b. Too many fans want a manager who is as emotionally unstable as they are (when it comes to sports, anyway). They want a manager lighting fires under players and letting umpires know what’s what. These powder keg managers do not make the team better. Managers, like Ozzie Guillen, who are unable to control their emotions and carefully select their words, let alone keep the ship steady, let the many fires that are lit through the season spread out of the clubhouse into the press and onto the field. There are plenty of fires in a clubhouse. The fact that fans can complain there isn’t enough “fire” is a sign that the manager is doing a great job of keeping them under control and out of the public. Bobby Cox would get emotional, but it was (almost) always for one of two reasons: He was taking heat off of a player, or the call was wrong. He had the ability to let his emotion go at the right time, with the right words, and his players loved him for it. But that emotional balancing act is hard to control, and I’d rather have a more stable Gonzalez than ride a roller coaster like Guillen.
A manager has to have a calm, but strong, personality that is soft enough for players to feel heard and appreciated, but strong enough to let players know who is in charge…without having to say, “I’m in charge!” A manager has to have the important elements of self-control and patience. A manager has to lead by example in setting the tone for open communication that doesn’t allow grievances to build and infect of the clubhouse.
The Braves need a manager with a strong enough personality to put out fires and keep the team focused on the bigger team goals, but also soft enough to build up the egos of the youth while stroking the egos of the veterans, and discerning enough to know when to do which with what player.
3. In-Game Strategist
This is an area where a few managers stand apart from the pack. People hear Joe Maddon’s name and they think, “Oh, he’s one of those managers using ‘the sabermetrics,’” and that’s true. A good in-game strategy needs to rely on the best data currently available, not “old school” anecdotes, small sample size matchups, and “gut.”
But there is more to strategy than having a good grasp of the data. There is also an understanding of how to apply the data to the specific situation. The data allows a manager to know what decision will have the best probable outcome based on a large sample of actual game outcomes, but the data does not consider the immediate context, such as individual player ability or individual player health. Scouting and general knowledge of the game and its players are still key components of strategy. There are many variables that a manager has to take into account along with the statistical probabilities in order to make the best decision for that specific situation. Most managers do a decent job, but a few separate themselves from the pack by having a tendency to quickly weigh all the variables – from statistics to scouting to health – and come out ahead a little more frequently.
The Braves need to find a manager who is able to consider quickly all the data in context of the specific game situation in order to give the players the best chance to succeed in each situation. It is an important tactical advantage that is often the difference between good and great managers.
4. Big Picture awareness
A manager makes decisions in context of specific moments in games, but he also must be aware of the larger context of his decisions. There are different levels of context to consider:
- Level 1: the immediate context of a decision on the outcome of a play or an inning
- Level 2: the context of a decision on the outcome of the game
- Level 3: the context of the decision on the season
- Level 4: the context of where the team is organizationally
For example, a manager might use his best relief pitcher in the 7th inning to protect a one-run lead in a high leverage situation (Level 1), but he also has to consider who will be available later in the game to pitch (Level 2), and how often that pitcher has been used over the last few games. Maybe he’s pitched two nights in a row and giving him a night off will help him be ready for the next series against your division leading opponent in a tight pennant race (Level 3). Maybe, like the Braves, there is no shot at a pennant race, but you have a promising rookie reliever in the pen who might grow into an important piece in the future and this would be a good opportunity to give him some experience (Level 4).
The Braves need someone who can properly weigh the bigger strategy while making the best decision for a particular in-game strategy, especially with so many players who need chances to play. Giving opportunities to younger players who might be a part of the future of the team is not “tanking,” but allowing for valuable experience (and valuable evaluation of their abilities).
The only constant is change. Players change, individual player performance changes, front offices change, personalities change, information changes, data changes, health changes. This works against our natural tendency to get stuck in certain ways of thinking, and managers of baseball teams are notorious for it. A manager that wants to be better than average has to be willing to take in new information and consider new approaches as a part of his decision-making process, whether it is how to talk to one player compared to another, or whether to incorporate new metrics into game strategy.
The Braves are going through many changes, and the manager must be able to adjust on the fly to new information without writing off players too early. Flexibility is a tough balancing act that is impossible to get exactly right, but it must be a skill the new manager possesses. [Note: Flexibility was challenging to place in this list. It could be as high as one or as low as five. In some ways, it ties into all of the ones above it.]
6. Experience Managing
Making multiple decisions in-game and managing many personalities across a long, grueling season is harder than it looks on TV. Having experience managing a team, whether as an assistant coach for an MLB team or as a manager of a minor league team, is important in order for a person to demonstrate they can balance it all in a slightly less intense position. It’s not the most important criteria. People can come to managing from other directions and do fine, but it can increase the initial confidence in a candidate’s abilities to hold a team together.
The Braves should consider managing experience, but if a person has demonstrated an ability to lead and relate and strategize in alternative ways, then that should outweigh actual managing experience. All things being equal between two candidates, I’d take the one with managing experience.
7. Experience Playing
I personally think this is a bit too heavily emphasized. A former player isn’t necessarily better able to meet the most important requirements of building relationships, leading, and strategizing compared to a person who never played.
Playing experience can help in a couple of ways. For one, former players have a first-hand understanding of the grind of playing a full season year-in and year-out. Another is that there is also a bit of pre-earned respect from current players. But non-players can earn this respect and former players can lose it, so I don’t put too much stock in it’s long term value.
There’s also some potential downside to former players. Former players sometimes are locked into a “back in my day” approach to managing a clubhouse, which can hurt connections with players who are playing in THIS day (see Matt Williams).
The Braves should consider former players, but only in context of the more important requirements. A non-player who has a better managerial personality and philosophy should be hired over a player who has playing experience, but lacks pretty much everything else (hello Chipper Jones). But if the two are pretty similar in other qualifications, I could see using “playing experience” as the tie-breaker.
So, What’s Next?
Managing is hard, so picking the next manager shouldn’t be done as flippantly as we throw around names. That said, using the criteria outlined above, I have several potential managerial candidates I think would be great fits for the Atlanta Braves.
Kapler checks every box. Read his blog and see how focused he is on relationship building, read his Baseball Prospectus interview (seriously, it’s really good) and see his intensity that is measured by his desire to build people into the best version of themselves so they can best fit into the a winning team culture (He even mentions his favorite player was Fred McGriff).
He spent time playing under Joe Maddon, where he appears to have developed an interest in the more analytical side of baseball, and Andrew Friedman snatched him up from Fox Sports (where he did a regular “saberclips” segment). He has demonstrated leadership potential and outside the box thinking to compliment a solid and growing understanding of analytics. Look at the many rolls he’s filled for his flexibility, from his fitness brand Kaplifestyle, to his innovations in the player development system for the Dodgers.
As far as experience, Kapler played 12 years in the MLB (debuting as a 22-year-old in 1998 despite being drafted in the 57th round in 1995). He was never a star, but he was an important role-player, including being a part of the curse-breaking 2004 World Series Team for the Red Sox. Kapler took a year off from playing to manage a single A affiliate of the Red Sox in 2007 – before going back to playing.
He might not be interested in moving to Atlanta (he clearly loves California), but he’s an interesting guy who could usher the field management of Braves Baseball into the next era. If nothing else, it’s worth asking if he’s interested. Maybe he’s a little too out there at times and it won’t work out, but he’s one of those “high upside” draft picks the Braves have been going for lately and I can envision a bright future for him as a strong leader and innovative manager.
I also have heard several names I’d want nowhere near the clubhouse. I indicated above that Chipper Jones is one of them. Being a great player (and one I really like) does not mean he has the personality to lead a team of youth with a steady and measured approach. Terry Pendleton is another one I question. Honestly, the Chris Johnson incident in the dugout said more about Pendleton than it did Johnson. I’m not convinced they can gel a young team together in a pressure cooker, or that they have the ability to separate themselves from the pack strategically.
What about you?
- Who do you think is a person who fits the criteria? Why?
- Do you have anyone that definitely doesn’t? Why?
- Do you think an important qualification is missing or valued incorrectly on the list?
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