It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the problems with this 2014 Atlanta Braves team. The problems center around the team’s awful hitting, and blame for that has been assigned by fans and writers to the hitting coaches, the manager and the general manager.
Here is a look at each of those areas, and then an assessment of what I think the Braves should do when it comes to making a decision about who, if anyone, to fire.
Atlanta has been through three hitting coaches in the past five years. Terry Pendleton was the team’s hitting coach from 2003 to 2010. In his final year, the Braves ranked 5th in the league in runs scored per game at 4.56—more than any Braves team has scored since.
For some reason the club thought they needed to make a change, and Larry Parish took over for the 2011 season. Atlanta dropped to 10th in the league that year, at 3.96 runs per game.
That got Parrish fired, he being the fall guy for the huge collapse the team suffered in September, and the tandem of Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher took over.
The 2012 team was 7th in the league at 4.32 runs per game. The 2013 team was 4th at 4.25, and this year’s team dropped all the way to 14th at 3.62.
I’m not sure we can extrapolate anything from these numbers. The two current coaches had a couple of good years, and then this year, which has been really bad.
Fredi Gonzalez took over in 2011, had one horribly calamitous season in 2011, then won the Wild Card, then the Division, and is currently having another rather calamitous season. If he wasn’t fired after the bad moves he made in 2011, then it’s clear the front office gives him plenty of rope.
Can this year’s poor team performance be attributed in any way to Fredi’s poor decisions? I would argue that they can, with the principle complaint being his lineups, which have far too often featured poor on-base guys like B.J. Upton and Andrelton Simmons at the top of the order.
I would also take issue with the lack of playing time he’s given his bench. Backup players need regular playing time to stay sharp when they’re needed in a pinch-hitting role, and at least some of the blame for the worst bench in the league has to fall on how those players have been managed.
Here is where the loudest chorus of boos seem to be aimed. Frank Wren, because of the team he has assembled, has become the lightning rod for the Braves’ ills this season. Since he took over prior to the 2008 season, he has had some spectacular misses: Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton, Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera and Ryan Doumit.
But Wren has also had some spectacular successes, like Justin Upton, Jair Jurrjens, Omar Infante, Javier Vazquez, Michael Bourn, Eric O’Flaherty and Billy Wagner. Even minor trades for Derek Lee, Paul Maholm and Rick Ankiel have played key roles as the team drove towards the postseason.
He’s built great bullpens year after year from discarded players, waiver claims and unknown minor leaguers. Even this year’s bullpen, which many people complain about, has the fourth-best relief ERA in the league. Those bullpens have also been built without spending excessive amounts of money on free agent relievers.
So who goes?
Now the question that will be answered in the next couple of weeks, should anyone lose their job because of this team’s offensive struggles. Remember, this year’s Braves team has scored fewer runs per game (3.62) than any team since 1988 (3.47), and that number continues to drop.
Is this offensive outage a weird anomaly of poor individual seasons all happening at once, in which the hitting coaches are not to blame? Does the manager deserve responsibility for making up sub-optimal lineups for over a fourth of the team’s games? Does the general manager deserve the blame for acquiring and paying players who have not performed as well as they did before they came to Atlanta?
There are reasons to fire all of these guys, and reasons to absolve them from most of the blame.
For my money, I’d keep Frank Wren, get rid of Fredi Gonzalez and let the new manager decide which coaches he wants to keep.
Wren has made a few bad signings for big money that get a lot of attention, but the bulk of his moves, even the ones that didn’t work out, are ones that I have applauded at the time, and they are moves that would have been made by just about anyone in his position. I find it hard to blame a GM for players suddenly sucking when they’re still mostly in their prime.
For most of his tenure Wren was dealing with ever-tightening budgets because of bad decisions—specifically the under-market TV contract—made by upper management. In that scenario, Terry McGuirk and John Schuerholz deserve more blame than Wren, who put together good teams with middling payrolls, while the rest of the league was outspending Atlanta.
Fredi Gonzalez has been underwhelming. Yes, he’s replacing a legend, which is sort of like being the guy the team is dating on the rebound—that rarely works out. For someone who came in with experience as a manager, he fell flat on what should have been experienced decisions in his first year, and to a less-obvious degree in the years since.
There’s very little evidence for his use of advanced statistics, let alone basic statistics, when making out a lineup. Today’s game demands a manager and an organization employ all the advantages that big data can bring to the game, and Gonzalez seems unwilling or unable to avail himself of those resources.
As for the hitting coaches, I have no idea. Parrish was obviously useless, but Walker and Fletcher have had success, and every comment I’ve read from players and beat writers about them has been positive. This year’s results notwithstanding, they seem to be pretty good at their job.
So there you have it Braves. Let’s have a new manager next year, and with him a new attitude in the clubhouse and between the lines. Pick someone who will use every advantage they can, especially the ones that advanced statistics can provide. I’m not even going to venture a guess of who that might be, but it’s probably best if it’s someone from outside the organization, who brings with them a new attitude and doesn’t have the shadow of Bobby Cox looming over them.
Oh, and then Frank Wren should get busy making some personnel changes to the 25 guys on the roster.