I’m on record as saying I believe Fredi Gonzalez to be a good manager. He passes the test every successful manager must pass: His men play hard. (That’s the weird part about what’s happening now; the Atlanta Braves still, at least to these eyes, appear to be playing hard. Just not well, at least when it comes to hitting the ball.) If you ask me today if I’d be comfortable with Gonzalez managing this team the next five years, I’d say yes almost without hesitation.
Here, however, is where the “almost” arises: For the second time in four years, the Braves under Gonzalez are authoring an epic September collapse.
In 2011, as we can never forget, the Braves led St. Louis by 8 1/2 games on the morning of Sept. 6 for the one and only wild card; at 11:40 p.m. on Sept. 28, they were eliminated in the 13th inning of the season’s 162nd game. For 25 minutes, those Braves stood as the first team in the history of baseball to hold a September lead of more than eight games and miss the postseason. (The Red Sox would lose in extra innings in Tampa to join the ignominy.)
The 2011 Braves were 9-18 in September. That’s a winning percentage of .333. The 2014 Braves are 3-11 in September; that’s a winning percentage of .214.
At the end of play on Sept. 6, these Braves were tied with Milwaukee for the second wild card; Pittsburgh was a half-game behind. As we speak, the Braves trail the Pirates by 5 1/2 games and the Brewers by four. The Braves haven’t been mathematically eliminated, but Baseball Prospectus assesses their chance of making the playoffs at 0.8 percent. They’ve wilted again.
The collapse of ’11 had root in injury. Starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson were lost, forcing the Braves to deploy three rookies — Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy and Randall Delgado — in their rotation. (The season’s 160th game was started by Delgado against Cliff Lee.) A bullpen overtaxed by an extraordinary number of close encounters — 55 of the Braves’ 162 games were decided by one run — and overused by Gonzalez finally buckled.
Craig Kimbrel, who would be named National League rookie of the year, blew three September saves. The first came in Game 1 of a season-changing series in St. Louis. (The Cardinals would sweep the weekend.) The second came in Miami when Omar Infante hit a walk-off homer. (Also remembered as the night Chipper Jones lost a ground ball in the lights.) The third came in Game No. 162, when a clean inning would have sent the Braves to St. Louis for a one-game playoff with the Cardinals.
This time, it must be noted, there has been no bullpen mismanagement. The bullpen hasn’t had much to do. The Braves haven’t had a lead since the sixth inning Saturday, when Justin Upton dropped a line drive in Texas and Julio Teheran was touched for three unearned runs and lost to the worst team in baseball on a day when he carried a no-hitter past the game’s midpoint. There have been no sore arms among the starting pitchers. (These Braves got those out of the way early.) The only significant late-season absence due to infirmity has been Evan Gattis, who was diagnosed with strep throat.
Meaning: The extenuating circumstances of three years ago don’t apply. The Braves have almost a full complement of ballplayers. They do not have a full complement of actual hitters. They scored six runs in three games against the wretched Rangers. They’ve scored two in two games against Washington, which clinched the NL East at Turner Field on Tuesday. They’ve played 14 games in September; they’ve scored 33 runs. That’s 2.4 per game.
(We stipulate that this didn’t begin in September. On the contrary, the Braves were shut out in their opener on March 31. They’ve been shut out 14 times this season. To repeat: They haven’t hit a lick.)
In 14 September games, these pitchers have worked nine quality starts. The Braves have lost seven of those. This rotation leads the majors with 105 quality starts; the team, beggaring belief, is below .500 (75-76). This season has seen a total failure of hitting, and for that Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher — the coaches charged with helping Braves hit — will surely lose their jobs. But is Gonzalez exempt?
I’d suggest that he has been handed a lineup of guys who can hit the occasional home run but who have pronounced holes in their swings. (Including both Uptons, Chris Johnson and Jason Heyward.) As Nationals manager Matt Williams noted last month, the Braves are good at hitting mistakes. They’re just bad at hitting good pitches.
Gonzalez said Monday that he’d spent most of the previous 18 hours making out lineups to face Stephen Strasburg and rejecting all until he decided to have rookie Phil Gosselin lead off and Andrelton Simmons, he of the sub-.300 on-base percentage, batting second. Turned out the Braves didn’t score off Strasburg, one pitcher they usually handle. They didn’t score until Williams deployed the defrocked closer Rafael Soriano with a four-run lead in the ninth. (Soriano nearly blew the game.)
At this late date, the Braves could bat Gerald Laird leadoff and B.J. Upton third and Justin Upton ninth and it would make no difference. For this team, there is no right lineup. There are only varying shades of lousy.
That’s why I wouldn’t lay this season at the feet of Fredi G. He didn’t assemble this roster. Frank Wren did. My defense of this general manager — and I admit I’ve been among his defenders — is based on one simple number: From 2010 through today, the Braves have won more games than any other National League team. But they’ve never had a September quite like this, not even in 2011.
That one was historically awful. In its abject feebleness, this one has been nearly as bad. And this, for those keeping score at home, makes twice in four years.