They didn't make the playoffs, but that doesn't make these guys "chokers."
I know we're all in shock right now. Full of anger, pain, and frustration. Above all, the frustration. It's hard to know what to do with all of it. We all want something (or someone) to let loose on. Ultimately, what you do with that anger and frustration is up to you, but I would like to encourage each of you to try to be understanding when you criticize the Braves' players, coaches, and front office.
In particular, I want to address the slur that always gets tossed around in times like this: "choker." It's only natural for sports fans to think of this when a team fails in a high-pressure situation, but the implication that a player or team lacked the mental fortitude (or "heart") to cope with the pressure is always unfair. The "choker" label is an oversimplification. It's lazy armchair psychiatry that ascribes psychological blame for what is fundamentally a physical failure.
All the Braves' players are professional athletes at the highest level of their sport. You simply do not get to that level without being able to handle high-pressure situations. Yes, there are some who handle pressure better than others, and yes, there are no doubt occasions when players succumb to the pressure. But we cannot know how much the high stakes affect any individual player, or even if the player is affected adversely. We're not in their heads. How can anyone know what the ultimate cause of another person's failure is?
Our collective thirst for explanations does not want to accept this uncertainty, of course. As a result, we construct stories that explain the unexplainable. This is particularly prevalent in the sports media, which compels writers and talking heads to construct narratives to draw in the reader/viewer. Many people will accept these narratives as truth, particularly fans of other teams. They're not the truth, though, and even if they were, we couldn't know that.
As Braves fans, I hope we can all recognize that the "choking" narrative doesn't tell the whole story. I hope that we can cut the team some slack. They failed, yes--and there's plenty of blame to go around for that--but there's no reason to make the failure out to be more than it is. Believe me, everyone associated with the Braves is having a hard enough time with this situation. They don't need undeserved scorn from their own fans on top of everything else.
Let's take as an example Craig Kimbrel's rough outing last night. The narrative here is that he's a young, rookie closer who couldn't deal with the pressure of having the season on his shoulders. A choker, to put it bluntly. Like so many media narratives, however, this just doesn't hold up to close scrutiny.
Kimbrel was wild last night, obviously, but is that so surprising? He's always been susceptible to a loss of command; just look at his minor league numbers. Add to that the fact that it was the end of the season, one that saw him appear in nearly half of the Braves' games. Whether you think Kimbrel was overworked or not, he was certainly fatigued last night, and it likely had a detrimental effect on his command.
It's a long season, and I'm sure every Braves player (except Kris Medlen, I guess) was less fresh last night than he was at the start of the year. Now, fatigue isn't a good excuse. Every team plays the same 162 games, and so if the Braves were more fatigued than, say, the Cardinals, that reflects poorly on management, the trainers, and the players themselves. But it's fundamentally a physical failure, and an easily explicable one. There's no need to resort to murky (and likely incorrect) mental explanations.
The same goes for the related issue of injuries, both incapacitating (Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Peter Moylan, Alex Gonzalez, etc.) and nagging (Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, and probably just about everyone else). Again, injuries make a poor excuse--the Cardinals certainly had their share, particularly the loss of Adam Wainwright--but they make a really good explanation. Blame the staff for not keeping the players healthy or the players for being injury-prone if you want. I don't think we know enough about that to properly judge, but at least we can see the injuries and some of their effects. Compared to judging a person's mental state, judging his conditioning is downright justifiable.
Ultimately, though, I think the biggest culprit behind the Braves' collapse is simply poor timing. Injuries, slumps, and bad outings just piled up at the exact wrong time. Move those injuries and poor performances to a different time of year, and the results would still be the same, but the narrative would be much kinder to the Braves.
It's all too easy to blame Fredi Gonzalez and his coaches for letting things get out of hand, but I doubt that they coached any differently in September than they did in the first 5 months. I am far from a Fredi apologist--quite the opposite--but I don't blame him for September when he was doing the same things in May through August. I think Fredi did a worse job than quite a few other managers, but blaming him for the collapse itself is ludicrous.
I thought this Braves team, as constructed by Frank Wren and his front office, was better than 89 wins. I'm sure everyone involved with the team would agree that they should have won a few more games. But the blame for this is not a simple matter. When a team falls just short of a playoff berth, everyone shares the blame. It's the converse of last year, when everyone who contributed to the team deserved credit for the Braves' playoff berth. This year, everyone deserves part of the blame.
A number of players had down years, and even the ones who met or exceeded expectations had long slumps and bad games that cost the team potential victories. That wasn't just at the end of the year, either. A couple more victories early in the season and the September collapse wouldn't have mattered.
I hope you don't focus just on yesterday's game, or the past few weeks. Apportion blame as you see fit, but try to focus on the whole season. Other teams' fans will reduce the Braves' season to a choke-job, but we didn't just tune in for the last game; we know that it's not that simple. Knowing the team as we do, we can have more sympathy for their situation. We know that the blame lies not in the players' hearts but in their arms and legs.
The players and coaches all have their strengths and weaknesses, and while those weaknesses have been exposed particularly harshly in the past few weeks, nothing has really changed. I hope we can all judge them fairly, based on their whole body of work rather than on a miserable few weeks. The future is still bright for this team. It'd be a damn shame to get so caught up in the "choking" narrative that we are unable to appreciate that bright future.
As a postscript, I want to say that I've been thinking about these matters for quite a while now; it's just that they're unfortunately quite apropos at the moment. Two of the themes of this post are the unreliability of small sample sizes and the myth of the clutch or unclutch player. Both are principles that I have believed in for years. I would have written something similar (though probably much shorter and without the use of "we") if the Red Sox had been the only team to collapse, as everything I wrote above applies equally to them.