The Fans say, "Go!" But the media cries, "No?"
Perhaps you are like me and already feel like the Fredi Gonzalez will be fired conversation has already been discussed ad nauseam. I for one assumed that it would be a foregone conclusion once Team Shartholzella began the rebuild that Fredi Gonzalez would not be long for the Braves franchise; and it would be understood as things go that he would be fired as some sort of rising Phoenix rebirth in the franchise's timeline. (Much in the way 3rd base coach Bo Porter was axed by the Astros prior to their current success). Yet here we are in the midst of Fredi Gonzalez's final act with the Braves, and the media and some loyalist drive-by fans are at odds with the decision to fire Gonzalez. I thought I would use this space not to sit here and just give my opinion, but to lay some facts and inferences for both the justification of firing Fredi Gonzalez and the portrayal of the decision as scapegoating.
Side 1: Fredi as the scapegoat
The 2016 Atlanta Braves team as currently constructed, rival something close to the roster in the 1989 movie Major League, that of leedawg's meme post fame. Complete with A.J. Pierzynski playing the Jake Taylor role, Mallex Smith playing the Willie Mays Hayes role, Mike Foltynewicz playing the Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn role and Liberty Media playing the uncaring owner concerned more with future outcomes. The point being the team was designed to
fail rather not try to maximize potential for success. Payroll has been slashed from 120M in 2014 to 89M in 2016, 18M of which is being paid to players not currently on the roster (from Spotrac). The 2016 Braves are also in the bottom three of average age of players on the roster (29.2 in front of only Oakland and Detroit). So I pose this question to you, how can anyone be expected to put a competent product on the baseball field with this purposeful lack of talent? More to the point how can we expect Fredi Gonzalez to win with this squad. After all the Braves front office has constructed this team, all Fredi can do is pencil in the lineup from the 25 players available to him. If those players are substandard, why should the Braves' lack of success thus far in 2016 fall on Fredi Gonzalez's shoulders? If the Braves are going to fire Fredi Gonzalez now due to this team as currently constructed, then he is truly being used as a scapegoat to the greater flaws in this team's rebuild. Even the media feels Fredi Gonzalez is nothing more than a scapegoat for the dumpster fire that is the 2016 season. From beat writers to national columnists and pundits and bloggers, all seem to argue that his cannot be all Fredi Gonzalez's fault. Maybe it's because it's an election year, but the media seems to be all wound up in suggesting Fredi Gonzalez being wronged when he is ultimately fired. And the Braves continuing to string him along is additionally unfair to Gonzalez who has presided over a the Braves to the tune of a 425-385 record. These commentators are the baseball media insiders, certainly they see the writing on the wall therefore their opinion of Fredi as the scapegoat has to valid, right? Fredi Gonzalez has .525 winning percentage as the Braves manager, including averaging 93 wins per season from 2011-2013. He also managed the Braves to back-to-back playoff berths in 2012 and 2013, 2013 as National League East champions. So the media has to be right, how can the Braves just toss Gonzalez out as the source of all of the current team's problems?
Side 2: Fredi's firing, justice after due process
Fredi Gonzalez became the Atlanta Braves Manager as the successor to Bobby Cox, the beloved Hall of Fame manager who spent 25 years managing the club. Needless to say when Bobby Cox announced his intention to retire following the 2010 season, the opportunity to replace him seemed like an excellent chance to succeed in a stable environment where the front office had remained largely unchanged for nearly two decades. So upon completion of the 2010 Atlanta Braves season, did the Braves cast a wide net for what should have been numerous applicants lining up to interview? Not so much, the Braves hired Fredi Gonzalez within week of the conclusion of the season with little more vetting than Bobby Cox's endorsement and the organization's previous familiarity with Gonzalez as the Braves 3rd base coach. This isn't to say that the choice to hire Gonzalez was universally criticized nor that it was a mistake to involve Bobby Cox choosing his successor, rather just to state that the process was not an exhaustive one. A lot of that process has to do with another piece of information, Fredi Gonzalez was readily available prior to the end of the season. Why? you ask. Oh yeah, prior to being hired by the Braves, Fredi Gonzalez had been fired mid-season by the admittedly bi-polar Marlins organization suspected to be due to an argument with star shortstop Hanley Ramirez. This all despite Gonzalez's .497 winning percentage with one of the smallest payrolls in all of baseball during his tenure, and an 87 win season in 2009 (Ah so he has done more with less before). Yet here he was, hand-plucked from the unemployment line by the Braves brain trust at the time, to lead the Braves to the next wave of divisional and playoff success. Given his prior success with the schizophrenic Marlins organization, it should have been smooth sailing for Fredi Gonzalez as the Braves skipper. Gonzalez was basking in the glow of Bobby Cox's shining light and inherited a team that consisted of veteran leaders such as: Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson, David Ross, Peter Moylan, Brian McCann, and Eric Hinske. Not to mention coaches: Roger McDowell, Brian Snitker, Eddie Perez and Terry Pendleton; really how much locker room leading and confidence building do you have to do as a manager with that cast of characters around you. So there you have it: stable organization? check, veteran leadership? check, more talent and larger payroll? check, locker room and player chemistry? check, sounds like a recipe for success. Only in the 2011 Atlanta Braves season, it wasn't meant to be. Which bring us to our first Fredi transgression: the collapses. It would seem that Fredi defenders so focus on the current 2016 Braves season and quickly forget the collapses in the 2011 and 2014 regular season as well as the 2013 postseason. 2011 saw the Braves enter the month of September in first place in the National League East by 8 1/2 games with an 80-55 record. They subsequently went 9-18 the rest of the way being eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the season. The 2014 season September collapse, while not quite as dramatic from a standings standpoint, would nonetheless become the nail in the coffin on Fredi Gonzalez's future. Having successfully won the National League East in 2013, the 2014 Atlanta Braves season was poised to be a special one--and it was--for all the wrong reasons. The Braves trailed the Nationals most of the season, but by the end of July were a mere 1 1/2 games back of first place in the East. However by September that deficit had grown to 6 games, but a wild card berth was very much in play. What followed was another disastrous September in which the Braves went 7-18 and finished with a record under .500 (79-83) for the first time since 2008. It was here with this team of players that included: Freeman, Heyward, Upton, Kimbrel, Teheran, Gattis, and Simmons, where the writing was on the wall that Fredi couldn't get it done. Other transgressions include: maddening bullpen management, lineup construction, and a perceived misuse of advanced metrics. While these transgressions in and of themselves have been proven to have a minuscule effect on game outcomes over the course of the season, their frequent occurrences fuel the already large fire under Fredi Gonzalez's rear. Every time a LOOGY faces a RH batter, every time Simmons batted 2nd in the lineup, every time Fredi's hot hand took over, these grievances became the straws that broke the camel's back for most fans. Thus adding to the list of charges that are now being brought forth against Fredi Gonzalez to go along with the Braves' putrid start to the 2016 season.
A final thought: The turning point
I guess I had not given enough thought prior to writing this post, but the turning point for Fredi Gonzalez as the Braves' manager truly was the 2014 season. Despite a collapse in 2011 and the playoff losses in 2012 and 2013, the Braves were at least on the right trajectory. And while there were still a fair share of fans who would call for Gonzalez to be fired during those years, ultimately success on the field made the calls subside to an extent. However as mentioned before the talent and resources poured into the 2014 Atlanta Braves roster made it clear that the Braves had to contend in not only that season, but a very small two to three year window. The epic collapse knocking the Braves from postseason contention combined with the timing of player contracts and the firing of Frank Wren, really set the expiration date on Gonzalez's time in Atlanta. The rebuild was on and as we had seen in places like Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Milwaukee, Fredi Gonzalez would not be allowed to usher in the next wave of success for the Braves. However had the Braves made the playoffs and perhaps more importantly won a playoff series in 2014, Fredi Gonzalez might still have a stranglehold on the Braves managing job, but ultimately his list of ineptness would be unchanged. Is Fredi Gonzalez the worst manager in baseball? No he is not. He also though, is far from the best manager in baseball. And really those are the only two arguments an organization needs to replace a manager: can we find a better person? And are there instances in which he has performed below expectations? I leave the answers to those questions for the fans to debate, and the Braves front office to answer.