I got a lot of emails asking me if I had a heart attack and died after last night’s game. Folks: I’ve been watching the Braves woof themselves out of the playoffs early for many-a-year now. So, yes, it sucked, but any Braves fan claiming their heart was unexpectedly ripped out last night is either very young or hasn’t been paying a lot of attention. You steel yourself for that at this point.
More specifically, people are asking about the decision to let David Carpenter pitch to Juan Uribe with a man on in the eighth last night rather than go to Craig Kimbrel. About that, my thoughts are a bit mixed.
Yes, in an ideal world you use your best relievers in the highest leverage situations. Craig Kimbrel is your best reliever. A man on in the eighth with the go-ahead run at the plate in an elimination game is as close to as high-leverage as it gets. You put Craig Kimbrel in there. I put Craig Kimbrel in there. Earl Weaver and Joe Torre put Craig Kimbrel in there. It’s the smart move. You don’t save him for the ninth inning when everything can be lost in the eighth.
But Fredi Gonzalez didn’t. And, more to the point, Fredi Gonzalez doesn’t put Craig Kimbrel in there. Ever. It’s not in his history, not in his makeup and there is zero reason to ever have expected Fredi Gonzalez to go to his closer for the six-out save in that situation. As such, to act as if he screwed up massively in not doing so — to claim that this was some uniquely profound brain fart — takes no small amount of hindsight and wishcasting and a great deal of ignorance about who the man at the controls actually is, as opposed to what we wish would have happened.
Don’t construe this as a defense of Fredi Gonzalez. It’s not. Not exactly, anyway. He has by-the-book-itis and by-the-book-itis is what allowed Uribe to hit that home run. But it’s a chronic, even congenital condition on his part, not something which attacked him out of nowhere between innings last night. Indeed, by-the-book-itis afflicts the Braves organization like hemophilia afflicted the Hanoverian monarchs. It’s always there. It didn’t just attack suddenly on October 7, 2013.
Fredi Gonzalez learned this way of thinking from Bobby Cox and had it reinforced in a thousand ways by an organization which always has and, until there is new leadership, always will value and reward people who do things in painfully conventional ways. Doing things the right way, as Brian McCann might say. Indeed, if you don’t see a thread connecting all of that unwritten rules stuff from September and what led Fredi Gonzalez to use his setup man in the eighth and save Kimbrel for a bit, you haven’t been paying attention to the Atlanta Braves very long. It extends to their offseason moves and payroll decisions and everything else.
Sometimes it’s a good thing. There are a lot of conventions that have become that way because they make sense, in baseball and in life. The Braves have never mortgaged their farm system and, as such, have spent relatively little time as an uncompetitive team over the past 22 years. Most of their trades work out OK because they don’t take huge risks. When they have “gone for it” in mildly aggressive ways it has burned them, such as trading Adam Wainwright for a year of J.D. Drew or multiple prospects for Mark Teixeira, and I believe they’ve made note of that. On the whole, the organization’s success, such as it is, is due to a certain small-c conservatism. And, on the whole, there has been a good amount of organizational success.
As we saw last night, however, that small-c conservatism can and often is the difference between being merely good and being great. And it’s hard to see a situation in which the Braves can transcend the merely good given the organization’s overall culture. No one got fired when the Braves woofed away a playoff spot in 2011. No one, most likely, is going to get fired for the Braves’ latest early playoff exit. The organization just doesn’t roll that way. It seems content to be merely good. And it has never really rewarded bold, outside-the-box (or outside-the-book) thinking.
Did Fredi Gonzalez cost the Braves that game last night? In a way. But it wasn’t because he committed some massive screwup. It’s because he was doing things he has always done them and in the way his organization wants him to, either directly or indirectly.