In a column yesterday Dave O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided an interesting glimpse into the dog days of late August on a losing team.
Flash back to August 23 of last season. The Braves were playing the Mariners in the rubber match of a three-game series in Atlanta. While the Braves flirted with .500 and possible Wild Card contention for a nanosecond in the first half, by the time this series rolled around they were way below .500 and were playing out the string. A big reason they were playing out the string was reliever Jim Johnson who had lost his closer’s role due to a horrendous stretch in which he couldn’t buy any outs.
In his previous outing, four nights prior against the Reds, Johnson entered a game the Braves were already trailing by three and gave up four runs in the top of the ninth. That ended up mattering a good deal given that the Braves rallied for four runs themselves in the bottom of the ninth, and ended up losing 11-8. Regardless of the outcome, it was abundantly clear that Johnson was cooked and had no business being in a close game or, for that matter, even in a not-so-close game. A lot of guys would’ve been DL’d or released at that point or, barring that, buried so far back in the bullpen that they’d not see game action for weeks.
Four days later Johnson saw game action. In a critical spot, too.
On August 23rd the Braves were leading 5-4 heading into the eighth inning with a chance to take the series from Seattle. They had to be feeling good too, because they had twice come back from two-run deficits to take that lead. A team which would be forgiven by most for mailing it in was fighting. They’re pumped. It’s close. It’s late. And Braves manager Brian Snitker brings in . . . Jim Johnson.
That’s not the move you’d make or I’d make or, for that matter, anyone would make, but Snitker made it. He’d later say that he was trying to give his other bullpen arms a rest, though they weren’t terribly taxed at that point. He’d later say that he felt the coaches had figured out what was wrong with Johnson and were giving him a chance to show it, though if you’d watched Johnson pitch you’d seriously doubt it.
It didn’t really matter what he said, though. The fact was that Johnson was brought into a high-leverage situation and got shelled once again. He faced four batters, walking one and giving up three hits, all without recording an out. All four batters scored. Another run would score after he left and the Braves entered the bottom half of the inning trailing 9-5 and would lose the game 9-6.
In his game story that night, O’Brien wrote this:
Snitker looked particularly upset after this loss, as did president of baseball operations John Hart when he left the clubhouse with general manager John Coppolella after their customary brief postgame meeting with Snitker.
In his column yesterday he sheds more light on that:
John Hart dressed down manager Brian Snitker. Shouting at him so loudly in the manager’s office that some players heard from the clubhouse . . . [Snitker] appeared almost ashen and uncharacteristically sullen minutes later when reporters entered the office, and really was never quite himself again the rest of the season.
He also writes about the response it elicited from Braves outfielder Nick Markakis:
. . . upon hearing what Hart said to Snitker . . . Markakis made it known, had the message sent up the chain, that if Hart ever treated the manager that way again that Markakis would, in so many words, kick his ass.
We don’t know what Hart said specifically, but Markakis made a comment to O’Brien about the importance of “treating people like human beings.” In light of that, I’m gonna presume it went beyond merely dressing him down for bringing in Johnson and strayed into demeaning and crappy territory. In which case, good for Markakis, even if (a) Snitker should’ve faced heavy criticism from upper management for the really bad decision of using Johnson in that spot; and (b) “I’m gonna kick your ass” is not the most admirable response to such things. The point is, if you can’t communicate your displeasure with an underling for making a bad decision without demeaning them personally, you don’t belong in a place of authority.
Whatever the case, all of this adds a lot of insight into the Braves weird 2017 season:
- A season in which Snitker was on a short leash with a one-year deal;
- A season which, due to the second-half swoon and his troubling fixation on favoring veterans over younger, developing players, was expected by many not to be back for 2018;
- A season in which, in the last month of the season, several veteran players like Freddie Freeman and Markakis were reported to be lobbying for him to stay and talking about their loyalty to him;
- A season in which, on September 25, he was given a one-year extension to come back and then, a week later, Braves’ GM John Coppolella resigned and the Braves’ sanctions-inducing scouting/signing scandal was revealed, throwing the organization into chaos and, eventually, pushing out John Hart too.
I suspect that, if the Braves’ front office hadn’t nuked itself, Snitker would’ve been fired. I suspect he was kept on because it was thought that he would provide some semblance of stability for the organization after all of the scandal and drama. I suspect that he would not have been seen as a source of stability if he did not have the confidence of the veterans on the team. I do not know how much the confidence of the veterans was always there and how much of it was gained late in the year, but I can imagine a siege mentality, us-vs.-them dynamic between the guys in uniform on one side and the suits on the other probably didn’t hurt matters much on that score.
All of which makes me wonder: did Brian Snitker’s horrible decision to use Jim Johnson on that ugly night in August actually save his job? If so, that’d be a heck of a thing, wouldn’t it?