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Don’t blame Fredi Gonzalez for last night’s loss. Blame the Braves culture.

Oct 8, 2013, 8:11 AM EDT

Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Getty Images

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.

  1. jakeshuman2 - Oct 8, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    There’s a right way to do things and a wrong way and it’s all subjective. You have a Ned Yost who manages men well but he’s a strategic disaster. You have Joe Maddon whose players play hard for him and he is strategically sound unless he listens to his gut and goes a different direction. Probably the closest organization to the Braves in doing the “right” are my beloved Cardinals. However, even in their “Cardinal” way, they always seem to hire managers who are good player mangers, strategically sound (if not always perfect) and listen to their gut. Managers who have little or no imagination can be successful over a season but in the play-offs where guys like Al Weiss and Make Lehmke can be the difference between winning and losing, a mixture of sound strategy and the willingness to take chances is what defines a winning attitude. How many managers would start a rookie in a play-off game; especially one who wasn’t with the team for at least half the season. The A’s did it; the Cardinals did it with their back to the wall. The Braves answer was to go with experience, Freddy Garcia (who gave up 20 runs in 16 innings in June before he was released) and follow their bullpen strategy down the line into oblivion. Sure, Carpenter was good during the season but after Puig doubled, I would have gone to Kimbrel who had allowed no other Dodger a hit in his career except for 3 by Schumaker and 2 by Hairston (The Dodgers have batted .400 against Carpenter). Maybe Kimbrel would have given up a tying hit but not putting him in when it counted most was not just a mistake, it ended the Braves season.

  2. biasedhomer - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:44 PM

    The Braves problem is management.
    They have 2 over paid useless players in Uggla and BJ Upton.
    They also decided to unite the overrated twins together, instead of going after someone like Choo.
    The rotation is solid, but you can’t count on any of them to give you a shut out against a playoff caliber team.

    They are a team that can beat up on average teams in the regular season, but don’t have what it takes to advance a round.

  3. Black Dog - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:57 PM

    Carpenter is a dominant 8th inning reliever — one of the best in the game. A 1.78 E.R.A., 45 hits allowed in 65 innings. He’s been setting up Kimbrel all year long.

    I doubt Kimbrel has ever recorded a 6-out save in his career.

    Craig’s contention that Gonzalez made the wrong move because he’s a slave to convention is a cheap argument, and based on this false logic: It didn’t work, therefore it must have been the wrong move. Not so. It was the right move — it just didn’t work.

    I think we all agree that Mariano Rivera is the best closer of all time… and certainly the greatest post-season closer in the history of the universe. Only once in his career was he given the opportunity to convert the ultimate save — the 9th inning of the seventh game of the World Series. He not only blew the save, he allowed two runs, blowing the game and the World Series.

    That’s baseball. Joe Torre didn’t make the wrong move in going to Rivera. He made the right move, but lost. As did Freddi Gonzalez.

    • misterj167 - Oct 9, 2013 at 4:41 AM

      While I agree the Braves have a problem playing playoff baseball, and a good part of that is because they build their teams for the long haul and not the short series, the decision to leave Carpenter in was not necessarily a bad one. As I said before, if Carpenter had gotten the Dodgers out in the eighth and the Braves went on to force a game 5 (and particularly if they had won game 5), what we’d all be talking about is why Mattingly chose to go with Kershaw in game 4 on short rest.

  4. sillec28 - Oct 8, 2013 at 7:57 PM

    I thought this was going to be an article about the name “Braves” and that stupid chant their fans use.

  5. leothelyon - Oct 8, 2013 at 11:27 PM

    Another big blunder no-one seems to talk about is when Texas management pulled a .440 hitter so this Cruz who hadn’t played for the prior 50 games due to some suspension against Tampa Bay. Cruz ended up going 0-4 while G Soto, was batting 11-25 his last 10 games he played that included a HR and double the night before, was benched. This had to of affected the entire team. now you all know why Texas was eliminated…….poor management! Heck, they were leading the division going into Sept. What happen? It was the management who failed Texas.

  6. santoniobrown - Oct 9, 2013 at 10:21 AM

    Craig – Great article. You hit the nail on the head in explaining my frustration with the Braves organization and Fredi Gonzalez. Being a lifelong Braves fan is a love/hate relationship for me… You see, because I’m a risk-taking sort of person… and my Braves are perhaps the most conservative organization out there. This sort of relationship is not good for my blood pressure from April to October.

    I would argue this though, my friend. Fredi has actually brought Kimbrel in during the 8th before. Now, it’s certainly not usual, but he’s done it before. A few times this year, actually AND during Game 2 of this NLDS. Therefore, while I agree with your outstanding article, I am not give any sympathy or forgiveness for not putting in Kimbrel for the 8th during this elimination game, since Fredi has used Kimbrel before in the 8th.

  7. santoniobrown - Oct 9, 2013 at 10:32 AM

    And I just realized that in Game 2, he just pitched part of the 8th… and not the 9th… because the Braves were home and winning. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him pitch the 8th and 9th before though… PLEASE DON’T CRUCIFY ME, FELLOW BASEBALL NERDS!!! ;)

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