Monday, July 2, 2012

The Ghost Of Pitching Changes Past

Not to speak ill of the semi-retired, but a certain facet of Bobby Cox's managerial style used to drive Braves fans up a wall.  Let's be honest here: though he was and is and is a lifelong top-echelon baseball thinker, the man had a penchant for inexplicable bullpen moves.  Cardinals fans are nodding in sympathy right now, but this tendency wasn't anything akin to Tony La Russa's mad scientist schtick.  Most of the time it wasn't some elaborate, matchup-oriented chess maneuver or high-concept stunt.  Neither Bobby nor pitching coach Leo Mazzone ever went in much for that brand of gamesmanship.  No, it was simply that he'd leave a starter in a few batters too long, or pull them when they were cruising, or send precisely the wrong guy to the mound in key situations.  Worst of all: you knew it as it was happening.  You could just feel it. 

Any Atlanta fan over the age of 25 knows exactly what I mean.  Maybe John Smoltz would be in a jam, clearly having an off night.  His stuff wouldn't have the electric zip it usually had, guys would be tagging singles left and right, and Bobby would leave him on the mound.  We'd collectively sit there thinking "get him out of there!!!", as if we could telepathically force our manager to make that decision through sheer force of will.  By the time he listened to our ESP prompting, it was almost always too late.  Conversely, maybe Tom Glavine would be ripping through opposing batters, and then with one out in the sixth, for reasons known only to himself, Bobby would yank him and send Armando Reynoso or Mike Remlinger or some other poor soul out to the mound.  Your gut would tighten, you'd wince, and you'd think "Oh f*** here it comes."  And it would come.  The leadoff walk.  The double into the gap.  The crack of a towering homer leaving the bat to slice through the humid Georgia night and land deep in the seats.  As if by alchemy, a two-run lead would become a three-run deficit. For all our gawdy starting rotations (and often underrated bullpens) of that halcyon 14-year run, Bobby's pitching changes sure could spin straw into crap.  

When it was announced that Fredi Gonzalez would be taking Cox's seat in the dugout, the general thinking was that a guy who spent a number of years with the organization was the perfect replacement.  Gonzalez, after all, understood the Braves Way, or How Bobby Did It, or whatever.  Unfortunately, that apparently includes a pronounced atavism regarding Cox-ian bullpen management.

I was driving home from work on Friday when, in the opener of a semi-critical series with the Nats, Andrelton Simmons sent a two-run dinger juuuuuuust over the wall in left-center; his apparent favorite spot in Turner Field.  That homer completed a four-run rally to tie the game; it was pretty much the definition of a momentum shift.  How did Fredi Gonzalez capitalize on this windfall?  He sent freaking Chad Durbin to the mound to pitch the next inning.  As soon as that particular bit of information came over the radio, I tensed up.  Such a move had all the makings of a disastrous Braves bullpen moment, and I knew what was going to happen before it came to pass.  As I held the steering wheel in a death grip, Michale Morse launched Durbin's first pitch into the right field stands.  The Braves lost 5-4.     

On June 12th, Gonzalez pulled Mike Minor, who was (and still is) in dire need of a confidence boost with one out and a man on first in the 8th.  Minor had been mowing down the Yankees for seven innings, and commanded a four-run lead.  Instead of letting him roll, or sending in Craig Kimbrel to get the last five outs (heaven forbid we use our best reliever for more than one inning at a time!!!), Fredi sent a woefully struggling Jonny Venters to the hill.  The next few minutes unfolded like so: single, walk, A-Rod grand slam to tie the game, single, Fredi pulls Venters and STILL doesn't go to Kimbrel, sends Cory Gearrin out there instead, Nick Swisher hits a two-run homer.  Yankees win 6-4.   

And tonight, just now as I was writing this, yet another example manifested.  Our promising young starter Tommy Hanson was in the middle of a superb performance against the lowly Cubs, allowing just one run through six innings of lights-out work.  Now, here's the thing about Tommy: he has endurance problems and generally does not fare well late in games.  Over the last week, Atlanta has been subjected to the sort of  triple-digit heat and drenching humidity that usually waits until August to fully afflict us.  This is the stuff that drove humans to invent central air conditioning because at some point on the thermometer oscillating fans become utterly worthless.  Vicious, implacable summer weather.  The kind that drains the body's energy and addles the mind.  The kind that turns even the most finely-tuned athletes into staggering, dead-eyed versions of themselves.  In other words, precisely the sort of conditions under which one does not send a starting pitcher of questionable stamina back out for the seventh inning.

Actually, I'm going to cut Fredi a little slack on sending Hanson out for the top of the frame.  Before tonight, the man hadn't lost a game since May 28th, and he was clearly in a groove on this sweltering evening.  The problem was leaving him out there after two consecutive singles to start the inning.  I mean, how glaring and obvious a red flag do you need?  Right then, the prudent action was to get Hanson the hell off the mound and send in Eric O'Flaherty or some other competent arm.  Nope, Fredi left him there even as he was clearly faltering.  So of course, Hanson walked Darwin Barney to load the bases and then gave up a three-run double to Luis Valbuena.  4-1 Cubbies, which was still the score when Freddie Freeman flied out to end the game.  Bobby Cox's one fatal managerial flaw is alive and well in the ATL. 

Look, like every Atlanta native, I revere the man.  He wrote out our lineup cards for the entirety of my cognizant life up until a few seasons ago.  But he had a genetic deficiency when it came to when and how to make pitching changes, and I deeply wish Fredi Gonzalez's memory retention of managerial techniques had excluded that particular tic.  I know baseball is difficult and fate is capricious, but in 14 years we only won a single World Series with one of the greatest pitching rotations ever assembled and a lot of heavy bats.  With (mostly) lesser lights on the roster and brutal competition these days, what can we realistically hope for in 2012?  If the answer is going to be anything beyond "a decent regular-season record" then Fredi has to shake those bullpen idiosyncracies.

Fans, on balance, are not anywhere near as knowledgeable as those who have had years of intimate involvement with a sport.  We do, however, have the ability to recognize patterns when they're staring us in the face.  This is one such pattern.

Dear Fredi: if you won't listen to your gut, listen to ours.  Or, failing, that, listen to logic.  Please stop mismanaging your pitchers.  I gotta tell you man, we've danced this two step before and we're beyond tired of it.


Braves fans everywhere.

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