Two games into the season, and the Braves are 0-2. Most fans, casual and die hard alike, are going to point at the fact that we're still in the first week of April and that there are still 160 games to get the ship corrected and for the Braves to win 90 games and make the playoffs. I'm not so sure about that anymore, and it has nothing to do with the disappointing on-field performance of the players. Nope, as usual, it comes when I look in the dugout and see who's managing this team.
Fredi Gonzalez is...disappointing to me as Braves manager, 164 games into his tenure. The way he goes about certain things absolutely boggles my mind. Fredi's managerial style thusfar during his Braves career almost reminds me of a kid who was given the keys to a sportscar for his 18th birthday, and is told to go to the store to pick up milk. During the ride, the kid has no idea what he's doing. He drives in the wrong gear and burns the clutch, he sideswipes a few parked cars, he runs red lights...but at the end of the day, he gets the milk, and that's all that matters, right? Just because the end result of a situation is what you intended it to be doesn't mean the process to get to said result was correct. In my above scenario, the process was an absolute disaster that should have resulted in something going horribly wrong. And just because nothing went wrong, we're all supposed to sing kumbaya and be happy? That's a big heaping load of garbage. Trust the process, not the results. And Fredi's process, during his tenure last season and already this season, is an absolute trainwreck.
Gonzalez is like the kid who has the keys to the sportscar, and has no idea what he's doing. Matt Diaz is pretty much useless as a major league hitter at this point, yet he started Thursday's game against the Mets, and pinch hit as the tying run yesterday. I can actually buy the argument to start Diaz against the left-handed Johan Santana on Thursday. I'm not going to cite splits against a pitcher (because I think they are roughly a giant load of garbage), but as everyone and their mother knows, MATT DIAZ IS A LEFT-HANDED PITCHING KILLER. He went 1/2 with a double off of Santana, but when Johan was pulled going into the sixth inning, it was Diaz who trotted up to the plate against a right-handed Ramon Ramirez with men on second and third. Of course, almost like it was God himself smacking Fredi on the knuckles with a ruler, Diaz grounded out on the second pitch against Ramirez to end the last situation with multiple men on the Braves would have all day.
Tommy Hanson got pulled after three batters in the sixth, when the Mets would score their only run, and was replaced with Kris Medlen. Cool. Good move. Now is when Fredi pulls the double switch to get Diaz out of the game. But instead of doing the largely logical thing and putting Juan Francisco (who my feelings on will require another thousand words) at third and moving Martin Prado into left...he brings in the slap hitting phenom himself, Jose Constanza, to play left field. When it was revealed that Constanza had made the Braves Opening Day roster, fans such as myself were terrified. We were all told to calm down, because it was just for a week until Chipper was back, and that Constanza was only put on the roster because he was already on the 40-man (ignoring the fact that the team had open spots on the 40-man, of course). In the back of our heads, we all know that Constanza would have an effect on this team because Fredi has a nasty fetish for him. Sure enough, Constanza was now in left field and due up third in the inning. Naturally, Tyler Pastornicky tripled with one out to bring Constanza up with a chance to tie the game. As much as I despite the Francisco transaction, I'll admit this: the dude's swing is so damn violent that if he makes contact, he's at least getting the ball in the air. This is when Mets manager Terry Collins brought in his lefty specialist Tim Byrdak (despite a reverse platoon split for Constanza), and Constanza's at bat was such a disaster that I don't even want to relive it. Essentially, he struck out and looked like a fool on the third strike pitch, swinging at a pitch so far out of the zone that it would have hit a right-handed batter. While Francisco is an unmitigated disaster against lefties, 60% of his contact against them is on a line or in the air. That's what the team needed at that point, not an at bat from a guy who hit groundballs over 60% fo the time last year.
The rest of the game went swimmingly, and the Braves went down without a fight. Of course they did, it's only natural. I especially loved the use of Jonny Venters, who looked like a complete mess in his inning of work, allowing three baserunners and only getting two swings and misses while throwing more pitches than Medlen did in his two innings. The extreme overuse of Venters over the past two seasons is something to keep an eye on this year.
Let me get back to Fredi, and yesterday's game. Jair Jurrjens looked like absolute garbage out there yesterday (102 pitches, 4 1/3 innings pitched, two swinging strikes, two homers, and a partridge in a pear tree), and the bullpen usage following his departure was also bizarre. After six, it was a 3-2 Mets lead. Livan Hernandez (who threw a sinker that, I swear to god, didn't crack 84 all day) held the Mets scoreless in relief of Jurrjens despite allowing three hits. One run game, seventh inning, who do you go to? It's gotta be the washed up and decaying corpse of Chad Durbin (who's probably worth another 500 words on his own), right? Of course, Durbin got beaten like a rented mule, allowing three hits and a run on a Lucas Duda homer to make it a 4-2 game and essentially extinguish Atlanta's hopes of winning since the offense is so damn bad. What puzzled me is that after Durbin's inning, he was pulled and replaced with Cristhian Martinez, a much more effective reliever. Hell, Livan was signed in the first place so Martinez could throw more meaningful innings. How in the name of all that is holy is being down two runs in the eighth more meaningful than being down one run in the seventh? It legitimately makes no sense to me, and I can't rationalize it at all. Of course, Martinez retired the heart of the Mets order on seven pitches. The damage was done by then, and that was that.
My final qualm with Fredi over the first two games in the season comes of his usage of pinch hitters in the ninth inning yesterday. With two outs and Freddie Freeman on second, Fredi pinch hits Eric Hinske for Tyler Pastornicky. I understand the logic...kind of. It's a two run game, you need a homer to tie, you want your big bopper up there....right? But here's the major issue with it all: what happens if Hinske reaches base without homering? Well...you have an interesting situation there. With the pitcher's spot following Pastornicky's in the order, you're going to need a pinch hitter there regardless. While he's a rookie, Pastornicky has much better speed than Hinske, and while he has a much lower chance of homering and tying the game up, he probably has about an equal chance of reaching base. Fredi essentially sold out in this situation and banked that it would be an all or nothing type situation from Hinske. Instead, what happened was a median of the two outcomes: Hinske singled. Now, another interesting choice. The tying run is on first base, but it comes in the form of a guy who runs like an iceberg. Fredi (smartly, but the situation could have been avoided overall by not using Hinske there) pinch runs for Hinske with Jack Wilson, who would take over at short if the Braves tied it or took the lead. Now, another issue rises up. Fredi has no pinch hitters left on his bench after burning Hinske for Pastornicky, burning Wilson for Hinske, and using the pathetic Constanza earlier in the game (as the first bat off the bench, no less). Well, he had two guys left. There was David Ross, a pretty damn good hitter, but one that cannot be used as a pinch hitter in any circumstances in case something happens to Brian McCann, and Diaz, who has such an aversion to hitting righties that you might as well not even bother. Predictably, Diaz got the call to pinch hit for Martinez, and struck out on four pitches. That's that, folks.
Last season, the Braves won 89 games and led the wild card until the final week of the season. They collapsed in epic fashion, and as much as everyone wants to point at the players not performing, the main finger should be pointed at the manager who put them in situations were the odds were against them succeeding. During the 2011 season, Fredi was driving the sportscar down the road with reckless abandon, cutting red lights, zooming past stop signs, and nicking cars all along his road to the playoffs. It looked like he'd get there fine, until he t-boned a car just a block from his overall destination. Instead of giving Fredi a new sportscar, or hell, repairing the old one and giving it to someone who can handle it properly, the Braves repaired their old car, and handed Fredi the keys again. Two games into the season, he's gone through a red light and nearly killed a pedestrian. If he doesn't learn how to drive properly, this trip is going to end like last year's: short of the ultimate goal, not because of the brilliant machine he's driving, but becuase of his horrendous skills behind the wheel.