NLDS Managerial Report Card: Brian Snitker

Brian Snitker
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

As I’ve done for the past few years, I’m going to be grading each eliminated postseason manager on their decision-making. We spend the year mostly ignoring managers’ on-field contributions, because to be honest, they’re pretty small. Using the wrong reliever in the eighth inning just doesn’t feel that bad on June 22; there are so many more games still coming, and the regular season is more about managing the grind than getting every possible edge every day. The playoffs aren’t like that; with so few games to separate wheat from chaff, every last ounce of win probability matters, and managers make personnel decisions accordingly. What better time to grade them?

My goal is to evaluate each manager in terms of process, not results. If you bring in your best pitcher to face their best hitter in a huge spot, that’s a good decision regardless of outcome. Try a triple steal with the bases loaded only to have the other team make four throwing errors to score three runs? I’m probably going to call that a blunder even though it worked out. Managers do plenty of other things — getting team buy-in for new strategies and unconventional bullpen usage behind closed doors is a skill I find particularly valuable — but as I have no insight into how that’s accomplished or how each manager differs, I can’t exactly assign grades for it.

I’m also purposefully avoiding vague qualitative concerns like “trusting your veterans because they’ve been there before.” Playoff coverage lovingly focuses on clutch plays by proven performers, but Josh Jung and Geraldo Perdomo have been great, too. Forget trusting your veterans; the playoffs are about trusting your best players. Zack Wheeler is important because he’s a great player, not because of the number of playoff series he’s appeared in. There’s nothing inherently good about having been around a long time; when I’m evaluating decisions, “but he’s a veteran” just doesn’t enter my thought process.

I’ve already covered the losing managers of the Wild Card round and the other division series eliminations. Today, it’s Brian Snitker’s turn.

Brian Snitker, Atlanta Braves
Batting: C-
The Braves have the kind of lineup that feels built for October, at least to me: few easily attackable hitters who need to be out of the game against lefty specialists. Unfortunately, they paired that with a fairly weak bench: whichever of Sean Murphy or Travis d’Arnaud wasn’t starting might be their best pinch-hitter depending on which version of Murphy you get that day. That made Snitker’s decisions quite easy; he platooned Kevin Pillar and Eddie Rosario and otherwise had a consistent defensive alignment, though he spent a bit of time shuffling lineup spots.

The lineup spot shuffling doesn’t matter much to me, which means there’s not much to say about Snitker’s early-series batting decisions. Pillar is a good option against Ranger Suárez. Rosario is a good option against Philly’s righty relievers. Snitker made no other consequential decisions in Game 1.

In Game 2, I want to highlight one decision that I’ll reference later on: with José Alvarado pitching and forced to face the next batter thanks to the three-batter minimum, Michael Harris II was due up to lead off the inning. It was a crucial spot, with the Braves trailing by a run. Snitker opted to let Harris hit for himself, a decision I agree with. Just keep that one in mind. That aside, it was more of the same: platoon Rosario and Pillar, and no other moving parts.

In Game 3, “disaster” struck: Pillar entered to face a lefty reliever in the sixth, then faced a righty reliever in the eighth. In fairness, the Braves were down 8–2 at the time, so winning the game was probably not the first thing on Snitker’s mind, but he pinch-hit for Pillar using Forrest Wall, who is undoubtedly left-handed. That’s kind of the end of his resume: he’s a 27-year-old career minor leaguer who’s mainly around as an emergency defensive outfielder. He got a playoff at-bat, though, so that’s cool.

The decision I’m not quite sure about came in Game 4. Pillar was back in the starting lineup with Suárez on the mound. After a solid start from Suárez, the Braves found themselves in a familiar situation: down two runs, with Harris due to face Alvarado. This time, Alvarado could depart at any time, having already faced five batters. But this time, Snitker pinch-hit for Harris with d’Arnaud, which predictably chased Alvarado from the game, with Craig Kimbrel coming in early to hold the lead.

I’m not sure whether I prefer the Harris/Alvarado matchup to the d’Arnaud/Kimbrel one, but Snitker had voted the opposite way earlier in the series (albeit with a different likely pinch-hitter, as d’Arnaud was starting that day). And there were meaningful implications: the Phillies’ next two relievers in the leverage hierarchy are both lefties, and the Braves had Wall in the lineup pinch-running for Orlando Arcia. Burning d’Arnaud for a matchup that doesn’t even seem better to me gave them less flexibility, and it also took Harris out of the game.

To be fair, those spots in the lineup weren’t guaranteed to bat. But if the Braves were going to win the game, they’d bat — one out in the seventh, six outs the rest of the way, and the two runs necessary to tie makes nine batters. One way or another, the Braves weren’t winning without Wall’s spot coming up in the lineup again.

That’s how you end up with Rosario, who I’ve spent an entire section describing as a lefty who only faces righties, pinch-hitting against a lefty pitcher. That’s how you end up with Vaughn Grissom, who barely played in the majors this year, pinch-hitting for Nicky Lopez (who was the defensive sub for d’Arnaud). The Braves were thin on the hitting side. Pinch-hitting for a bona fide good hitter to get a tiny advantage — if any — strikes me as the only mistake Snitker made, but man, I really don’t get what he was thinking there. I can’t give him a higher grade than a C-, because the degree of difficulty in managing these hitters was very low, and I’m still puzzling over the biggest decision he made all series.

Pitching: B-
Snitker made a name for himself as a postseason manager, at least in my eyes, with a masterful approach to relief pitching in the 2021 playoffs. He understood game situation well and used his high-leverage arms liberally when they mattered, but he also protected them when games got out of hand. This year, the circle of trust went deeper into the ‘pen: I count between five and seven relievers the Braves seemed willing to trust, depending on how you feel about AJ Smith-Shawver and Brad Hand. Snitker adjusted his tactics by using good relievers more liberally.

In Game 1, the Braves never scored while Spencer Strider threw seven two-run innings. A.J. Minter and Pierce Johnson allowed another run in the eighth, which leads to the first decision I didn’t love: why use Raisel Iglesias down three runs in the ninth? There was an off day coming up, but I’m not enamored with giving Kyle Schwarber a look at my closer for free.

Again, the Atlanta bullpen was deep this year. In Game 2, Snitker leaned on it. Max Fried looked exceedingly hittable in four innings of work and got into a jam with two on, two out, and Bryce Harper at the plate in the top of the fourth. Already trailing 3–0 and with Fried visibly struggling, I think I would have gone to a reliever in that spot, but it’s a close decision; Fried is a lefty, Minter was bound to do plenty of Harper duty this series, and Hand is no one’s idea of a sure thing to get Harper out.

After that, the pieces snapped into place. Five relievers each pitched one inning, and Snitker found that high-leverage spot for Minter after all; he got the top of the Philadelphia lineup with a one-run deficit, then walked Harper to start the ninth inning, setting up a wild finish. This was vintage Snitker: a series of hammers in an important game.

Also vintage Snitker: a quick punt in Game 3. Bryce Elder got into big trouble in a hurry. With two outs and nobody on in a tie game, things felt fine. Then Philly went single-homer-single-walk and uh oh, things were looking awkward. Snitker waved the white flag by sending in Michael Tonkin, who gave up a two-run double to set things off. The bottom of the Atlanta bullpen handled the increasingly out-of-hand game. I don’t hate using Tonkin there; Elder got lit up so early in the game that the high-leverage arms couldn’t possibly handle the entire remaining volume of innings. Snitker found out quickly whether this would be a game worth playing by putting one of his weaker links in early. Turns out, it wasn’t Atlanta’s day, so he saved some bullpen innings against a cruising Aaron Nola.

As it turns out, he didn’t do a lot with that bullpen flexibility. Strider had no feel for his slider in Game 4, alternately hanging it in the zone and bouncing it in uncompetitive locations. He labored through 5.2 innings, surrendering three solo homers in the process, and was clearly off the whole time. The Phillies blistered the ball against him; it took all kinds of guile and plenty of rising to the occasion just to keep it to that.

The third homer is on Snitker, as far as I’m concerned. Strider came back out for the sixth inning with Atlanta trailing 2–1. Again, he didn’t have it. It’s not just the slider meatballs; he’d allowed six hits and three walks already, an extremely un-Strider line. If you protect your bullpen so assiduously in blowout losses, you should use them here! But Snitker stuck with Strider, and Nick Castellanos got on top of a fastball. It wasn’t hard to guess what was coming, as Strider threw 16 pitches in his last inning of work: 14 fastballs, a slider that was nowhere near the zone, and a changeup against a lefty. The Phillies knew he was down to one pitch. Strider knew he was down to one pitch. Snitker had to have known, and he should have acted.

It wasn’t a banner year for the Braves, at least in October. It wasn’t Snitker’s best work either. He remains head and shoulders above the crowd when it comes to cutting his losses. This time, though, he missed a few decisions that didn’t fall into the classic fight-or-flight dichotomy. I’m sure that he, like the entire Braves team, will spend the winter ruing missed chances.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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6 months ago

i’m sure a lot of braves fans would have hoped you’d have been more harsh, but like it’s kind of the same situation as roberts. if only one guy in your line up shows up over 4 games you’re lucky to even win 1 of them