Postseason Managerial Report Card: Brian Snitker

Every series needs a finale, and the postseason managerial (and front office) report card series is no exception. Unlike nearly every movie franchise in history (Lord of the Rings, you’re excused), the last chapter here is the best. Brian Snitker did a tremendous job managing the Braves through this postseason. He started with a tenuous starting pitching unit, lost Charlie Morton, and managed his way through it anyway.

As always, these rankings are a reflection of the tactical decisions a manager made during the playoffs. I’m not considering roster moves or off-field decisions around keeping players ready to contribute — Kevin Cash and the Rays are the best example of this, but the Giants deserve mention here as well. This is just on-field moves — pinch hitting and lineup choices, pitching decisions, and the like.

Lineups/Pinch Hitting

Grade: A-
In the first game of the postseason, Snitker pinch hit for Eddie Rosario with Orlando Arcia. I think it was the right move — Josh Hader was on the mound, and that’s a rough matchup for Rosario — but it’s a funny reminder of how quickly fortunes can change. Aside from that, Snitker managed the NLDS cleanly, pinch hitting with Joc Pederson against righties, or picking between various unappetizing options against lefties. I did find it strange that Pederson rode the bench against three righty starters before getting his first start against a lefty, but there was going to be at least one lefty-lefty matchup and hey, hit two pinch-hit home runs and your manager might put you in the starting lineup, too.

The outfield shuffle ended in the NLCS, when Jorge Soler tested positive for COVID-19 and hit the IL. That gave the Braves three clear outfield starters and, quite frankly, simplified their pinch hitting decisions. There was no one left on the bench who I’d prefer to any of their starting position players, which meant pinch hitters were for pitchers (and double switches) only. Moving Dansby Swanson from eighth to first in the lineup (against a lefty) seems odd, but I didn’t mind it; the Braves didn’t have great options with Soler sidelined.

By the time Soler returned, Rosario had gone firmly nuclear, which meant everyday reps for him were a must. That slid Pederson and Soler into a time share — both played when there was a DH involved, and otherwise Snitker played matchups. I don’t have any issues with his hitter usage, which was a common theme in these playoffs, as managers mostly seem to pinch hit and design lineups “by the book” at this point.

Pitching

Grade: A+
There are no two ways about it: Snitker managed a magnificent postseason on the pitching side. The bullpen group of Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, and Will Smith pitched their hearts out, and Snitker repeatedly found ways to maximize their usage.

From the start of the playoffs, Snitker’s plan was straightforward and insightful: get as much as he could out of frontline starters Morton and Max Fried, and use the bullpen as a hammer to clean up everything else. Occasionally, that bit him — Morton gave up a two-run home run his third time through the order that provided the scoring margin in the opening game of the playoffs — but for the most part, using dominant starters and his four most trusted relievers was a recipe for success. The team only needed 7.2 innings of work from other pitchers in their first-round series against the Brewers.

There was one tight spot in that NLDS that could have gone very differently. In Game 3, the Brewers opened the fifth inning with a hit by pitch and a double against Ian Anderson, putting runners on second and third with no outs in a tie game. Snitker left Anderson in — perhaps because he wanted to get five innings out of him, perhaps because he liked the matchups — and didn’t pay for it. Anderson wriggled through with a sharp grounder that Luis Urías misread and stayed put on, a fielder’s choice out at the plate, and a lineout. Pederson hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning, and the Braves never looked back, but that close call showed the dangers of letting your medium pitchers run too long.

By the NLCS, the script was set. When Fried or Morton pitched, they went long, averaging 24 batters faced in their three starts. That was true even when Fried didn’t have it — he scuffled in Game 5, but Snitker still squeezed 90 pitches out of him. That might have been too long — the game was still close — but then again, the weak part of the Braves bullpen gave up six runs in 3.1 innings, so it’s hard to say Fried was a bad choice there.

When the two co-aces weren’t pitching, the plan was short starts, everyone available, and big chunks of innings from the four relievers Snitker trusts most. In Game 2, Snitker pulled Ian Anderson for a pinch hitter after three innings and used a bullpen carousel the rest of the way. He got 3.1 innings out of his top quartet, soaking up the balance with Jesse Chavez, Jacob Webb, and Chris Martin. Snitker impressively kept his eyes on the prize, even when Jackson and Matzek scuffled — they combined to load the bases before giving up a two-run double — but Snitker kept his bullpen hierarchy the same anyway.

Jackson blew the next game in a way that was hardly his fault. He threw a four-seamer well above the strike zone that Cody Bellinger absolutely ambushed. The result was a three-run home run that turned a 5-2 deficit into a 5-5 tie. When the next batter singled, Snitker had seen enough for the night, though his replacement of choice, Chavez, couldn’t keep the runner from scoring.

I’m totally okay with Snitker continuing to treat Jackson as a high-leverage reliever, but at some point, I expected him to draw the line. Jackson came in to protect a three-run lead in Game 6 — with the Braves up 3-1, this was do or die for the Dodgers — and gave up three straight baserunners, making it second and third with no one out in a two-run game. Matzek came in to get three huge strikeouts, and the Braves were off to the races, but it was fair to wonder whether Jackson would lose his spot in the bullpen.

In a different world, he might have. Game 1 of the World Series saw Morton take the mound, with Snitker surely planning on riding him for six innings and turning things over to his trio of trusted lefty relievers. The offense cooperated by hanging five quick ones on Framber Valdez, which gave Morton some margin for error. But a line drive fractured Morton’s fibula, and he was lost for the season. Snitker didn’t mess around — he turned to Minter, Jackson, Matzek, and Smith for 6.2 innings of relief to secure victory.

With no Morton, plans had to change, and so they did. First things first: Fried had to pull his weight. He got absolutely shelled in Game 2, giving up five runs over the first two innings. With Morton unavailable, though, Snitker planned on working his best relievers hard, so he couldn’t afford to have any of them throw in a lost game. Fried threw 86 pitches and faced 23 batters in a losing effort when many managers would have yanked their struggling starter and pushed the bullpen trying to stay in the game. Instead, a mop up crew of Chavez, Dylan Lee, Drew Smyly, and Kyle Wright picked up the scraps, giving the top guys some much-needed rest.

In Game 3, Snitker let Anderson go through the order two times before giving the last four innings to his bullpen horses. I would have been tempted to squeeze an out or two extra out of Anderson, but I get Snitker’s decision — up only 1-0, he couldn’t wait for a run to score before going to the heavy hitters. The 2-1 series lead gave him a bit of a cushion for Game 4, which ended up working perfectly.

Game 4 was the first of two consecutive planned bullpen games. With all four of his best relievers having worked the night before, Snitker managed like he had a plan: save the best relievers if the game wasn’t close, but put the pedal to the metal should it tighten up. Through four innings, Houston led 2-0, and the Atlanta bats had hardly troubled Zack Greinke, so Snitker stuck to his plan. He let Wright face 22 batters — the most any Atlanta pitcher other than Fried or Morton faced all postseason — and brought in Martin next. He looked ready to let this game get away and try for another five-plus-inning lift from his best guys the next day.

I absolutely love this decision, because if you manage every day like there’s no tomorrow, you’ll put yourself in tough situations as you run out of rested pitchers you trust. Knowing when to hold them and when to fold them is a key differentiator in the playoffs, when having your closer gassed at the wrong time can be the difference between success and failure.

But when his offense started to stir, Snitker changed course — another decision I was extremely impressed with. Austin Riley halved Houston’s lead with an RBI single, and though the Braves didn’t score again that inning, Snitker let the dogs out. He brought in Matzek against the teeth of Houston’s order, then Jackson (against the bottom of the order) and Smith to close things out after the offense flipped a 2-1 deficit to a 3-2 lead. By flipping from low-leverage guys to high-leverage guys when the low-leverage guys did well enough to keep Atlanta in it, Snitker won a crucial game, one that looked tough for Atlanta from the outset.

What did I say about knowing when to fold them? Snitker could have asked for a Herculean effort from his best bullpen arms in Game 5. Tucker Davidson, winner of the “Who in Atlanta can give us two innings” talent search, tried to go a third inning and let two batters reach to start the inning, though one of them wasn’t his fault, the result of a Swanson throwing error. Snitker then went to Chavez, who allowed both runners to score. I might have considered one of the big four there, but there almost wasn’t time — Chavez was already warming, and Snitker wasn’t willing to let Davidson face Carlos Correa with two runners on base. When Freddie Freeman homered to reclaim the lead for Atlanta, it was time for operation Big Four.

That operation worked terribly. Minter relieved Chavez the next time a lefty came to the plate, and he simply got beaten. He intentionally walked Alex Bregman to face Martín Maldonado, but Maldonado out-thought him, drawing a game-tying walk. Marwin Gonzalez followed with a two-run single, giving the Astros a two-run edge.

When Atlanta’s offense didn’t score in the next inning, Snitker didn’t chase the game. He let Martin and Smyly close things out, giving his heavily-taxed relievers some much needed rest. The final score was 9-5, but after Houston took a 7-5 lead and Atlanta didn’t respond in their half of the inning, the writing was on the wall. Per our game odds, Atlanta was only 22.5% to win at that point, and using their best relievers wouldn’t have budged that margin much — when you have 12 outs to score two runs, hitting is the limiting factor, not pitching.

As it turns out, saving the bullpen wasn’t hugely consequential. The original plan of riding Fried and backing him with relievers worked like a charm in Game 6, and that was the series. The extra rest the relievers had banked still helped — Matzek chipped in two triumphant innings of relief — but a bullpen comprised entirely of ham sandwiches stood a decent chance at holding Houston off, given the six-run lead Fried left with.

Regardless of how much that move mattered in the end, Snitker was downright masterful throughout the playoffs. He had a plan for how to use his best starters, his worst relievers, and everyone in between. He pushed his best relievers when their efforts could be the difference between a win and a loss. He babied them when they were unlikely to help the team.

Even in the playoffs, you can’t make the entire bullpen out of closers. Sometimes, the guys you trust a little less have to pitch. There’s really nothing you can do about it — it’s just how the math works out in the end. How, then, did the Braves seem to always have Matzek or Minter on the mound when it mattered most? It’s because Snitker was willing to lean on them heavily, but still managed to keep them fresh. Some of that is due to a combination of good genetics (Matzek pitched in the team’s first eight postseason games) and a postseason schedule that gave the team plenty of days off. Plenty of credit has to go to Snitker, though; he handled the difficult decisions every game and maximized the fit between high leverage and high-leverage relievers.

Losing Morton in the World Series was a tough blow, and for some teams, it might have led to a cascading bullpen failure as already-overtaxed relievers were asked to expand their portfolios. The Braves, though, took it in stride and came up with a plan to work through it. That flexibility and cogent planning earns Snitker an A+. He made tough choices as adroitly as any manager of recent vintage, and while the Braves players are the ones who won the World Series, their manager put them in the best position to do so.





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

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3Com Park
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3Com Park

Gabe Kapler was way way way better.

sddbaker
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sddbaker

Well, better than Dave Roberts, anyway.