In 2011, in his first year at the helm in Atlanta, Fredi Gonzalez led the Braves to 89 wins. The following year, he led them to 94 wins. In 2013, that total climbed to 96. Bobby Cox’s replacement was skippering one of the best squads in baseball.
Things have changed. Gonzalez wears the same uniform — there’s still a tomahawk on his chest — but his team has been stripped of its stars. The Braves are in full rebuild mode, and while that’s not his doing, wins are nonetheless at a premium. Fair or not, Gonzalez has a target squarely on his back.
Nothing appears imminent, but it’s not unreasonable to believe that the Fredi-must-go movement will ultimately get its wish. In his own words, the club is losing in “all kind of different ways.” Regarding their record, he added that “Nobody expects us to win 120 games and boat race the division, but my expectation is that we’re going to be competitive; I want to win games.”
He isn’t winning many. Atlanta heads into May a worst-in-baseball 5-18. Gonzalez knows the score. He also wants to stay.
“We should be playing better than we have,” admitted the beleaguered Brave. “But it’s a plan. We needed to restock the farm system and we made some trades. I trust our leadership team and I trust the process. Whether I’m part of that long term plan, or not, I’m going to come to work every day and do the best job that I can.
“Believe me, I want to be here for (when the team is ready to contend). I see the young players on the horizon. Whether we win, lose or draw, I get up in the morning and look at our minor league reports. I see that the horizon getting closer.”
Last October, Gonzalez watched as a rival manager reaped the rewards of a rebuilding process.
“Look at Terry Collins with the Mets,” Gonzalez told me (and later echoed to other reporters). “Two years ago, I sat across the diamond from him and knew he was a good manager. I hoped he’d get a chance when the Syndergaards, deGroms and Harveys got there. Some teams change managers, but the Mets kept him and he got them to the World Series. Again, you trust the process and you trust your people.”
Buck Showalter has twice seen a team reach the World Series a year after he departed. It happened with the Yankees and then with the Diamondbacks. He’s also experienced the other side of the coin. Two years after replacing Dave Trembley in Baltimore, Showalter led the Orioles to the playoffs.
Trembley, now Atlanta’s director player development, is a potential replacement if Gonzalez is let go. Another candidate is bench coach Bo Porter, who was ousted in Houston midway through the 2014 season. Like the others, he saw a team he helped shape proceed to the postseason.
“Before you can sustain something, you have to start with a basic foundation,” said Russell. “From there, a lot of it has to do with the roster. If you look around at winning managers, they all have good players.”
Joe Girardi is managing a team of underperforming players right now. The Yankees are 8-14 following last night’s loss in Boston, and as you might expect, the New York tabloids are beginning to buzz. Is a managerial change coming in the Bronx?
Back in the George Steinbrenner days, the answer almost assuredly would be yes. Today it’s not so certain, but that doesn’t mean Girardi isn’t starting to feel the heat. In yesterday’s pre-game media session, he was clearly exasperated with a few of the questions. After one of them, Girardi responded with “Write what you want to write.”
It turns out that’s not true.
Baseball-Reference.com credits Anson with 3,012 hits in the National League, and 423 in the National Association. According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, the B-Ref numbers are correct (or at worst, more accurate than the one announced by the Yankees). Anson played from 1871 to 1897, and while the 3,081 was once in the record books, the number has been updated through further research.
Chase Headley hasn’t hit all that well since coming to New York in June 2014. In 232 games with the Yankees, his OPS is just .639. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The switch-hitter was trading in cavernous Petco Park for a venue that features a short porch in right field.
Looking into it a little deeper, the lack of production, particularly in terms of power, isn’t particularly surprising. In a 2011 interview, Headley suggested that Fenway Park would be a natural fit if he ever changed teams. (Of note: he re-upped with the Yankees in December 2015, three weeks after the Red Sox signed Pablo Sandoval.)
From the left side, Headley “really lets the ball get deep” and he hits the ball to “the center of the field or the other way.” From the right side, he “tends to hit the ball a little further out in front of the plate.”
In other words, his natural swing path, from each side, results in fly balls to the deepest part of Yankee Stadium. When I spoke to him on Friday, he acknowledged that hasn’t changed.
“Everybody talks about how good of a ballpark Yankee Stadium is to hit in, but it’s pretty big with the exception of right field,” said Headley. “The rest of it plays as big, or bigger, than most yards. It’s maybe a better fit for guys who hit the ball high down the line than it for guys who hit the ball like I have for a lot of my career.”
Headley, who is under contract with the Yankees through 2018, faces a bit of a conundrum. While his home run stroke isn’t conducive for his home ballpark, he feels he needs to hit the ball in the air.
“Because of the shifting that’s going on now, if you hit the ball on the ground, for the most part you’re out,” Headley told me. “I’m trying to get the ball elevated — I want to hit it hard in the air — and if I never hit another ball on the ground, I’ll be happy.”
As for hitting the ball in the air in the right direction, that’s another story.
“Obviously, if I knew the way to do it — if I was able to do it — I would hit the ball in the air to the pull side a lot more in New York,” said Headley. “I’m working on that.”
Nineteen games into the season, Headley has a 29.8% fly ball rate and a .418 OPS.
Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell was a versatile infielder in his playing days. He played 754 games at second, 478 at short, and 385 at third. In his opinion the latter is the hardest to practice. The subject came up when he was asked about Aaron Hill, who has limited experience at the hot corner.
“It’s harder to simulate third base than the middle infield,” Counsell said this spring. “You don’t get to pick your hops at third base. The good middle infielders get to pick their hops. With good feet, you can still give yourself a little bit easier hop, but it’s more challenging at third base. You just make a decision and go get it.”
J.A. Happ has been one of the best pitchers in the game since last year’s trade deadline. After being acquired by Pittsburgh from Seattle, the southpaw closed out the season by winning seven of nine decisions and posting a 1.85 ERA. Signed by Toronto over the winter, he’s off to a 3-0, 2.76 start in his new north-of-the-border home.
His numbers weren’t nearly as sun-drenched in the Northwest. Happ had a 4.64 ERA in his four-month tenure with the Mariners. How did he go from not-very-good to very-good-indeed?
His answer was two-pronged.
“People seem to think I wasn’t very good in Seattle,” said Happ. “But if you look at my first two months (a 3.31 ERA in 11 starts), I was actually pretty good. Then I ran into a rough spot.
“I got into a few bad habits that I had to correct. My front leg was coming open, a little like a gate, and that flattened out my ball and made it tough to be consistent in the strike zone. I needed to get on a direct line with my leg to take my momentum to the plate. I also worked on staying back on the rubber to help me get a little better angle on the ball.”
Happ fine-tuned his mechanics with the help of Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage. He also upped his heater ratio, although that wasn’t necessarily by design.
“I’ve heard that I threw a greater percentage of fastballs in Pittsburgh,” said Happ. “But I’ve always pitched off my fastball, so to me it didn’t feel like anything different. More than anything, it was about commanding the baseball and getting my confidence back. In a lot of ways, the two go hand-in-hand.”
At the age of 33, Happ has never been better. Truth be told, outside of a strong 2009 season with the Phillies, his career had been fairly uneven. When I asked if he could pinpoint a reason, he suggested his inconsistnecies were more mental than mechanical in nature.
“There are no excuses in the game, but I guess if I could go back, maintaining confidence would be the biggest thing,” said Happ. “I’d have done a better job of trusting my stuff and letting the rest take care of itself. At times, I tried to do too much, and was maybe a little harsh on myself.”
Danny Farquhar is now with Tampa Bay after playing in the Toronto, Oakland, New York Yankees, and Seattle organizations. I asked the righty reliever if he’s more data-aware now that’s he’s a Ray.
“They’re presenting me with more than anyone I’ve been with,” responded Farquhar. “I think it’s a good thing. When things are going a little funky, you have this data to fall back on. I think of it as a tool, as kind of an extra set of eyes looking over my stuff.”
Early on, the most-meaningful impact has been mechanical.
“My biggest thing has been my arm slot,” explained Farquhar. “They showed me how my pitches are more effective when it’s a little higher. I might pick up a little more velocity with the lower arm slot, but the movement on the ball is much greater when it’s higher. We worked on that in spring training and my pitches got better.”
Andrew Miller isn’t an art aficionado, but he does enjoy a trip to the museum from time to time. The Smithsonian is a favorite, and now that he plays for the Yankees, he has easy access to places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
On a trip to Paris a few years ago, Miller and his wife visited the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, both of which they enjoyed. Their only issue was the crowds, which were especially bad at the former. Miller recalls it being “50-people deep in front of the Mona Lisa.” Being 6-foot-7, that wasn’t nearly as problematic for him as it was for others.
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At Baseball America, Teddy Cahill wrote about how the University of North Dakota baseball program is soon to be discontinued… but hopefully not.
According to MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez, reporters — in this case D-Backs beat writer Steve Gilbert — sometimes double as slick fielders.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Last season, 17 qualified hitters had a BABiP of .350 or higher. Of them, Joey Votto had the highest walk rate (20.6). Dee Gordon had the lowest (3.8).
On this date in 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker became the first African-American player to appear in a major league game.
On this date in 1920, the Boston Braves and Brooklyn Robins played to a 1-1 tie in a game that was suspended by darkness after 26 innings. The game was played in a time of 3:50. Both starting pitchers threw complete games.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.