There are expected to be a number of managerial openings this offseason, with no shortage of candidates in line to replace those being jettisoned (or leaving of their own volition). And while there has been a recent trend of hiring young — no previous experience necessary! — a handful of former MLB managers will certainly be considered. Fredi Gonzalez is among them.
Currently the third-base coach for the Marlins, Gonzalez has had a pair of mostly successful stints as a big-league skipper. The 54-year-old native of Cuba was at the helm in Miami from 2007 to -10, and in Atlanta from 2011 to -16. Under his leadership, the Braves had back-to-back 94- and 96-win seasons before things went south.
Gonzalez has grown a lot since he was named to replace Bobby Cox following the 2010 season. In December of that year, an interview I did with him for Baseball Prospectus led with the following: “Fredi Gonzalez is no stat geek — at least not yet — but he clearly recognizes the importance of data.”
Eight years later, that recognition has increased exponentially. Gonzalez still trusts his gut — every experienced manager and coach does, to a certain extent — but he’s smart enough to have evolved with the game. Baseball is embracing analytics more and more, and so is Fredi Gonzalez.
Fredi Gonzalez: “I think a lot differently now than I did back then. I remember we talked about sacrifice bunting. I’ve kind of gone away from that line of thinking. We’re a National League team — I’ve always been in the National League — and while I think the pitcher is more productive when he can bunt a guy over, that’s usually not the case for a position player. I’ve changed my mind on that.
“I’ve changed my mind on closers. I was spoiled when I first came up, because I had Craig Kimbrel. It was easy to plan out my ninth-inning strategy. Now I’m starting to question why you’d spend a large amount of your payroll a guy who is only going to pitch 80 innings. I still believe that the ninth inning is the ninth inning — it’s still a special inning — but I also believe in putting guys in spots to be successful. If there are two or three left-handed hitters coming up in the ninth, you can use your left-hander there. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your closer.
“There are obviously guys out there who can get anybody out. Kimbrel. Kenley Jansen. Aroldis Chapman. But if you don’t have one of those guys — a Mariano Rivera type — you don’t have to automatically pitch him in the ninth. For the most part, you can match up. Maybe you can use that right-handed guy in the seventh or eighth when there are three right-handed hitters and it’s the best part of their lineup. Maybe it’s a high-leverage situation.
“I used to be a guy who wouldn’t use his closer in a tie game on the road. I learned from that. In the bottom of the ninth inning, I used a rookie [Sugar Ray Marimon] with Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion due up. Four pitches into that inning, Boom! Game over. I remember going back to the hotel and thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve got Jason Grilli sitting there, and instead of using him, a veteran pitcher… plus, it wasn’t fair to the young pitcher to have to face that lineup. Now, Grilli may have given it up, too. But the point is, I didn’t use him because he was my closer and I didn’t want to use him in a tie game on the road. I don’t think like that anymore. High leverage is high leverage, and you learn from your mistakes. You learn from experience.
“Of course, some closers only want to pitch in save situations. That’s something your general manager can help you with. What it needs to be is, ‘No matter which innings you pitch, you’re going to get paid.’ Cleveland came out and did that with Andrew Miller. They gave him closer-type money — elite-reliever-type money — and Tito uses him anywhere he can. The ego isn’t there where it’s, ‘I have to get saves to get paid.’ We’re starting to see that a little bit in the market, where some of these relievers are getting nice contracts not because of saves, but because they can get guys out.
“If you have a Kimbrel or a Jensen on your team, you’re going to want to let them save games. The young man in Seattle [Edwin Diaz] has 50-something saves. You’re going to use him in the ninth. But you don’t always have to wait until the ninth inning. Every game matters in the standing. I’m not a believer in, ‘This is April, we can afford to lose this one.’ We want to win every single game. That said, it’s still easier to use a guy without that kind of a reputation — again, a Rivera or a Kimbrel — in a high-leverage situation before the ninth.
“Here [with the Marlins], we don’t have that guy, and I think [Don Mattingly] does a good job of matching up. But regardless of who you have, there’s a balance you have to strike. The biggest challenge any manager faces is handling the egos and expectations of the players on his roster. Experience helps you do that.
“The information we have can help us make a case with players. You can tell a guy, ‘Listen, every time you face this type of hitter, you get him out. Let’s try to get that match-up for you as often as we can.’ Every player wants to be successful. Nobody wants to get beat up. Using analytics to state your point is helpful.
“We had a situation in spring training with a right-hander who has pitched in the big leagues a little bit. We said to him, ‘Listen, the analytical information says you don’t throw fastballs in. Let’s work on throwing fastballs in.’ It was a crazy number, the percentage of fastballs away that he threw to right-handed hitters. We told him, ‘Hey, if you want to make this team, if you want to get better in your career, you need to start doing what the information says you should do.’ Or maybe it’s, ‘You’re getting getting beat up on balls down, so we need to pitch up in the zone more often.’ It works with hitters, too. Sometimes you have to go up and say, ‘Look at what these numbers are showing.’
“When I first started managing in the big leagues, a lot of this stuff wasn’t out there — and if it was, it was hard to find. Now, with a matter of a few strokes on a keyboard, we can get a lot of information that helps players. It helps us in our decision-making.
“Another thing I’ve come around to is the value of rest. That includes the time you spend in the clubhouse. I think that showing up at one o’clock for a seven o’clock is detrimental for a lot of players. Not physically, but mentally. The drain of just sitting there. Hey, show up at four o’clock. Get your rest at home. Or go out and enjoy the city. Don’t come to the ballpark and sit around, looking at each other. Break the monotony.
“Workloads… you wouldn’t believe how many swings some guys take in the cage. We need to be smarter about managing workloads. Joe Maddon does it. I talked to Alex Cora today, and they’re not taking BP. Ten years ago, if we didn’t take BP, or if we didn’t go out there take ground balls, I almost felt like we weren’t prepared for the game. Now I’ve come around to the value of rest.
“How often you’re getting guys up in the bullpen…when you ask a pitcher if he’s OK to go today, he’s always going to tell you yes. You believe some of them — at least until they prove you wrong — but with some guys you have to say, ‘Today you’re not going to pitch. You’ve pitched in two of the last three, and you warmed up in the other one, so we’re going to stay away from you unless we play a 20-inning game.’ These guys are all competitors. They’re alpha males. Javy Guerra, for instance. If he pitches four days in a row, the fifth day he’s going to tell you, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ And maybe he is, but down the road that fatigue is going to detrimental.
“I’ve managed teams that are supposed to win, and I’ve managed teams that weren’t supposed to win. And I’ll tell you this: if you manage a team that’s not supposed to win… and you do win… that’s easier than the other way around. We won in Atlanta, then in 2015 and 2016, even though I understood what was going on — I understood what needed to be done — it was still hard. Winning is an unbelievable feeling. I don’t think the majority of people realize just how hard it is to win in this league. Once you get that taste in your mouth, it’s hard not to like it.
“Again, I’ve been on both sides — in Miami and in Atlanta. If you’re managing a team that’s not supposed to win, you need the support of your owner and the front office, and it’s important that you encourage your players. If you see the guys getting better, the losses don’t hurt quite as much. But for everybody doing this job, whether it’s Buck Showalter, whose team has lost over 100 games, or us here in Miami… winning is still what you want. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”
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.