The Atlanta Braves have followed up their 2011 collapse with an 0-4 start to the 2012 season. The Braves have simply been terrible in 2012. Their .229 wOBA is 29th in the majors, they rank 29th in BABIP against, and they are tied for 29th in run differential. Not all of this can be blamed on the manager and it is only four games, but Gonzalez is in line for criticism for his bullpen usage and playing time decisions.
I try to resist criticizing the decisions of major league managers. They have much more information that those of us on the outside do. By virtue of being with the team every day, they also have the ability to use their wealth of information in the proper context. Lineup decisions that analysts criticize on baseball grounds may in fact be based on factors not publicly known. Despite my hesitancy on this front, some of the decisions made by Fredi Gonzalez in the early days of the 2012 season appear to be indefensible.
Last night the Braves were opening a series against the Houston Astros and facing lefty starter J.A. Happ. Gonzalez chose to sit Jason Heyward for this game with Matt Diaz starting in RF, Martin Prado in LF, and Juan Francisco at 3B. The is a lineup that is inferior both offensively and defensively to Diaz in LF, Heyward in RF, and Prado at 3B.
For his career, Diaz has had a lot of success against lefties with a .374 wOBA. Prado has a identical .339 wOBA against both lefties and righties. Heyward has certainly had his struggles against lefties with a .310 wOBA compared to .365 against righties, but Juan Francisco has been terrible with a .202 wOBA in a very limited sample size. Though given his minor league track record against southpaws, Francisco’s MLB numbers are not surprising. Despite the players’ past performances, Gonzalez chose to play the iron-gloved Francisco (115 errors in 533 minor league games) instead of Heyward. Francisco went on to make three errors in the first three innings of the game, including two on one play, which eventually led to a three-run inning by the Astros.
Why was Francisco playing? According to Braves’ beat writer David O’Brien, Gonzalez wanted to “see him hit against a lefty.” It is hard to imagine what new information Gonzalez thought he’d garner by seeing two or three plate appearances against one pitcher, but even if Gonzalez thought he’d gain new insights into Francisco it is hard to justify weakening your team at the plate and in the field for a data-gathering exercise. That is what Spring Training is for, no? Francisco could end up being a useful part for the Braves given how fragile Chipper Jones is at this stage of his career, but unless there are no better options available he should not be starting against lefties.
Things did not get better from there. Trailing by one run after five innings, Gonzalez turned the game over to Livan Hernandez, who promptly gave up two runs in the bottom of the sixth. Hernandez is a useful guy to have around as a long-reliever or spot-starter, but he should not be used in medium or high leverage situations. Neither Jonny Venters nor Craig Kimbrel pitched on Sunday and were likely available. Kris Medlen and Eric O’Flaherty were also likely available given that they each pitched only one inning on Sunday, and did not pitch Friday or Saturday. When Hernandez entered the game last night the Braves has a .259 win expectancy that had plummeted to .115 by the end of Hernandez’s inning of work. Down by one run to what is expected to be the worst team in MLB is not the time to punt the game.
Gonzalez’s bullpen usage on Saturday was also bizarre. Trailing the New York Mets 3-2 in the middle of the seventh, he turned to Chad Durbin despite having Venters, Kimbrel, Medlen, and O’Flaherty all available due to Friday’s off day. When Durbin entered the game vs. the Mets the Braves’ win probability was .222, which quickly plummeted to .128 by the end of Durbin’s seventh inning. Last season Gonzalez was roundly criticized — perhaps unjustifiably — for over using his best relievers. He seems to have responded in 2012 by throwing in the towel in game that the Braves trail. Given how anemic their offense has been, the Braves may have lost both of these games no matter who came out of the bullpen. However, when facing two teams predicted to finish in the cellar of their divisions, neither of whom have deep bullpens, I would like see Gonzalez take advantage of his team’s strength — a great bullpen — to keep the team in these games.