It's fun to complain about managers. When they bunt, when they send the runners, when they bring in certain relievers -- it's a baseball tradition to second-guess the lever pushing. But it's still an open question how much of a difference all of the in-game strategy makes. While it might be the difference between first place and second place, it will never be the difference between first place and last place.
But if Tony La Russa blew a piston in his brain -- another one, I mean -- and decided that Albert Pujols's slump early this season meant that he wasn't fit to start anymore, that'd make a pretty big freaking difference. Choosing which players to play is how managers make the biggest impact on a team's wins and losses.
In Atlanta, Fredi Gonzalez has a tough gig. He replaced a manager who had been there for 21 years -- 26, if you count his first gig with the Braves. The fans in Atlanta are used to a certain style of managing, for better or for worse. A new guy coming in and changing the soup-of-the-day recipe is going to lead to extra scrutiny.
But there's a pretty good chance that Gonzalez is going down a dark path. Jason Heyward is in a pretty serious gutterfunk right now. He's hitting .222/.317/.403 for the season, and that's a pace he's sustained for the last couple of months. Jason Heyward is also certainly one of the three best outfielders the Braves can play. Those two points aren't mutually exclusive. It wasn't a question before the Braves acquired Michael Bourn or while Chipper Jones' injuries allowed Martin Prado to shift to third base, but now things are a little fuzzy.
Jones is back, Prado is in left, and Bourn is in center. And in right field ... well, that's up in the air. Heyward has started three of the last eight games in right, yielding significant time to Jose Constanza. Now, we can do this the stat way or the scout way. First, here's what Constanza has done in the minors:
|2005||21||2 Teams||2 Lgs||A--A||CLE||342||0||26||7||43||52||.257||.346||.301||.647|
|2006||22||2 Teams||2 Lgs||A+-A||CLE||434||2||39||8||72||80||.309||.410||.410||.820|
If you're a batting-average fetishist, you're probably thinking, "What? What's the problem?" But then, you probably can't read this site because it displays all weird in Prodigy. The rest of us can look at those stats, look at the age, and instantly know we're looking at a fifth outfielder, but only if he has speed and defense on his side (which he does).
Then there's the scout way:
from MLB Daily Dish
Yeah. That's a guy you want on your bench. Maybe. If he's really fast (which he is, I promise). But starting over Jason Heyward? Wait ... What in the world ...
That's Constanza's line in the majors after 46 at-bats. And you'd better believe he's looking sharp whenever he's getting those hits, putting the ball in play just out of everyone's reach, beating out infield hits, and looking like the archetypal lead-off hitter.
But Heyward's better. We can do this the scout way (Heyward's still a tools maven, and he's only 21) or the stats way (Heyward has sneezed out more productive minor-league lines than Constanza has ever produced), but Jason Heyward is better. You can disagree, that's fine. Take your 50 at-bats from Constanza this year, and I'll take my two-plus years of Heyward performance. We'll meet back here in a year and laugh about all this.
Beware the small-sample dragons, Fredi. You're new, and you have a tough gig, but don't get caught up in pretending you can tell a fluky hot streak from a performance gain. Heyward's shoulder is a concern -- maybe that's why his BABIP is only .243 -- but he's still one of the three best outfielders you have. The Braves have a five-game lead in the wild card, but they still can't afford to play just anyone.