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Last year, the Atlanta Braves blew a big September lead in the Wild Card standings and missed the playoffs completely. Instead of firing the manager, the franchise has made small adjustments that are paying off big.
The Braves collapsed last September, and fell out of the postseason derby on the last day of the season. As usually happens in these situations, there were people calling for the manager's head. When something terrible happens, we can't help looking for someone to blame. And unless the manager's halfway to the Hall of Fame already, he usually become everyone's first choice.
To the organization's credit, the Braves didn't panic. As Danny Knobler writes:
But even if their 2012 postseason lasts just one more game than their nonexistent 2011 postseason did, the Braves have already justified the decisions they made last October. They've already proven that sometimes patience really is the best policy, that even the worst of collapses doesn't necessarily require finding someone to blame.
The Braves believed in their players. They believed in their manager, Fredi Gonzalez, even though they also believed that Gonzalez needed to change some things if he was going to have success.
As our Matt Snyder pointed out in a blog Tuesday, after the Braves clinched their playoff spot with a walkoff win over the Marlins, Gonzalez avoided the temptation to overuse his most important relief pitchers this year. Keeping incredible closer Craig Kimbrel and the rest fresh helped the Braves in September, and should make them formidable in October.
I don't mean to diminish what management has done, but considering that the Braves' lineup is little-changed from last year, the only real changes on the field have been a) working Kris Medlen into the rotation, while coping with the loss of Brandon Beachy, and b) as mentioned above, cutting the top relief pitchers' workloads.
The first of those has obviously worked even better than anyone could have possibly hoped, while I have actually sort of questioned the second. Does it really make sense to take significant innings from your best relievers and give them to your not-best relievers? Especially when there's not much evidence suggesting that the best relievers' workloads last season actually hurt them?
Does it really make sense (I wondered) to establish some sort of precedent, limiting top relief pitchers to 60-65 innings?
Except I checked, and the Braves' handling of incredible closer Craig Kimbrel (and the rest) isn't precedent-setting. Medlen's going to finish the season with something between 60 and 65 innings; same for Chad Durbin, with Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty in the 55-60 range. Which seems like not many innings. But there is a long history, going back nearly 25 years, of pitchers saving at least 35 games while pitching fewer than 65 innings.
In 1990, Dave Righetti finished with 36 saves in only 53 innings; just four years earlier, he'd recorded 48 saves while pitching 107 innings.
In 1997, Randy Myers led the National League with 45 saves while throwing 60 innings.
In 2005, Cleveland's Bob Wickman led the American League with 45 saves while throwing 62 innings.
Since 1990, there have been 66 pitcher-seasons with 35 or more saves and fewer than 65 innings. Perhaps what's most interesting about Fredi Gonzalez's bullpen strategy is that he's not letting anyone throw more than 65 innings this season. That seems uncommon.
The practical impact of all this remains unknown. Kimbrel's been better this season, Venters has been worse, and O'Flaherty has been a little worse. But Gonzalez seems to be keeping everyone happier, thanks largely to the absence of a late-season collapse. And when you get right down to it, maybe that's all a manager is supposed to do.