Manager constantly changing strategy based on who's hot on roster
By Terence Moore
During the opening 31 games for the Braves this season, guess how many different starting lineups they had?
"I've got a computer program," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez with a straight face, before he eased into a smile at Turner Field.
Seriously, folks, the only combination of hard drive and software Gonzalez uses to decide who bats where for a given game is between his ears.
This is some trick for Gonzalez. Consider, too, that his eternal juggling mostly has worked. For instance: The Braves have struggled for the last several years at trying to manufacture runs, but they've improved this season in that category. That's partly because they've gone from one of the worst teams in baseball at avoiding striking out to one of the best. Only the defending American League champion Royals strike out less than the Braves. In addition, the Braves are fourth in the Major Leagues in sacrifice hits, and they are eighth in sacrifice flies. They've also been one of the most prolific teams all season at hitting with runners in scoring position.
Which brings us back Gonzalez, in the midst of his fifth year with the Braves after managing the Marlins for four seasons. He constantly is searching for the best set of matchups each day, each hour, each second.
Or so it seems.
"Some of this is by necessity," Gonzalez said. "Take, for example, we had [Nick] Markakis in the leadoff spot for a while, because we wanted that on-base percentage up there, and then Kelly Johnson goes out with an oblique, so we needed to figure out who's going to hit behind [Freddie] Freeman. We were playing [Phil] Gosselin a lot, and then he goes out with a thumb injury. But you know what's good about this team? You get to play the hot hand."
No question there, because Gonzalez has a slew of hands to choose from these days. When one of those hands goes cold on offense, another has a tendency to heat up.
You can start with veteran A.J. Pierzynski , who ripped pitches so well to start the season that he went from backup to starting catcher for the Braves in place of slumping rookie Christian Bethancourt. One moment Eric Young Jr. finds his name on Gonzalez's lineup card in center field, and the next, Cameron Maybin is swinging his way into the picture. When everybody is healthy, there is a plethora of choices at third base: Alberto Callaspo, Chris Johnson, Kelly Johnson and Gosselin.
Then there's rookie Todd Cunningham, who is efficient at all three outfield positions, including left field, where he can alternate with Jonny Gomes.
The possibilities go on and on for Gonzalez.
"No, no. It really is fun," Gonzalez said. "We lose Kelly Johnson [to his oblique injury] in Cincinnati last week, and then we have an off-day that Thursday in Miami, and that whole day, I'm thinking about the lineups. So I come in on Friday afternoon, and I put the lineup up, and [hitting coach Kevin] Seitzer goes, 'Wow, I never thought about moving [Jace] Peterson to the leadoff spot.'"
All Peterson did against the Marlins was make the first home run of his Major League career a grand slam, and he torched Miami at the plate the rest of the weekend.
Added Gonzalez, "I put Peterson in the leadoff spot at that time, because we needed somebody to protect Freeman in the four hole, and I knew Markakis could do that, and then I started to fill out the rest of the lineup from that point."
The Braves did have accomplished holdovers such as Andrelton Simmons, Freeman and Chris Johnson after an offseason that gutted the offense from the previous year, but this roster was unknown territory for Gonzalez entering 2015. He determined what he needed to do with it in a hurry. He had help along the way, and he continues to have that help.
"I'll sit and talk to the hitting coaches, and I'll say to them, 'OK, tell me what you think,'" Gonzalez said. "I'll tell them I'm thinking about playing Maybin or EY. 'Tell me what you think about that. I'm open.' Seitzer might say, 'Well, Maybin is starting to swing the bat well, so give him some more at-bats.' Or it could be something like, 'You know what? You haven't played EY in two weeks. You better give him some at-bats.' So it's a collaboration with our coaching staff.
"Sometimes you get a matchup that you think is favorable, but there really is no set way I do it, and unlike what some might believe, there really is no computer involved with the decisions. It's just a feel."
After all, computers can't feel.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.