The summer of 1988 was not a good one for the Atlanta Braves. They were in the middle of their worst season in franchise history, losing 106 games.
This year’s team is not that bad, but unfortunately there are similarities. The 1988 team had issues in the starting rotation, while the bullpen is this year’s Achilles’ heel.
Back 27 years ago, it was the first full season for Tom Glavine. John Smoltz made his debut that summer, while other young pitchers like Peter Smith and Kevin Coffman were also getting their feet wet in the rotation.
The manager that season was Chuck Tanner, a veteran skipper who had won a World Series with Pittsburgh nine years earlier. But Tanner wasn’t great at working with the young pitchers, and he was fired 39 games into the season by then-general manager Bobby Cox.
It’s logical to wonder if this season’s manager for the Braves will also have pitching seal his fate. Granted, the cast of characters in Fredi Gonzalez’s bullpen is not great. But his handling of the staff is regularly under discussion.
Atlanta’s bullpen has been awful. It has the second-worst ERA in baseball. The Braves have used 18 pitchers out of the bullpen through the first 65 games of the season. Last year, for the entire season, the Braves used 15 relievers.
Gonzalez hasn’t helped matters. He actually used five pitchers in one inning last week in yet another game that blew up on the bullpen. Then Saturday, he used starting pitcher Williams Perez to close a game out in New York.
But what’s also been peculiar is Gonzalez’s handling of the rotation. Sunday he pulled starter Mike Foltynewicz, who was struggling, with one out in the fifth inning. The Braves were still up by three runs. Instead of letting the young pitcher work through the problems, Gonzalez pulled Foltynewicz in favor of rookie reliever Brandon Cunniff, who quickly gave up a two-home run.
With his bullpen a mess, wouldn’t it have been better for Foltynewicz to simply get out of the jam, instead of Gonzalez going to his bullpen early?
Then when Perez started Monday, Gonzalez pulled him after six innings when he had thrown only 79 pitches. Perez was cruising, and he had only thrown nine pitches on Saturday. But Gonzalez was overly careful with Perez when it probably wasn’t necessary considering how bad his bullpen has been this season.
Can Gonzalez’s strange moves simply be chalked up to having no one to count on in the bullpen? Has that made him change the way he manages games to the point where he frequently makes bizarre decisions?
Well, maybe. But we’re talking about a manager who overworked Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty in his first season as Atlanta’s manager. Venters has had two Tommy John surgeries since that season, while O’Flaherty has had one. Gonzalez also had a bad reputation in Florida while managing the Marlins for handling his bullpen.
Pitching is the key to Atlanta’s retooling of the organization. That was proved by the Braves taking 18 pitchers in their first 23 picks last week in the amateur draft. And we’ve seen how they have gotten a pitcher back in almost every trade they’ve made.
That’s exactly what was going on in 1988, but Tanner wasn’t the man to nurture that young pitching. Can the Braves really trust Gonzalez with their most prized commodity?
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gonzalez struggling handling the pitchers
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