When Fredi Gonzalez got fired, the Atlanta Braves record stood at 9-28, a lowly .243 winning percentage that would have ranked the team with some of the worst in franchise history. The Braves history of midseason replacement managers provides some interesting guidance about expectations.
Before 2016, and including the 19th-century Boston teams, the franchise had made 18 midseason managerial changes.
Only eleven of those changes occurred when the team had a losing record. (They have fired seven managers with winning records!) In five of those eleven cases, the new manager produced a worse record, and in six cases, he produced a better record. On average, new managers achieved a winning percentage about .010 higher than their predecessors.
But that’s mostly because of a massive outlier in 1966. Bobby Bragan was fired after 111 games, his team having limped to a 52-59 record, a winning percentage of .468. Billy Hitchcock came in and finished the year with a 33-18 record, a .647 winning percentage that was .179 points higher than Bobby Bragan’s .468 mark.
If you exclude the 1966 season, the average change in winning percentage was actually -0.058 — in other words, the replacement manager usually fared worse than the man he replaced.
Over the six instances where the new manager improved on his predecessor’s mark, the new man’s winning percentage was .053 higher. Take out 1966, and the average increase in the other five cases was just .029. For the five instances when the successor manager’s team posted a worse winning mark, the average decrease totaled .041.
So, had Snitker followed precedent, his team might have been expected to have a record between 25-99 (a .201 record) and 37-87 (a .298 record). Instead, his Braves went 59-65, a .476 record, an increase in winning percentage of .233 over Gonzalez’ mark after May 18. This represents the largest change between managers in any instance of change in the dugout and only the 4th instance of a winning percentage increase exceeding .100.
What Snitker Overcame
Despite the monumental increase in winning percentage under Snitker, the Braves still finished in last place, of course, the same spot they were in on May 18. That’s a familiar story in franchise history. Only twice did a Braves team with a losing record at the time of the managerial change improve their position in the standings — 1945, when Warren Spahn and many of the league’s top stars were at war, and the aforementioned 1966.
Of all the obstacles Snitker faced, a few jump out immediately. For starters — no pun intended — the Braves ran out 14 different starting pitchers in his 124 games. For example, Jhoulys Chacin started five games before being traded on May 11, a week before Fredi was axed. Another five pitchers were traded after Snitker became manager, and Alexi Ogando got his outright release.
The Braves had a total of 35 pitchers make at least one appearance during the season, but none spent the entire season on the active roster. Everyone either spent time on the injured list, time in Triple-A, or time with another franchise. Teheran led the starters with 188 innings pitched. Williams Perez had the fifth most innings as a starter, with just 53.2 innings pitched.
On the field, 25 different men stepped between the foul lines at some point during the season. They ranged from the regulars like Freeman and Markakis to part-timers like Jace Peterson, Gordon Beckham, and the quickly forgotten Reid Brignac and Matt Tuiasosopo. After Snitker arrived, five players were traded, beginning with Kelly Johnson on June 8, and ending with Beckham on September 27. While Freeman and Markakis appeared in 158 games each, only three others had more than 100 appearances.
The Braves had 13 players make their Major League debut in 2016, ten of whom were pitchers. Four debuted under Gonzalez (Mallex Smith and three hurlers) while Snitker introduced seven pitchers and two infielders, including Dansby Swanson.
What He Accomplished
With all of the roster turmoil, it’s instructive to compare the first 37 games of the season with the final 37 games of the season.
In the first 37 games, the Braves played 21 games against teams who qualified for the playoffs, going 4-17 against them. In the final 37 games, the Braves played 15 games against teams qualifying for the playoffs, and went 7-8 against them.
Some more numbers to compare:
Scoring improved by over two runs per game as the batting average jumped. Extra base hits almost doubled, going from 66 XBH and only 10 HR during the initial part of the season, to 118 XBH, including 36 HR, at the end. Interestingly, the number of strikeouts per game hovered around 8.25 in both parts of the season. The most significant changes were the addition of Matt Kemp on July 30, and trading away Jeff Francoeur on August 24, when just 34 games remained.
The pitching record was more mixed.
||Go < 5 IP
||≥ 5 runs /start
While the starters’ record improved significantly, from 5-17 to 14-9, by other metrics, such as runs allowed per game, the number of games where the starter didn’t make it past the 5th inning, and giving up five or more runs in a start, the starters did worse at the end of the year than they had at the beginning. The pen got better, though. Their record improved from 4-11 to 9-5, the number of saves doubled, and runs per game and walks decreased, though the number of games when the pen held the opposition hitless decreased slightly.
Other than the improvements in batting, particularly with power, it’s difficult to identify why Snitker got such dramatically improved results over Gonzalez.
With the naming of Snitker as the manager for the 2017 season, history offers both hope and caution. First: Bobby Cox totally destroys any meaningful statistical analysis, since he returned to the dugout 65 games into the 1990 season, then won 15 division championships. But Fred Haney also replaced Charlie Grimm a third of the way into the 1956 season, then managed Milwaukee into the World Series in both 1957 and 1958. And in the 19th century, John Morrill (who managed Boston to first place in 1882 and then stepped down), replaced Jack Burdock halfway through the 1883 season and took the team to first place. Morrill then kept the Boston in first in both the 1884 and 1885 seasons.
However, in most instances, the replacement manager’s success was fleeting. In 1951, Tommy Holmes replaced Billy Southworth, but Holmes lasted just 35 games in the 1952 season before Charlie Grimm took his job. In 1961, Birdie Tebbets replaced Charlie Dressen, but Tebbets was replaced at the end of the 1962 season. And in the Braves’ first season in Atlanta, 1966, Billy Hitchcock replaced Bobby Bragan in August, but then got pink-slipped fired with just three games to go in 1967.
Other Atlanta changes include Eddie Mathews replacing Luman Harris about two-thirds of the way through the 1972 season. Mathews himself got replaced by Clyde King in the middle of 1974. King didn’t complete the 1975 season, getting the axe with 27 games left on the schedule. Finally, Russ Nixon replaced Chuck Tanner 39 games into the 1988 season, only to be replaced by Cox just before the mid-point of the 1990 season. Replacements often get replaced by replacements.
One can be hopeful, but experience shouldn’t lead to great expectations. Even if Brian Snitker is the best Atlanta manager since Bobby Cox, there are plenty of other positions that badly need an upgrade. The Johns have their work cut out for them.