There’s more to benching a guy than just benching a guy. A manager has to do it at the right time for the right reasons. He can’t act in panic or out of spite. He has to make it clear that the benching isn’t a punishment, but a matter of collective needs overriding individual wants.
In sum, he has to do it the way Fredi Gonzalez does it.
The Braves manager sat three regulars who were hitting under .200 — Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton — for Thursday’s game. Not incidentally, the Braves scored more runs (11) against Toronto that night than in any previous game this season.
About here, a zillion Braves fans are saying: “If he’d put those three on the pine a month ago, the Braves would have clinched their division already! Why salute him for finally noticing the elephant on his sofa?”
Because Gonzalez didn’t wait too long. He waited until he could wait no longer, which is different. He made a reasoned move while showing he cares about the men involved. A player’s willingness to keep playing hard for his manager can’t be measured by analytics, but if Upton and Uggla remember how to hit and carry the Braves through September, the subtlety won’t seem so subtle.
Asked Friday what prompts him to bench someone, Gonzalez said: “When you see frustration — that’s the No. 1 red flag. I look at frustration and body language.”
Then this: “It’s not an easy thing. It’s a hard decision. It’s a decision I take very seriously. I talk with the coaches, but it always falls on my shoulders. I’ve got to think about (what’s best for) 25 players, six staff members, four clubhouse guys and the fans.”
Had Gonzalez pulled a mass sitdown after a month, he’d have left himself open to the charge — inside his clubhouse if not among fans — that he was overreacting to a slow start. When you’ve played almost a third of your 162 games, “slow start” no longer applies. None of the three benched Braves could claim that the manager had given up on them too soon. Besides, Gonzalez hasn’t given up on anybody.
Heyward and Uggla were in the lineup for Friday’s game against Washington. (Heyward, who entered hitting .152, was playing center field and batting leadoff.) This was in part because the two had hit well against Steven Strasburg — who was gone after after two innings after tweaking his back; the Braves would muster two hits and one run over seven innings against four relievers in losing 3-2 — but it was also an indication that this manager isn’t about to make anybody a Wally Pipp.
(History lesson: Wally Pipp was the Yankees first baseman benched in favor of Lou Gehrig, who started every game the next 13 years.)
Indeed, Gonzalez already was thinking of how to reinsert Upton. “It’s going to be a feel thing,” he said. “I’m a believer that to get out of a funk, you’ve got to play. If a guy spends too much time not playing, it’s even worse.”
Gonzalez conceded he’d pondered the possibility of sending Upton to the minors, but stressed he shared that notion with nobody. (Upton would have to approve such a demotion.) About Upton’s reaction to sitting five times in seven games, Gonzalez said: “He understands, to a certain degree. He wants to play. Good players do.”
The Braves are committed to Upton — at the hefty cost of $75 million — for five seasons. They’ll need him to be good, and they’ll never know if he can be unless they give him a chance. Then again, how many chances should a guy hitting .146 be afforded if there’s a better option?
Said Gonzalez: “People think this is about (fourth outfielder Jordan) Schafer. It’s not about Schafer. It’s about (Evan) Gattis. We’ve got to put that bat in the lineup.”
So there’s the challenge: Find a spot the folk hero can play without embarrassment; allow Upton time to find himself but not so much time he never will; keep a first-place team in first place without losing his clubhouse, and then do it all over again tomorrow. And you thought managing was easy.
The trick, suggested a man who wears a Braves uniform, but who has worked elsewhere under other noted managers, isn’t grounded so much in tactics but in basic human decency. “Fredi loves these guys,” the man said. “They have to know you have their best interests at heart, and you can’t fake that. Players will smell a fake.”
That’s the part fantasy leaguers miss. A manager must play to win today, but also to put his team in position to keep winning. He must find ways to get his best players on the field without alienating those who aren’t playing their best.
Stan Kasten, who has been president of three big-league teams, once said the first question to ask of a manager is: Can he lead men? Bobby Cox could and did. His successor can and does.