Braves manager Brian Snitker and first baseman Freddie Freeman have been through the dark days together. Now they’re the captains of a redirected ship, one that’s steering toward the postseason.
As a result, both are popularly mentioned among the league’s highest individual honors, manager of the year and MVP.
“Everybody knows the last couple years haven’t been the best around here,” Freeman said. “But to be in this situation now, it’s great. I’ve been through it all so this is great when you start winning again. It’s kind of like when I first got called up and we were winning all the time.”
First Snitker, who took over as interim manager in 2016 and now has the Braves positioned first place in the National League East, is considered a heavy favorite for the managerial award. He’s going against Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell and Philadelphia’s Gabe Kapler, among others, for the prize.
But Snitker subscribes to a humble approach. He won’t talk much about his candidacy. He defers credit to his players without hesitation.
“Players make that,” Snitker said of the award. “If your good players play well, you get put in that conversation. Worry about winning the day.”
It’d be a nice story: Snitker is in his 43rd year in the organization. He’s worked myriad positions, many of which were in the minors. It’s become a rarity for minor-league skippers to find their way to the big league bench, with ex-players and hot younger names the latest fad.
The Braves bounced back for a 7-6 extra-innings win in Arizona on Thursday. They blew a four-run lead, and blew a two-run lead in the ninth. Snitker was ejected for arguing a questionable strike zone, but again his players came through for him.
“It speaks to the makeup of that team in (the clubhouse),” Snitker said. “The resiliency, the fight, the grit, it speaks volumes to that club in there. After what we experienced (Wednesday), to come in here and potentially have your heart ripped out again, and those guys pulled off a win. That just speaks volumes to who that club is.”
Some fans remain critical of Snitker for in-game decisions and bullpen management; which managers aren’t questioned for such? In Snitker, the players see a manager who battles for them, and they exhaust their efforts to reciprocate. It’s a similar gift to that of Bobby Cox, and despite the game’s great focus on numbers, the human element is alive and well.
Snitker’s people skills are significant in the Braves’ breakthrough. There is a chance he will be rewarded for it, and it would be hard to argue. If the Braves win the East, they’ll be the biggest surprise in the NL, if not all of baseball.
Among the “good players” Snitker referenced is Freeman, commonly mentioned atop the MVP rankings. He came through with a double in the eighth inning of Thursday’s 7-6 win, scoring on Nick Markakis’ ensuing hit. The run loomed large when the Diamondbacks scored a pair in the ninth to tie the score.
Paul Goldschmidt, against whom Freeman is competing for the prestigious award, hammered a two-out homer for the tie. Chicago’s Javier Baez and Colorado’s Nolan Arenado are other oft-mentioned names in the race.
Entering Friday, Freeman had 10 hits in his past 57 at-bats. That’s worth a .175 average over a 15-game span. Even he thinks it damaged his MVP case.
“I think that ship has kind of sailed these past couple weeks, but we’ll see how it goes the next three weeks,” he said.” All I care about is winning this division and making the playoffs. Whatever happens after that, is that happens. But personally, all I care about is getting to the playoffs.
“That (MVP) is not my main goal. We have a three-game lead, and my goal is to improve on that lead and hopefully get this team back to the playoffs.”
So Snitker and Freeman speak only of the team, dispelling any hype for individual recognition unless elaborating on the other. Those are the leadership qualities that’ve made the Braves a powerhouse.
They’ll need them over the next three weeks more than ever. If Snitker and Freeman continue guiding the team in the proper path, along with phenom Ronald Acuna likely capturing rookie of the year, the Braves could come out well in individual acknowledgements.