COMMENTARY | Stop the presses! Contrary to popular opinion, Atlanta Braves' manager Fredi Gonzalez has actually done some things right this season.
The nicest thing usually said about the Braves' current skipper is that he could be worse. The man who took over for Bobby Cox has not exactly made fans forget about No. 6 during his first three tours of duty in the Atlanta dugout.
Whether it is from overtaxing some -- now coincidentally injured -- bullpen arms or seemingly being unprepared for big moments, the responses caused by Gonzalez's moves range from slight befuddlement to full-blown head scratching.
To be fair, Gonzalez has upped his managerial game in recent months. Some of these decisions could even be described as downright competent.
Moving Jason Heyward to Leadoff
Although some could argue that Jordan Schafer has been the best leadoff option while collecting dust on the bench for much of the season, Gonzalez finally decided to tend to the small fact that his choice for leadoff hitter, Andrelton Simmons, had an on-base percentage of .259 in the unfamiliar role.
Heyward was mired in one of the worst slumps of his career to start the season. He hit just .121 in the month of April and could only manage to push his average to .227 by the All-Star break.
It appears Heyward has now found a home at the top of the order. He is hitting .366 in his first 82 at-bats as the Atlanta table setter and has twice started off games by immediately putting the Braves on the board with an opening home run. Though it is still just a small sample, Heyward has gained 31 points on his batting average and has been striking out less while swinging the No. 1 stick.
Bringing Chris Johnson Up in the Order
For some reason, the National League batting leader spent most of the 2013 season buried in the No. 8 hole in the order. Although it did take him in inordinately long amount of time to come to this obvious conclusion, Gonzalez finally moved Johnson ahead of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla in the batting order, and the Braves' third baseman has responded by hitting three home runs and adding 19 RBIs in the 18 games since making the small trek up the lineup card.
In fact, Johnson has had more RBIs in these 18 games than he did in the entire months of May and June combined. Funny how putting the team's second-best hitter with runners in scoring position (.337) into spots where runs generally have a chance of being driven in will help increase productivity.
Coincidentally, the Braves are 15-3 since Gonzalez gave Atlanta another run-producing threat in the middle of the order.
Giving B.J. Upton a Few More Splinters
The pine is never a place an MLB starter wants to find himself, but B.J. Upton's first season in Atlanta has been so abysmal that Gonzalez could no longer pretend he didn't see what was happening with the Braves' $13 million man.
Upton garnered the biggest contract in franchise history when he signed a five-year, $72.5 million contract this offseason. He thanked the Braves for all that extra cash by becoming the very worst hitter in the entire league. For the majority of the season, Upton has touted the lowest batting average of any hitter in the bigs. He has managed to up his average to .188, which finds him just two points ahead of teammate Dan Uggla for MLB's most dubious distinction.
Since Schafer returned from injury on Aug. 11, Gonzalez has been platooning him with Upton in center field. Currently, the left-handed swing Schafer is getting the nod against right-handed pitchers while Upton has only been allowed to dig into the box when the opposition throws a lefty.
Whether fans want to believe these moves directly changed the Braves' seasonal trajectory or not, it is undeniable that Atlanta has opened up an insurmountable lead in the NL East division and climbed to the best record in all of baseball as a result. Now that the right formula has been found, let's just hope Gonzalez doesn't try to re-tinker things back to the way they were.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter who has been following the Atlanta Braves for over 20 years. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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