When it comes to decisions, Fredi has magic touch
Braves skipper may not be a gambler, but moves always come up aces
He tries it, and it always works. Well, so it seems for Fredi Gonzalez, spending his third season as the Braves' affable manager and ongoing magic man when it comes to decisions.
I'm talking about any decision.
If Gonzalez told Dan Uggla to do three backflips while singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" between innings, he'd inspire his second baseman to make the play of the century. If Gonzalez encouraged one of his right-handed starting pitchers to throw left-handed, no problem. The guy would fire a perfect game. If Gonzalez wanted all of his hitters to wear a blindfold at home plate for their first couple of bats, he'd watch the Braves build a double-digit lead by the third inning.
There are many examples of Gonzalez taking risks with the Braves that didn't explode in his 49-year-old face, but here's the classic one. Before last year's National League Wild Card Game against the Cardinals, he decided to start backup catcher David Ross over perennial All-Star Brian McCann.
Ross got three hits.
Not only that, McCann pinch-hit later in the game and worked what was a crucial walk at the time.
Gonzalez just has this knack for doing unorthodox things. As a result, his fingerprints are all over a Braves team that entered Tuesday night's action with the best record in baseball and a 14-game lead in the NL East that was almost twice as large as the lead for any other division leader. Such success for the Braves contributes to Gonzalez's joyful spirit, but much of that is just the man himself. Still, Gonzalez's easy smile fades if you call his gambling in making baseball decisions "gambling."
"It's not gambling. I mean, you know what these guys can do," Gonzalez said, straight faced, referring to a roster that nevertheless is second in the Major Leagues with 12 players who are 25 or younger. The epitome of what we're talking about here are Gonzalez's gambling -- um, strategic -- moves involving Jason Heyward, 24, who normally is the Braves' Gold Glove right fielder. Heyward also has spent much of his four years in the Major Leagues hitting between second and sixth in the lineup.
Two things: First, due to injuries to starting center fielder B.J. Upton and others on the Braves' roster, Gonzalez opted to switch Heyward to center for a stretch. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Heyward was impressive, operating like a jumbo-sized Willie Mays or something.
To which Gonzalez shrugged.
"Having Jason in center field is, for me, it's easy, because he's such a great athlete that you know he'd be able to do that," Gonzalez said. "And he plays right field like a center fielder does."
OK, I'll give Gonzalez that one. As for his other move involving Heyward, it clearly was the stuff of your average blackjack player or Kenny Rogers -- you know, who sang "The Gambler." Out of nowhere, Gonzalez switched Heyward to leadoff hitter near the end of July. I mean, nobody puts somebody Heyward's size at leadoff, but Gonzalez did so without thinking twice. The results? After spending the early season hitting below the Mendoza Line (.200), Heyward has flourished in his new spot in the order.
The move also allowed Gonzalez to switch Justin Upton to Heyward's old No. 2 spot. Just like that, the younger Upton went from slumping for months to surging for weeks. In fact, the Heyward move has sparked the entire Braves offense, which only was proficient at hitting home runs and walking before the All-Star break.
Now the Braves' offense still produces those things, but it also has a tendency to hit with runners in scoring position for the first time all year and to manufacture runs.
The non-gambler shrugged.
"Moving Heyward to leadoff, he's going to be the same hitter when it comes to walks and hits," Gonzalez said. "The only thing that doesn't make him the characteristic first batter is that he's 6-foot-5. But everything else is what you would want from a leadoff hitter, and it also was just a bunch of the other stuff for him to move to the first spot.
"One was trying to get Justin going a little bit. The other was to get [Freddie] Freeman to hit in the first inning [batting third, which was Justin Upton's previous spot]. And we were able to move [Andrelton] Simmons from the first hole to the eighth hole, where he can develop as a young player coming up.
"So it was just a combination of different things."
To hear the non-gambler tell it, these were common-sense things. Just like his decision to add Evan Gattis to his roster after Spring Training. Gonzalez didn't care that Gattis was a 26-year-old rookie who spent nearly four years out of baseball working odd jobs and going homeless during a period of time due to issues with substance abuse and depression. Consider, too, that Gattis also was trying to make the Major League roster as a catcher, and that the Braves already had two veterans at that position.
Gonzalez picked Gattis anyway, and Gattis has evolved into one of baseball's most inspiring stories. He has delivered a slew of key hits, either as the top pinch-hitter in the game or as the super reliever for McCann and backup catcher Gerald Laird, both of whom have missed numerous games due to aches and pains. Even with McCann and Laird healthy, Gonzalez hasn't been afraid to roll the dice (I'm trying to keep Gonzalez smiling by avoiding the g-word) by starting Gattis in left field or even at first base.
"If you say Spring Training is a place where people can win a job, [Gattis] won the job," Gonzalez said. "We had an open spot, and he won that spot, especially since we knew McCann was going to be out [while recovering from shoulder surgery] for the first 30 or 40 days. And then when the season started, he began hitting, and he has, what, 13, 14 home runs?"
Actually 15 ... as the third-string catcher.
That is, when Gattis isn't in left field. Gonzalez also placed Gattis at first base earlier in the season, and this was despite the non-gambler knowing that Gattis hadn't played first base since he did so for seven games at the Class A level in 2011.
"He was going to be a left fielder when he came to the Minor Leagues, so we didn't have a problem putting him out there," Gonzalez said. "And we put him at first base, just to get his bat in the lineup. You might have a below-average left fielder and a below-average first baseman, but you know you're going to get four good at-bats when he gets in the lineup.
"So you take the gamble."
Oops. Gonzalez said that, not me.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.