Fredi Gonzalez is no stat geek—at least not yet—but he clearly recognizes the importance of data. The 46-year-old Cuba native was weaned in the trenches of the minor leagues, but over time he has evolved into a numbers-savvy manager willing to employ a shift or tweak a batting order for reasons other than, “My gut told me to do it.”
The Braves’ third-base coach from 2003-2006, Gonzalez went on to manage the Florida Marlins for three-plus years before returning to Atlanta as Bobby Cox’s successor in October. He sat down with Baseball Prospectus during the Winter Meetings.
David Laurila: How would you identify yourself as a manager?
Fredi Gonzalez: I’m a gut-feeling guy with numbers behind that gut feeling. A lot of reports, a lot of numbers, a lot of match-up stuff, but sometimes gut feeling.
During the course of maturing as a manager, or as a coach coming up through the minor leagues, you see some of the number stuff working and it kind of evolves for you. That’s where I get… and I’m not quite there yet; I’m not quite 100 percent with the numbers guys, and I may never be, but I’ve gotten to where I use numbers more and more as I grow as a manager.
DL: What are the organization’s expectations regarding your use of numbers?
FG: I think that the only thing our organization wants is to win. They have… and I’ve seen [general manager] Frank Wren involve himself in some numbers. I’m getting to know some of the acronyms, like BABIP, WHIP, DIPS, and things like zone ratings. That kind of stuff. There is a lot of information out there that can help you win a ballgame.
DL: How involved are you in roster construction?
FG: 50-60 percent. The only role I don’t ever take is in regards to salary. Frank asks me, “What do you think about this player?” and I’ll tell him if I like him, or if I don’t like him, or how I think he fits on the team. Frank never talks to me about, “This guy is too much money,” or “This guy is getting that.” When we talk, we always talk about, “Would this guy help us?”
DL: When you interviewed for the job, how did you present your vision for the team under your leadership?
FG: The interview was a “get to know us over again” interview, with Frank and myself. My vision is something that I developed when I was here the first time. That is pitching and defense, I told them my vision of the offensive team that I would like, and that was to add a little speed to it, with guys in the lineup who can scare you, who can hit the long ball. You need those guys. You can’t go out there and have six, seven, eight guys who are singles hitters. You need somebody who is going to scare the opponent. You can put three runs up in a hurry.
I like an athletic team, for lack of a better term. The team that I came up with [when talking to Wren], which was one of the best put-together teams that I saw, for the stuff I was just talking about, was the Rays team that went to the World Series. They could go first to third on you, they could double-steal, they could turn a single into a double. If you weren’t paying attention they could steal third. They also had guys in the middle of their lineup who could leave the ballpark.
DL: What is more important at the top of the lineup, athleticism and speed or on-base percentage?
FG: On-base percentage is important. If you don’t get guys on, you’re going to have a tough time scoring runs. Sometimes you see teams putting speed guys up there instead, and I guess maybe that’s tradition, but you wish you had both—on-base-percentage guys who can run—at the top of the order. Sometimes the way your roster is, you can’t get both. But on-base percentage is big.
DL: Do most managers fear being unconventional and going against the book?
FG: I think there are some reservations there, but sometimes you have to think outside the book a little bit. Throw something crazy out there with lineup construction and that sort of thing, but whatever it takes for us to win a ball game, or whatever it takes for us to be a championship team… whatever that takes.
One thing that I haven’t been able to get any concrete data on is hitting the pitcher in the eight spot. I wish that somebody would tell me something real concrete on that, and maybe I’d do something outside the box by hitting my pitcher in a different position, or hit my best hitter first, or that kind of stuff. But for the most part, I think you have to get all of the information, and all of the analysis, and try to construct your team that way.
DL: Where do you stand on the sacrifice bunt?
FG: I think it depends on the game. You can’t say, “Yeah, I’m a big bunter; I‘m going to bunt so many times.” I think it’s whatever that game calls for. If you’re facing a Doc Halladay and you’ve got a man on second in the eighth and he’s throwing zeros at you, if you bunt him to third you might have a better chance to score and win that game. I’m all about moving runners. Am I going to give an out? Maybe I’ll give an out one day and then the next day, in the same situation with the same hitter, I’ll let him hit. I think that it all depends on who you have on the mound, and who is on the mound against you.
DL: What are your thoughts on platooning?
FG: I think it depends on the players. To come out and say, “This guy can only hit left-handers,” or “This guy can only hit right-handers”… there have to be numbers that show that.
DL: Besides errors, which defensive numbers do you look at?
FG: I’ve been looking at the zone ratings. Again, those are the type of numbers… that’s a term that three years ago I didn’t even look at. Now you kind of evolve and say, “This thing is pretty accurate; this zone rating stuff is pretty accurate,” so you look at those numbers. You look at things like that as well as the error numbers.
DL: What about defensive shifts?
FG: I’m a shift guy. We shifted Ryan Howard; when I was with the Marlins we shifted Carlos Pena when we played him. We shifted Brian McCann. If the spray chart is telling you, “Hey, this guy hits the ball here; here are the percentages that this guy hits the ball on the ground to this side,“ why not use that to your advantage? You can’t cover it all. You can’t cover the shift and you can’t cover the bunt, but if somebody like Ryan Howard wants to bunt, let him do that all day long. He can have that bunt any time he wants.
DL: Do you gain a psychological advantage on a hitter with the shift?
FG: I’m not sure. You’d have to ask the hitters that getting shifted against. I’ve never asked them, but maybe I’ll ask McCann now that I’ll have him in the same dugout. But I know what the spray chart shows, and when I want to use it, but I can’t say about the psychological stuff.
DL: Do you believe in using your closer for more than just three outs in the ninth inning?
FG: Again, it all depends on the individual. When I was with the Marlins, Kevin Gregg was a closer who you could use for multiple-out innings. I’ve also had guys who got pumped up when they came in for that one out in the eighth, then you’d sit them down and they’d come back out for the ninth to try to get the next three outs and they’re not the same guy. So for me to say that I’m this guy or that guy, it’s difficult because I think that a lot of your personnel dictates how you’re going to use guys.
Brian Wilson, for the Giants, it didn’t seem to bother him. He went in for four- and five-out saves. Mariano Rivera, it doesn’t seem to bother him. But some guys may have that problem where it is hard for them to sit down and then crank it back up again.
DL: Are most managers predictable?
FG: I think that to a certain degree you can a little bit [predictable] from the scouting reports. Or at least you can have a good feeling. I think that guys like Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox are hard to manage against because they would do anything at any time. But, for the most part, or at least to a certain degree—and I couldn’t tell you 25 percent or 50 percent—but you can tell a little bit.
DL: Is managing fun?
FG: You know what, I think that from the first pitch to the last out it’s a lot of fun. Some of the other stuff that goes with it, like the media and ownership, isn’t always fun. But I think that every manager that’s here today would tell you that from the very first pitch to the last out it’s fun to manage a major-league baseball game, and it’s fun to manage a major-league baseball team.