2020 MLB Manager Of The Year: Brian Snitker
Braves manager Brian Snitker had his doubts about camps reopening on July 3 after a three and a half month shutdown. MLB was attempting its season in the midst of a pandemic.
“I was skeptical,” Snitker said. “I didn’t think this thing was going to get off the ground. I think it took about two weeks of that second camp for the players to register, too.”
MLB made it through, and the Braves posted one of their best seasons in recent memory despite myriad rotation issues. They came within 12 outs of a World Series berth largely thanks to what might be remembered as Snitker’s best managerial performance.
Snitker embodies the baseball lifer. After several seasons playing in the Braves’ minor league system, then-executive Hank Aaron informed Snitker of his release in 1981. But the release also came with a job offer to begin a coaching career with the organization.
“I didn’t really interview,” Snitker recalled in 2017. “He just released me and offered me a coaching job.”
Snitker, 65, has spent more than four decades with the Braves. After a career coaching in the minors and serving on MLB staffs, he took over as the Braves’ interim manager in May 2016 when Fredi Gonzalez was fired.
Those 2016 Braves, for all their lack of talent, went 31-25 after Aug. 1, including a 12-2 finish. Snitker earned another season, but he and the team almost parted ways in 2017 as the Braves completed a 72-win campaign. Snitker kept his post as the organization underwent a regime change forced by a series of malpractices committed by former leadership.
Enter general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who kept Snitker aboard and provided a needed calm, credible presence. His faith in Snitker was rewarded. Sparked by their youth, including National League Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr., the 2018 Braves surprised with 90 wins and the NL East crown.
Snitker was named NL Manager of the year. He signed a two-year extension—just the second multi-year commitment of a career decorated by one-year pacts.
The Braves showed they weren’t a fluke in 2019, repeating as division champs with 97 wins. Snitker went from potentially jettisoned to the headman of the NL’s second-winningest franchise. He and Anthopoulos proved an unconventional but perfect match.
That takes us to 2020, which was perhaps Snitker’s finest showing. When the Braves restarted camp, they believed they had ample pitching depth. Within two weeks of the season, their numbers were wiped out.
Free agent lefthander Cole Hamels was supposed to be ready for Opening Day after being stalled in spring training with a shoulder issue. Triceps tendinitis put him on the 45-day injured list, however, and he ultimately pitched just 3.1 innings.
Veteran signee Felix Hernandez opted out of the season. Ace righthander Mike Soroka, fresh off his first full season in which he placed sixth in NL Cy Young Award voting, tore his Achilles tendon in his third start.
Righty Mike Foltynewicz, an all-star in 2018, was designated for assignment after only one outing. The team was optimistic lefty Sean Newcomb would keep his newfound aggressive mindset as he transitioned back to the rotation. Instead, Newcomb had an 11.20 ERA in four starts before spending the rest of the season at the alternate training site.
Youngsters Kyle Wright and Touki Toussaint spent plenty of time at the Gwinnett alternate site as well, each unable to establish himself in a rotation desperate for even mediocrity.
Lefthander Max Fried was the rotation’s lone stable presence. Conditions improved when rookie sensation Ian Anderson entered the mix. Later in the season, Wright improved to the point he was a lock in the team’s postseason group. But there was never a stretch in which the Braves worked with anything resembling a normal rotation.
They used 14 starters across the 60-game season. Fried and Anderson made 19 of those starts. Long reliever Josh Tomlin, rookie Huascar Ynoa and Toussaint each made five starts. Tommy Milone, acquired at the trade deadline as a steadying veteran presence, was a disaster and made just three starts. Robbie Erlin, who had previously been DFA’d by the abysmal Pirates, made five starts until the Braves likewise pulled the plug.
The Braves’ rotation was Murphy’s Law in action. At one point, when Fried had a brief stint on the IL, the Braves were down their entire Opening Day rotation. Snitker was forced to be creative daily, using whichever journeyman or rookie was available.
The Braves’ saving grace: A franchise-great offense—led by BA Major League Player of the Year Freddie Freeman—and an excellent bullpen. Even then, the offense was rarely at full strength. Second baseman Ozzie Albies played in just 29 games due to injury. Acuña played in 46 games while limited by wrist soreness.
Yet the Braves kept winning. Snitker himself sometimes wondered how they were pulling it off. They went 35-25, won the NL East handily for a third straight year, posted the third-highest win total in the NL and earned the league’s No. 2 playoff seed.
The Braves swept the Reds, 2-0, in the Wild Card Series. They swept the Marlins, 3-0, in the Division Series. They throttled the Dodgers to begin the Championship Series, building a 3-1 series lead before the eventual champs surged past them with three straight wins.
“Extreme sense of pride in what we accomplished, what these kids did, what they got to go through,” Snitker said, speaking two days after the Braves were eliminated. “It was phenomenal. It was unbelievable what we did this year. I look back on the obstacles we had to go through starting July 3 . . . It was phenomenal to get to the NLCS. What an experience for these guys.”
Snitker has now overseen three consecutive division titles and the Braves’ first postseason series victories since 2001. He’s managing a team oozing with exciting, energetic youth that has been complemented perfectly by the right veterans.
Notably, Snitker runs a clubhouse with a family-like atmosphere that the organization feels has extracted the most from each of its players, be that journeymen like Charlie Culberson and Matt Joyce or superstars like Freeman and Acuña.
Snitker has a sterling reputation as a players’ manager who always defends his guys. He’s proof that old school and new school can mesh.
“He has a lot of good traits, but that’s one of his best ones,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “He always has your back, regardless of what’s going on. Sometimes, even when you’re wrong, he’s going to have your back. That’s just his M.O.”
The Braves prided themselves on clubhouse culture under Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox, a close friend and mentor to Snitker. These “new” Braves, who appear poised for another era of sustained success, are seeing history repeat itself under Snitker.