You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I grew up a Braves fan in the 1990s. I got to enjoy spending every evening listening to Skip and Pete announce games on TBS, annual playoff runs and most of all, I got to see the greatest pitching staff of all time work on a nightly basis. In an age where going six innings and giving up three runs is considered a “quality start,” Braves’ fans from my generation can only look and scoff, as we enjoyed a run of pitching success which even the great Bill James recognizes as more spectacular than any other.
I recently started thinking a lot about those pitching staffs. Of course I remember the sneaky greatness of Glavine, the preciseness of Maddux and the sheer power of Smoltz, but I started thinking about the other pitchers who completed those staffs, the Denny Neagle’s and Steve Averys of the world. This train of thought led me to this question: how do our pitching staffs during the historic run rate against each other? Which staff was the best?
I posed this question to a loyal group of Braves fans (a.k.a. my friends) and the initial responses were pretty varied. Some thought the ’92 staff was the best, as that’s where it all came together. Others said that the best had to include the big three(Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz) and the real debate began with the fourth starter. I decided to use advanced statistics to break this down and solve this once and for all.
To do this, I used the statistic Wins Above Replacement or WAR for short. For those of you unfamiliar with WAR, it’s a statistic created by sabermetricians which gives us the ability to judge players objectively, much better than standard statistics like wins and ERA which can be highly dependent on the offense and defense which support a pitcher. WAR takes a number of factors, to include the park, the era a player played in(thereby adjusting for the steroids era), and fielding, amongst other things and compares with how many wins that particular player would give you over a replacement player(a.k.a a scrub from the minors). This provides fans a much better perspective on how good a player was, whereas a win total may be inflated by a good offense or ERA may be lowered due to good luck.
To rank these pitching staffs, I compiled the total WAR for the five pitchers who made the most starts on each of the 14 division title winners. And although WAR may not be a perfect stat, it proved to be the best tool to rank the pitchers objectively. The results showed a few surprises, as well as confirming just how dominant some of those pitching staffs were. And so, below are the pitching staffs for the fourteen straight division title winning Atlanta Braves ranked according to WAR:
15) 2003 – Greg Maddux, Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Horacio Ramirez, Shane Reynolds – Total WAR 6.9 – Highest WAR = Russ Ortiz – 2.0
I honestly figured our staff from 2004 or 2005 would come in last place, as those staffs lack both Maddux and Glavine, but when you combine a relative down year for Maddux with Russ Ortiz as your #2 starter, you’re probably destined for a staff which is less than dominant. Perhaps the most surprising thing here is that Russ Ortiz was our best pitcher. Leo Mazzone worked wonders with Ortiz , as he was never able to duplicate the success he had in Atlanta anywhere else in his career. 2003 is the one year Atlanta depended on offense to reach the playoffs, as they used Gary Sheffield and a lineup which included Vinny Castilla and Rafael Furcal to power their way to a divisional crown. It also didn’t hurt having John Smoltz blowing away the competition in the bullpen. This was also a time that the Mike Hampton deal seemed like a good one(tough to imagine now), as he compiled a 14-8 record and a 3.84 ERA.
14) 2004 – Mike Hampton, Paul Byrd, Russ Ortiz, John Thomson, Jaret Wright – Total WAR 7.3 – Highest WAR = Jaret Wright 2.7
This is probably the most forgettable Braves pitching staff, which didn’t really feature a true superstar and was really just solid all around. I try to think about any pitching highlights from this season and other than Paul Byrd’s weird delivery, I really can’t think of any. That being said, this team didn’t really have a weak link, as it was solid all the way around. It just didn’t have the Cy Young candidate Braves fans had become accustomed to. The only pitching staff to feature none of the Big Three, the 2004 Braves largely benefited from an above average pitching staff, a great year from J.D. Drew and contributions from surprise sources, such as Marcus Giles and Johnny Estrada. But seriously, does anyone even remember Jaret Wright pitching for Atlanta?
13) 1992 – Glavine, Smoltz, Leibrandt, Avery, Bielecki – Total WAR – 11.3 – Highest WAR – Tom Glavine – 3.6
In a bit of a surprise, the 1992 staff comes in at #12. Yet the 1992 team probably encapsulates the team mentality more than any other Braves team of the division title run. They really weren’t great in any area, yet good in all. Glavine, Smoltz and Avery, the original Big Three had good years, but not career years, the offense, led by Terry Pendleton and Otis Nixon were good, but not great and six different pitchers racked up saves during the season, and yet somehow came out with a second NL West title and a famous playoff run, highlighted by Sid Bream’s slide in Game 7 of the NLCS.
As for the pitching staff, Glavine had another good year, winning twenty games, but came nowhere near his 1991 performance and our other two young aces Smoltz and Avery had rather pedestrian years. Mike Bielecki and Pete Smith filled in for the fifth starter job, winning a combined nine games, but overall the staff had a rather forgettable year. I figured this staff to rate much high, but looking back, it seems that it was Bobby Cox’s leadership of this still young team which really allowed us to get into the playoffs rather than a dominant pitching staff.
12) 2005 – John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Jorge Sosa, John Thomson, Horacio Ramirez – Total WAR 11.7 – Highest WAR = John Smoltz 4.7
2005 saw the Braves make an effort to rededicate themselves to pitching, with Smoltz returning to the rotation after spending four years in the bullpen and the trade for Oakland A’s ace, Tim Hudson. Yet, the biggest surprise of the year also has to be considered the greatest Leo Mazzone accomplishment of all time…Jorge Sosa. In Jorge Sosa posted a 2.55 ERA to go along with a13-3 W-L record and 3.4 WAR. I’ll give you a second to read that again, because it’s almost unbelievable that Jorge Sosa could ever produce such numbers. Leo Mazzone deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for that fact alone.
11) 1999 – Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, Millwood, Perez – Total WAR – 10.8 – Highest WAR = Kevin Millwood – 5.9
Kevin Millwood is often forgotten for his role on the great Braves pitching staffs and his 1999 season shows why this shouldn’t be the case. Millwood pitched fantastically for the final Braves team to reach the World Series, going 18-7 with a 2.68 ERA. And although he would never again reach the success he reached in this, his age 24 season, he would be a valuable member of the Braves for another couple of years and go on to a successful Major League career. You could even make an argument that Millwood was the most successful starter outside of the Big Three during the run
10) 2002 – Glavine, Maddux, Millwood, Marquis, Moss – Total WAR – 12.9 – Highest WAR = Maddux – 4.2
2002 marks the beginning of the end of the Big Three and would be the last time they would all be on a team together. This year saw Smoltz move to the bullpen, due to injury concerns and it would end with Glavine going to the Mets for bigger riches. Maddux only had enough run support to get 16 wins, but pitched well enough with his 2.62 ERA to deserve many more. Glavine and Millwood each added 18 wins and two young pitchers, Jason Marquis and Damien Moss rounded out the rotation, which saw the Braves win their 11th straight divisional championship. Did I mention, Smoltz had one hell of a season, finishing with 55 saves in his first season as a closer?
9) 2000 – Glavine, Maddux, Millwood, Burkett, Mulholland – Total WAR – 13.1 – Highest WAR = Maddux 6.9
An injury to Smoltz forced him to miss the entire 2000 campaign, but a great year from Maddux and good years from Glavine and Millwood made up for his absence. Fourth starter John Burkett didn’t have a great year, but he was serviceable. Andy Ashby came over in a trade, but normal reliever Terry Mulholland actually made the most starts as the fifth man in the rotation, with 20. This is another case of me completely forgetting about our fifth starter, as I barely recall Ashby or Mulholland starting any games.
8) 2001 – Glavine, Maddux, Burkett, Marquis, Perez – Total WAR – 13.6 – Highest WAR = Greg Maddux – 4.9
Maddux had the highest WAR in 2001, but its John Burkett’s season which really stands out. The 36 year old pitcher only had a 12-12 record, but pitched well enough to win many more than that, posting a second best 4.6 WAR. Rookie, Jason Marquis made 16 starts and had a good year to round out the fifth starter spot. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the 2001 team is the offense, which featured such forgettable players as Quilvio Veras, Rico Brogna and B.J. Surhoff.
7) 1993 – Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, Avery, Smith – Total WAR – 14.2 – Highest WAR = Greg Maddux – 5.5
In his first year with the Braves, Greg Maddux put together a fantastic season, going 20-10 with a 2.36 ERA and pitching a staggering 267 innings! He won his second consecutive Cy Young Award and would go on two win two more in a row. 1993 had a great staff overall, with each of the top four starters posting a WAR over two. And although Glavine and Smoltz had relatively down years, the collective greatness of this staff(minus fifth starter, Pete Smith), allowed the Braves to capture their third consecutive divisional title.
6) 1994 – Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, Avery, Mercker – Total WAR – 13.9(16.4 adjusted) – Highest WAR = Maddux – 8.3
This team actually posted a war slightly below that of the 1993 team, but when you adjust for the fact that they only played a partial season, due to the player’s strike, then they rate slightly higher. Maddux reached another level in 1994, going 16-6 with a 1.56 ERA, walking only 31 batters in 202 innings. When I look at 1994 though, two things stand out to me: first of all, Glavine and Smoltz both had pretty bad years, by their standards, which probably points to why the Braves were in danger of losing the division to a young Montreal Expos team. And the second thing which stands out is that Kent Mercker served as our fifth starter, going 9-4 with a 3.04 ERA. It is amazing that during the whole great run of pitching, only one pitcher threw a no-hitter and it wasn’t one of the big three, it was Kent Mercker.
5) 1998 – Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, Neagle, Millwood – Total WAR – 18.1 – Highest WAR = Maddux – 6.3
These final five are all pretty elite staffs, any one of which could make an argument for the best staff in baseball history. Each of our starters had at least 16 wins and had John Smoltz been healthy the entire year, he could have won a second Cy Young award. In 1998, Smoltz went 17-3 with a 2.90 ERA, while striking out 173 batters in 167 innings. He only made 26 starts that year, as he recovered from arm troubles. When I watched guys like Chuck James and Anthony Larew start games in the late 2000s, its these teams I really missed.
4) 1996 – Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, Avery, Schmidt – Total WAR – 20.1 – Highest WAR = Smoltz 7.1
In winning the only Cy Young of his career, Smoltz pitched out of his mind in 1996, going 24-8, with a 2.94 ERA and striking out 276 batters in 253 innings. Glavine and Maddux each won 15 games and had great seasons all their own. Avery struggled in his final year with Atlanta and rookie Jason Schmidt actually had a negative WAR and didn’t contribute much. This year was all about the Big Three, and if they’d have had a good fourth starter, this team could have realistically had the best WAR of any of these rotations.
3) 1997 – Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, Neagle, Wade – Total WAR – 20.9 – Highest WAR = Maddux – 7.6
When I first started thinking about this, I figured our 1997 team would have been the best staff. And I would still argue that the 1997 staff was the Braves’ most complete. The Big Three became the Big Four with the addition on Denny Neagle in 1996 and each of the Big Four won at least 14 games and pitched 233 innings. Maddux and Neagle won 19 and 20 games respectively and I can only imagine the thought of facing the Braves for a three game series, as this was a staff that didn’t have a weak spot in it.
2) 1991 – Glavine, Smoltz, Avery, Leibrandt, Smith – Total WAR – 22.1 – Highest WAR = Glavine – 8.2
The team that started it all featured three young beasts in Glavine, Smoltz and Avery, a solid veteran in Leibrandt and well…Pete Smith. Glavine pitched out of his mind, winning the Cy Young Award, and after having an awful start to the year, Smoltz was unstoppable in the second half, giving him the second highest WAR on the staff and a 21 year old Avery had what would be the best season of his career. Honestly, I didn’t expect this staff to rate this high, but Glavine’s year really boosted this rotation right to the top.
1) 1995 – Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, Avery, Mercker – Total WAR 20.2(22.4 adjusted) Highest WAR = Maddux – 9.5
Once again, the strike shortened year obscures the stats a little, so I adjusted the stats to how compensate for a full season. In 1995, Glavine and Smoltz each had great years and fourth and fifth staters Avery and Mercker proved serviceable. But the year really belongs to Maddux. In one of the great seasons by a pitcher, especially in a hitter’s era, Maddux went 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA. He also struck out 181 batters, while only walking 23 in 209 innings. Maddux also averaged 7.5 innings per start, which is almost hard to imagine in this day and age. And so, it is fitting that the only Atlanta Braves team to win a World Series also had its best pitching staff.