Atlanta Braves’ fans are more excited than I can remember in a long time. With the offseason acquisitions of brothers Justin and B.J. Upton and the presence of Jason Heyward, the Braves believe they have the pieces in place to make a run at their first division title since 2005 and to make it out of the first round of playoffs for the first time since 2001. With such a great, young outfield, many fans are asking if this group has the potential to be the best Braves’ outfield of all time.
To answer that question, we have to first look at Braves’ outfields over the course of their history. I went back to 1966, the Braves first year in Atlanta and compiled the Wins Above Replacement (WAR)* of the three best outfielders from each season. I will list the five best years below and then talk a little bit about the potential for this year’s outfield to surpass those numbers.
5) 1969 – Rico Carty, Tony Gonzalez, Hank Aaron – 14.5 WAR – When you take an excellent year from Hank Aaron and combine it with solid years from two professional hitters, you get a pretty solid season. Aaron, at the age of 35, mashed 44 home runs and put up an OPS of 1.003. He also finished third in MVP voting for the year. In short, just another solid season for one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen. Rico Carty was the professional of his day, comparable to a Jose Guillen or Mike Sweeney of recent years. If he could have played a decent left field, he would have been an even more productive player. Gonzalez came to Atlanta in an early season trade from San Diego and put up 3.4 WAR in only 89 games. This outfield led the Braves to the playoffs in 1969, where they lost to the Miracle Mets in a three game sweep.
4) 2003 – Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield – 15.3 WAR – What an outfield! Three of the best hitters of the last twenty years provided one hell of a middle of the order. Chipper, playing left field while Vinny Castilla played third, put together a classic Chipper year He hit 305/.402/517, mashed 27 homers and collected 94 walks. Andruw Jones, playing in the prime of his career put up 36 home runs and collected yet another gold glove. Sheffield, playing in his second and final season in Atlanta put up the highest WAR of the three, with 6.6. He also finished third in the MVP voting. Want to see something very similar, check #3 on this list…
3) 2002 – Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield – 15.9 WAR – This is obviously the same outfield, with the only different being Andruw Jones using some great defense to lead this group with 6.6 WAR. A solid outfield with one surefire Hall of Famer and two borderline candidates, this was a fun couple of years to be a Braves fan, even if this group never made it out of the NLDS.
2) 2012 – Martin Prado, Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward – 16.9 WAR – Last year, the Braves outfield combined the best defensive outfield in baseball, a bounceback year from Jason Heyward and a career year from Michael Bourn to have the second best Atlanta Braves’ outfield of all-time. One could argue that the Braves could have just kept this outfield in place and been fine, but when you consider that the moves made this offseason took our outfielder’s average age from 27.3 years old to 25.3 years old and the fact that Michael Bourn is at an age where he may well see his best asset decline, I am more than ok with the moves.
1) 1966 – Rico Carty, Hank Aaron, Felipe Alou – 18.2 WAR – In the Braves’ first year in Atlanta, Hammerin’ Hank led this group, as well as leading the league in home runs and RBIs. He also stole 21 bases as a 32 year old. Felipe Alou split time between first base and all three outfield positions to put together a fantastic season in which he hit .327/.361/.533. Rico Carty finished out this group with a very solid 4.4 WAR. And so, this is the group that this year’s group must surpass in order to be the best outfield the Braves have ever had.
The 2013 Outfield’s Chances – Can the 2013 outfield surpass the extremely high standard of the 1966 team? The answer is possibly, though probably not. The guys would need to average 6.06 WAR in order to match that 1966 team. If you combine the best seasons had by each of the three players, you get Heyward’s 2010 season with 6.3 WAR, Justin Upton’s 2011 season with 5.7 WAR and B.J Upton’s 2007 season with 4.7 WAR. That combines to be 16.1 WAR, which would be good for third all time.
The common theme with this entire outfield is unseen potential. All three players have put together fantastic careers thus far, yet all have not reached the perceived ceilings which fans and scouts have placed on them. It is not outside of reason to think that these guys, the oldest of which is B.J. at 28 years old, could each put together a 6 win season or that Heyward or Justin Upton could have a breakout year with 7 or 8 WAR each. However, Justin is coming off a 2.1 win season and B.J. hasn’t been worth more than 3 wins since 2008.
And so, while I think there is a good chance that this team will crack the top five, I do not believe they will be our best outfield of all-time.