A not-so-Brave world

Wednesday, February 05 2003 @ 06:39 AM EST

Contributed by: Anonymous

It is a remarkable thing, really, this run of the Braves. Not for their dominance, heavens no, though that is obviously impressive. What is remarkable is how they can be so dominant for six months out the year, for 12 years running (including the strike-shortened 1994 season), but then come up short, year-after-year, save for one, in 1995. At some point you must dismiss the failures as simply more than being bad luck. Conventional wisdom holds that anything can happen in a short series, and with the advent of the Wild Card, it’s that much more likely “inferior” teams like the Phillies and Padres and Giants and Marlins will knock off a “superior” Braves club. On the other hand, if it’s possible for any team to emerge a World Series champ, how do you explain the Yankees run? If we follow that logic, why didn’t the Orioles or Indians or Mariners or A’s knock them off? Forgetting about payroll issues for a moment, if it’s simply bad luck the Braves have only one title in their run, is it simply good luck the Yankees have four in the same time frame? Where do you put the blame for the Braves’ failures? On Bobby Cox? John Schuerholz? The players? A hybrid of the three? This has been asked a million times, but because it’s never been answered satisfactorily, let’s ask it again: How can a team that has had, over the years, Chipper Jones, Terry Pendleton, Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, Brian Jordan, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, et al, managed to win as many World Series titles in the last 12 years as the Marlins, Twins, and Angels?

In the past, many people have said the blame lies with the overall structure of the Braves. They are not geared for the playoffs, the pundits say, but are designed with a 162-game season as the primary objective. In that regard, as we have seen, the Braves are an unqualified success. For comparison’s sake, let’s turn to a team that has enjoyed regular-and post-season success: the Yankees. I will not cover the last three Yankee teams, because they truly were “purchased” in a way the teams before were not, and because in two of their title-winning years they sent the Braves home.

So, again putting payroll restrictions aside, how were the 1996-1999 Yankees constructed? If the Braves were, in fact, built for 162 games, can we say with any sort of accuracy the Yankees were not? In all the notoriety of the Yankees recent payroll bingeing, largely forgotten are these 1996-1999 teams—the ones that didn’t have Mussina or Mondesi or Matsui or Giambi or Rondell White or Clemens (he was there in 1999, however) or Contreras or Weaver or Ventura or Zeile or Hammond or Karsay or … well, you get the point. Sure, these teams had their mid-season acquisitions—David Cone, Cecil Fielder, et al—but they also had Mariano Duncan, Ruben Sierra, Scott Brosius, Joe Girardi, Luis Sojo, Chad Curtis, Jim Leyritz, Gerald Williams and others play key roles on the team. And, of course, the Bronx Bombers had their stable of home-grown talent, and players they traded quality players for, which any team could have had: Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Tino Martinez, Jeff Nelson, John Wetteland (you think Billy Koch was a nightmare???), Paul O’Neill, Ramiro Mendoza, et al.

Before they joined the Yankees, either via trade or as a free agent, the role players—the Duncans, Leyritzes, Sojos of the baseball universe—were available to every team in the majors. Paying Steve Karsay $6 million and signing Jon Lieber, for example, are clearly luxuries most teams can’t afford, and the depth the Yankees have now is obscene. It wasn’t always like this. Yes, they still had the dough for the big-ticket guys like Cone and Bernie Williams, but it’s quite a stretch to call Duncan, Sojo, Curtis, Gerald Williams, or Girardi luxuries. As I said, anybody could have had those guys; they came to the Yankees, and for whatever reason, it worked. Quite simply, the Yankees’ teams from 1996-1999 had a bench, the Braves did not. But while that is one reason for the Yankees post-season success, it is but a small one, and at any rate it does not fully explain why the Braves failed.

Back to the assumption that the Braves have failed because their teams were built for the “long run.” The numbers from 1996-1999 simply do not bear it out. (And it’s even more apparent when we look at the entire time frame of the Braves’ run, which I do later.) Below is a chart which shows where the Braves and Yankees ranked in their league in key categories.

Wins Runs OBP Slug ERA Result
1999 98 3 2 5 2 Won WS in 4 (Braves)
1998 114 1 1 4 1 Won WS in 4 (Padres)
1997 96 9 1 5 1 Lost ALDS in 5 (Indians)
1996 92 2 3 9 5 Won WS in 6 (Braves)

1999 103 7 9 4 1 Lost WS in 4 (Yankees)
1998 106 4 4 2 1 Lost NLCS in 6 (Padres)
1997 101 3 4 2 1 Lost NLCS in 6 (Marlins)
1996 96 4 4 2 1 Lost WS in 6 (Yankees)

Statistically, there is very little difference between the two teams. The Braves have an edge in pitching, but it’s not that big, since in two years the Yankees led their league in E.R.A. (and other peripheries, which are not shown here). What is more important is that it is fairly obvious the Braves were not an incompetent offensive team, with the exception of the 1999 season. (As we will see later, this is the beginning of the Braves’ offensive problems.) The one year the Yankees had a mediocre offense—in 1997 they were just ninth in runs scored—was the one year they didn’t win the World Series. But in 1996, they were third in OBP but just ninth in slugging, suggesting there was some luck, or as the old-timers say, “clutch-hitting” involved. Nonetheless, in 1996 they also were just fifth in E.R.A., but were still able to beat the Braves in six—after dropping the first two games at home. Thank you, Mark Wohlers.

Obviously the 1998 Yankee team was astounding, but I challenge anyone to find a player on that team who had a career year. But the Braves were hardly slouches that year, either: they won 106 games, and they were fourth in runs and OBP, and they were second in slugging, in addition to their usual domination in the pitching arenas. Whereas they lost in six games in the NLCS to the Padres—who won 98 games, were eighth in runs scored, ninth and seventh in OBP and slugging, respectively, and third in E.R.A—the Yankees swept the Padres to make their legitimate claim as the best team ever. To repeat: statistically, with the possible exception of the 1998 Yanks, there is little or no difference between the two teams in the four-year period. The main one, of course, and the only one that matters, is that the Yankees took home three titles, while the Braves gleaned a few ducks, a quail or two, and the random possum.

While it is difficult to find an obvious reason why the Braves didn’t win a title during the same time the Yankees won three, recent history is much clearer. The Braves of late have had an anemic offense. And the inability of Schuerholz to pick up a bat down the stretch, when clearly he could have done so, has been well documented. Check out these gruesome numbers.

Year Wins Runs OBP Slug ERA Result
2002 101 10 9 9 1 Lost NLDS in 5 (Giants)
2001 88 13 10 12 1 Lost NLCS in 5 (D-Backs)
2000 95 6 5 9 1 Lost NLDS in 3 (Cardinals)

As you can see, the Braves have struggled to score runs the last three years, to put it mildly. But, as we also can see from the years 1996-1998, that hasn’t always been the case. Let’s go back even further, to the early years of the Once-and-Future Dynasty That Never Was.

Wins Runs OBP Slug ERA Result
1995 90 9 10 4 1 Won WS in 6 (Indians)
1993 104 3 5 5 1 Lost NLCS in 6 (Phillies)
1992 98 3 5 5 1 Lost WS in 6 (Blue Jays)
1991 94 2 2 3 3 Lost WS in 7 (Twins)

Simply put, with the exception of the 1995 team, these Braves could get runners on base, they could move them around via extra-base hits, and, most importantly, they could score them. None of these teams ever led the league in runs scored, but of the four Yankees teams I looked at, only the 1998 team led the AL in that department. Ironically, it is the 1995 Braves team—which ranked 9th in runs, 10th in OBP, and 4th in slugging—that won their only World Series title. A beautiful game, baseball.

Meanwhile, as all the charts show, the Braves pitching has been phenomenal. You have to go all the way back to 1991 to find a non-strike year when the Braves did not lead the NL in E.R.A. Their peripherals—strikeouts, home runs allowed, etc.—are nearly as dominant. And it isn’t just the starters. Year after year, the Braves are able to dig up effective, and usually cheap, relief pitchers: John Rocker, Darren Holmes, Kerry Ligtenberg, Hammond, Mike Remlinger, Mike Stanton, Mark Wohlers, Brad Clontz, Greg McMichael, Alejandro Pena, Mike Bielecki, Mike Cather, Kevin McGlinchey, Russ Springer—the list is almost endless. Even guys with long histories of arm injuries—Springer and Bielicki, for example—somehow keep it together and pitch well in the process. (As an aside: The Braves knack for finding talent in the bullpen is unmatched, which makes their decision to keep Smoltz in the bullpen, and give him $10 million per to do so, all the more puzzling. The only reason must be the same as the Blue Jays keeping Kelvim Escobar out of the rotation: fear of injury. Smoltz himself has expressed interest in returning to the rotation.)

Despite all this pitching, the Braves have but that one ring, and that was the year, if you were going to pick one, where the Braves shouldn’t have won because of their lackluster offense. One of baseball’s sacred cows is that pitching wins in the playoffs and good pitching will always beat good hitting. Of all the bunk flying around, to me this is the biggest fallacy around. If it’s true, the Braves would have won four or five Series titles.

Which brings us back to the original question: why haven’t they? The easy answer is to say the Braves are built for the long run and in a short series anything can happen. If this was true, we would expect more than one title from Atlanta, and we would expect at least one fewer from the Yankees. Further, the numbers simply don’t bear it out, especially when you consider the Yankees, before their real free-agency lunacy, won basically the same way the Braves did: excellent pitching and an offense built around walks and power. Perhaps, then, another easy answer emerges: it is Bobby Cox’s fault. I am not inclined to believe this one, either, however. From all appearances, Cox is a player’s manager. If the guys are going to play for him in the regular season, they’re going to do it in the post-season. And he may make some curious in-game decisions, but surely that alone can’t explain the one title in 11 chances.

Here is where the non-scientific aspect of the game comes in. For better or worse, we all see a lot of Braves’ games. The one thing that stands out for me—other than the expanded strike zone for Maddux and Glavine—is the lack of passion shown by the Braves. There is something to be said for professionalism, but, as the Angels showed last year—and as the Twins and Blue Jays and Phillies (though they didn’t win a title, either) and Marlins showed in their World Series runs—there is also something to be said for having fun. The Yankees don’t exactly do the Lindy Hop all the time, either, but in this recent run they have had some passionate, emotional, and colorful players. Among them: O’Neill, Orlando Hernandez, Jeter, Sojo, Curtis, Nelson, Cone, David Wells, Leyritz, and, though he’s a jack-ass, Clemens. The Braves rarely look like they are enjoying themselves; they strike me as being too tense, too uptight: it seems they are letting the pressure get to them. Think about it: who on the Braves has been colorful or has looked liked he’s having fun? Rocker was colorful, to say the least, but obviously not the way Cone, for instance, was colorful. Klesko and Jordan played their butts off and looked like they were having fun, but the list is a short one.

One or two post-season failures I could chalk up to chance. Three or four, I’m still willing to go that route, but the road is bumpier. Five or six failures will take a gifted apologist to convince me it’s still random. But 10? Maybe what the Braves need to do is go 86-76, sneak into the playoffs, and face a team that has won 107 games. Maybe then, when the pressure is off them, relatively, they can snare that elusive second World Series title. Or maybe not. The Braves have had a brilliant manager and a pitching coach, Leo Mazzone, who keep their pitchers healthy and can cobble together a bullpen; overall the team has had a philosophy of walks and power (with the exception of the last three years or so); and they have had three of the best pitchers of their generation. But they haven’t been able to win when it counts. Rather than say it’s random chance or, to be more specious, blame Bobby Cox, maybe, to use an anachronism, it’s because they simply don’t know how.