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Monday, May 26
Updated: May 28, 10:02 AM ET
 
The Braves' ongoing dynasty

By Jim Baker
ESPN Insider

ATLANTA -- They line the fašade in left field in Turner Field: oversized pennants that indicate the team's success. In a modern stadium overcrowded with advertising and bits of physical business, they might not be the most dominant feature and it can be argued that they are not aesthetically pleasing. Nevertheless, what they represent is impressive although experiencing it day-to-day as we all have makes it is sometimes easy to forget that.

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  • To do what the Braves have done since 1991 is not unique in baseball history -- but it is nearly so. Take a 13-year chunk out of any number of intervals in the Yankee timeline and you'll find better winning percentages I stopped counting at 10, but 1931-1943 (.641) was the best and 1927-1939 second-best (.639). Postwar, it's 1949-61 at .628. Apart from teams who played both in New York and the American League, what the Braves have done since their surprise '91 season is very nearly the best ever:

    1901-1913 Pittsburgh Pirates: .618
    1991-2003 Atlanta Braves: .612 (through Sunday)
    1904-1916 New York Giants: .610
    1905-1917 New York Giants: 606
    1933-1945 St. Louis Cardinals: .600

    Given that, here is a review of the Baker's dozen of Braves seasons in this fantastic run:

    1991
    94-68, .581; lost World Series to Minnesota, 4-3

    Best pitcher: Tom Glavine
    Best position player: Ron Gant
    New faces: Sid Bream, Otis Nixon, Terry Pendleton, Rafael Belliard, Deion Sanders, Kent Mercker
    Already there: Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, David Justice, Greg Olson, Mark Lemke, Ron Gant, Jeff Blauser, Lonnie Smith, Jeff Treadway, Charlie Liebrandt, Pete Smith
    In-season pickup: Alejandro Pena
    Gone: Jim Presley, Oddibe McDowell, Dale Murphy (first full year without him)
    Still Active: Tom Glavine, Ron Gant, John Smoltz, Vinny Castilla, Mike Stanton, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker
    Low point: July 7: 39-40; 9½ games out of first

    Tom Glavine
    Tom Glavine went 20-11 in 1991, his first of five 20-win seasons.

    Stealing the thunder of the Braves rise was the fact that they met a team in the World Series that had also gone from last place to first and lost to them. The Minnesota Twins may have out-Cinderellaed the Braves for that one season, but, in context, what they did was less dramatic.

    For one thing, they had been nine games better than the Braves the previous season and had averaged 85 wins a year to the Braves 62 in the three seasons before that -- so they weren't so much climbing out of the muck as they were experiencing a correction. For another, they enjoyed one more decent season before heading into a decade-long funk from which they have only just emerged.

    The Twins got the trophy and their fans got the insta-thrill; the Braves and their fans got security. You can argue which one is more desirable.

    1992
    98-64, .605; lost World Series to Toronto, 4-2

    Best pitcher: Tom Glavine or John Smoltz
    Best position player: Terry Pendleton
    New faces: Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez
    Low point: The Braves were in last place on Memorial Day and fell to seven games under .500 the next day. They lost three games in the next four weeks. They added a 13-game winning streak in July.

    If you were to pick the one person in baseball history who had a sound reason for uttering the words, "... I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth," chances are it wouldn't be Lou Gehrig. My vote for the man who should have that carved on his tombstone would have to go to Rafael Belliard.

    After all or part of nine seasons with the Pirates in which he never came close to slugging .300 or getting on base 30 percent of the time, Belliard came to the Braves. He had, essentially a career-year in 1991 -- somehow without breaking the .300 mark in either category again -- and then hung around for the next seven years as part of the best program in baseball. Apart from '91, his contributions were negligible -- especially in October. In his defense, he did bunch some hits to produce good lines for the '91 Series and the '96 NLCS, but, overall, he managed one extra-base hit in 81 postseason plate appearances.

    1993
    104-58, .642; lost NLCS to Philadelphia, 4-2

    Best pitcher: Greg Maddux
    Best position player: Jeff Blauser or David Justice
    New faces: Greg Maddux, Chipper Jones, Steve Bedrosian
    In-season pickup: Fred McGriff
    Gone: Alejandro Pena, Charlie Liebrandt, Lonnie Smith, Vinny Castilla
    Low point: In the last real pennant race in the history of the planet, the Braves had fallen nine games behind the Giants in late June.

    Borrowing a technique from Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups, here are the best seasons enjoyed by Braves players during the 13-year run. The weakest position so far has been second base although Marcus Giles is on the verge of changing all that this year.

    Braves best individual seasons, 1991-2002

    LH SP: Tom Glavine, 1998: 20-6, 2.47 ERA, Cy Young (his '91 is close)
    RH SP: Greg Maddux, 1995: 19-2, 1.63 ERA, (one of best Winning % ever)
    LH RP: John Rocker, 1999: 38 saves, 2.49 ERA, 104 Ks in 72.3 IP
    RH RP: John Smoltz, 2002: 55 saves
    C: Javy Lopez, 1998: 34 HR, 106 RBI
    1B: Andres Galarraga, 1998: 44 HR, 121 RBI; near-1.000 OPS
    2B: Bret Boone, 1999: 102 runs, 20 HR (also lone bright spot in Series loss)
    SS: Jeff Blauser, 1993: 101 BB + HBP, 110 runs, 15 HR
    3B: Chipper Jones, 1999: 45 HR, 1.074 OPS, 126 BB
    LF: Ron Gant, 1993: 36 HR, 117 RBI, 26 SB (1991 about equal)
    CF: Andruw Jones, 2000: .303 BA, 36 HR, 21/27 SB/CS
    RF: David Justice, 1993: 40 HR, 120 RBI, 78 BB

    At third base, a case can be made for Terry Pendelton's 1992 season over Jones' '99 effort because Pendleton won the Gold Glove and Jones played third base so well they made him a left fielder. I am a prisoner of his gaudy offensive numbers, though, and chose Jones.

    1994
    68-46, .596; second-best record in NL when strike ended season

    Best pitcher: Greg Maddux
    Best position player: Fred McGriff
    In-season pickup: Roberto Kelly
    Gone: Ron Gant, Marvin Freeman, Pete Smith, Greg Olson, Sid Bream, Damon Berryhill, Deion Sanders, Otis Nixon
    Low point: Does it really matter in a season in which there was no World Series?

    There are those who will argue that, had the season been allowed to continue, the Braves would have surely caught the upstart Expos and filled in the one gap on their 1990s first-place resume. To that I say, "Sorry, what is done is done. Little Timmy fell down the well and Lassie never made it back home to alert June Lockhart." It's over. It happened. It's in the books. We'll just never know ... That it remains the sole blemish on their record is befitting a season that is a blemish on baseball's overall record.

    1995
    90-54, .625; World Champions

    Best pitcher: Greg Maddux
    Best position player: Anyone of four or five guys
    New faces: Brad Clontz, Marquis Grissom, Eddie Perez
    Gone: Roberto Kelly, Mike Stanton, Terry Pendleton
    Low point: On June 30, the Phillies beat the Braves 3-1and increased their lead to 3½ games. With three games left in the series, the Phillies could have widened the gap. Instead, they lost all three and the Braves kept on winning and everyone else kept losing until 21 games stood between Atlanta and the next-best team, the Mets.

    Critics of the Braves like to point to their lone World Championship -- won this season in six games against the Indians -- as proof that what they have achieved since 1991 is something less than special. Would it be more impressive if they'd knocked down a couple more big trophies like the Yankees have?

    Yes, but we shouldn't let that bother us when it comes to evaluating their accomplishments. Do inferior teams beat superior teams in the playoffs? Yes, all the time. It's part of baseball and it is why I do not wish to see the playoffs expanded any further than they already have been. To do so would be to further discount the effort required to excel over the course of six months and 162 games.

    1996
    96-66, .593; lost World Series to Yankees, 4-2

    Best pitcher: John Smoltz
    Best position player: Chipper Jones
    New faces: Jermaine Dye, Andruw Jones
    In-season pickup: Denny Neagle
    Gone: Kent Mercker, Steve Bedrosian
    Low point: September 14. On this day, the Braves led the Expos by just 4½ games. Two weeks before their lead had been 12, but they lost 10 of 12 before squaring things away.

    Andruw Jones
    Andruw Jones was called up late in the '96 season and has been a fixture in center field for the Braves ever since.

    A yearly feature of the early portion of the dynasty were the postseason heroics of Mark Lemke. While he might go a month without doing anything even worth considering for a SportsCenter highlight during the regular season, once the playoffs began, Lemke was usually found ramming a ball on a hop against the outfield wall. He was a poor man's Mr. October -- or so it seemed.

    As it so often happens in these instances, we tend to remember the highlights and forget the big picture. Over the course of 200-plus postseason at bats, Lemke got much closer to his true self than we tend to remember him doing. By the time he was done, his postseason career OPS fairly resembled that of the regular season, .685 to .641. (As an aside, I wish Lemke's post-career experiment with learning the knuckle ball had worked out. If it had, he'd still be pitching.)

    1997
    101-61, .623; lost NLCS to Florida, 4-2

    Best pitcher: Greg Maddux
    Best position player: Jeff Blauser
    New faces: Kenny Lofton, Keith Lockhart, Kevin Millwood, Kerry Ligtenberg
    Gone: Steve Avery, Marquis Grissom, Jermaine Dye, David Justice, Brad Clontz
    Low point: As even-keeled a season as a team could have produced no real bottom outs, unless it was getting swept at home by the Rockies in mid-September.

    Watching Glavine's return to Turner Field on Saturday, the polarized reaction of those around me was striking. What is the right thing to do in this case? Do you cheer because this man has contributed so mightily to what has transpired over the last dozen years or do you boo out of frustration that he is no longer on hand to continue doing so? Or, do you boo because your local franchise has shown repeatedly that it is capable of stepping over such bodies and leaving the crime scene scott-free and you want him to know that the team will succeed without him? What we saw was a mixture of all those reactions.

    According to the Bill James Win Shares system, Glavine has contributed the second-most to the success of the Braves during this run. Here are the eight men who have logged at least 100 Win Shares in that time:

    Greg Maddux
    Tom Glavine
    Chipper Jones
    John Smoltz
    Andruw Jones
    Javier Lopez
    David Justice
    Jeff Blauser

    1998
    106-56, .654; lost NLCS to San Diego, 4-2

    Best pitcher: Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine
    Best position player: Chipper Jones or Andres Galarraga
    New faces: Andres Galarraga, Walt Weiss, Gerald Williams, John Rocker
    In-season pickup: Ozzie Guillen
    Gone: Fred McGriff, Kenny Lofton, Mark Lemke, Jeff Blauser
    Low point: An 11-8 loss to Philadelphia dropped them to .500. Fortunately, it was only April 13. They won nine of their next ten and never looked back.

    The issue of multiple divisions and the fact that playing in that format affords a club much more opportunity to win something should not be discounted when comparing the modern Braves to great long-term dynasties of the past. Yes, it is easier to top out on a small group that it is on a larger one. The Braves have topped out on five other teams three times (1991-1993) and four other teams eight times (1995-2002) while the Yankees in their great runs were mostly up against seven other clubs with nine coming at the very end (1961-64) of their era of good fortune. It would be possible in this context to get by with records that are just good enough to win the division, but not dominate the league over the long term. This is not the case with the Braves, however. Taking the record of the next-best team (or best team in the season in which Atlanta did not have the best record) and combining them, they still do not have a better record than the Braves (.611), even at the .602 clip at which they played.

    1999
    103-59, .636, lost World Series to Yankees, 4-0

    Best pitcher: Kevin Millwood
    Best position player: Chipper Jones
    New faces: Bret Boone, Brian Jordan, Mike Remlinger, Otis Nixon
    In-season pickup: Jose Hernandez
    Gone: Rafael Belliard, Michael Tucker, Denny Neagle
    Low point: On June 13, the Braves lost to the Orioles 22-1. Teams that win over 100 games don't normally lose by 21 runs.

    Naturally, the Braves have hauled in some hardware in this time period. There have been the multiple Gold Gloves of Maddux and Andruw Jones, and singles for Pendleton and Grissom; the six straight (and seven of eight) Cy Young Awards for Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, the MVP trophies for Pendleton (albeit undeserved) and Chipper Jones and the Rookie of the Year Award for Rafael Furcal. In addition, Smoltz was last year's Rolaids Relief winner and Bobby Cox was Manager of the Year in 1991, proving that if you're going to win that award, it pays to surprise.

    Here are the Braves best seasons in various categories during the run:

    Batting Average: .333, Kenny Lofton, 1997
    On Base Percentage: .441, Chipper Jones, 1999
    Slugging Percentage: .633, Chipper Jones, 1999
    Runs: 123, Chipper Jones, 1998
    Hits: 207, Marquis Grissom, 1996
    Doubles: 41, Chipper Jones, 1997 & 1999
    Triples: 14, Deion Sanders, 1992
    Home Runs: 45, Chipper Jones, 1999
    RBI: 121, Andres Galarraga, 1998
    Stolen Bases: 72, Otis Nixon, 1991

    ERA: 1.54, Greg Maddux, 1994
    Wins: 24, John Smoltz, 1996
    Winning %: .905 (19-2), Greg Maddux, 1995
    Strikeouts: 276, John Smoltz, 1996
    Innings Pitched: 267, Greg Maddux, 1993
    Saves: 55, John Smoltz, 2002

    2000
    95-67, .586; lost NLDS to St. Louis, 3-0

    Greg Maddux
    Greg Maddux was 19-9 in 2000, the seventh time in his career he's won 19 or more games.

    Best pitcher: Greg Maddux
    Best position player: Either Jones
    New faces: Quilvio Veras, Rafael Furcal, Reggie Sanders, Bobby Bonilla, Wally Joyner, John Burkett
    In-season pickup: B.J. Surhoff
    Gone: Ryan Klesko, Bret Boone, Otis Nixon, Mark Wohlers, Gerald Williams, Ozzie Guillen
    Low point: The Braves were outscored in both June and August. During the course of this dynasty, they have only been outscored in nine months out of 73.

    A run like this is bound to produce some Hall of Fame wattage. Here are the Braves candidates from the 1991-2003 period:

    Locks: Maddux, Glavine, Bobby Cox. At some point, the Hall of Fame voters are probably going to have to address GM John Schuerholz's role in all of this as well.

    Working on it: The Joneses. Had Chipper stayed at third base his path to Cooperstown would be wide open, regardless of his defense. Now that he's spending the rest of his life elsewhere, it's not quite so apparent, but it still looks like a good bet. As he plays into his 30s it would behoove him to continue to keep missing fewer than five games per season as he has so far. That will certainly help him pile up the counting stats. With Andruw, if you think of what has happened so far as a mere prelude, then the best is yet to come and he'll make the Hall with room to spare. If he does not jump a peg and instead continues on exactly as he has so far for another 10 years (he's only 26), isn't that still a Hall-worthy career given his defense?

    A case could me made for: John Smoltz and Fred McGriff. Smoltz is a long shot whose candidacy is predicated on two things: three more years of lights-out closing and how seriously the candidacy of his predecessor down this path -- Dennis Eckersley -- is taken. When the time comes for McGriff to face the voters, we will see more words written on the topic than were expended on the recently-completed conflict in Iraq. Regardless of the outcome, the Hall will find itself with some sort of new threshold for induction. (As an aside, we have to consider the possibility that Gary Sheffield will finish his career with some numbers that we have always equated with Hall of Famers.)

    2001
    88-74, .543; lost NLCS to Arizona, 4-1

    Best pitcher: Greg Maddux
    Best position player: Chipper Jones
    New faces: Marcus Giles, Damian Moss
    In-season pick-up: Julio Franco
    Gone: Reggie Sanders, Bobby Bonilla, Wally Joyner, John Rocker, Walt Weiss, Andres Galarraga
    Low point: The whole season. It is their worst performance since '91 but, owing to the mediocrity of the division, allowed them to win in spite of having only the fifth-best record in the league.

    For 12-plus seasons, the Braves have outscored their opponents by almost one run per game on average. For the past seven seasons they have not closed the door on the sale at the end of the season. I've already addressed this, but it bears revisiting since so many of these wonderful Braves seasons end in what some regard as "failure." Michael Lewis addresses the regular season/postseason phenomenon in general terms in his marvelous book Moneyball, but it applies in specific to the Braves as well. Writes Lewis, "The playoffs frustrate rational management because, unlike the long regular season, they suffer from the sample size problem ... In a five-game series, the worst team in baseball will beat the best about 15 percent of the time ... The baseball season is structured to mock reason."

    2002
    101-59, .631; lost NLDS to San Francisco, 3-2

    Best pitcher: Pick 'em: Maddux, Millwood, Glavine or Smoltz
    Best position player: Chipper Jones
    New faces: Vinny Castilla, Gary Sheffield, Darren Holmes
    Gone: Quilvio Veras, John Burkett, Odalis Perez, Eddie Perez, Brian Jordan
    Low point: Closed out April in fourth place, 4½ games out of first.

    Seeing Braves fans do The Chop at this late date is kind of amusing. When the run began 12 years ago and the nation was treated to one of the great political conundrums of our time -- that being the sight of Jane Fonda doing a faux rendition of a make-believe Native American activity -- The Chop was part of the whole neo-Bravo thing. Now, though, it plays more like something you'd see in a historic re-enactment -- an action that's lost its relevance, but still needs to be done to guarantee authenticity.

    2003
    34-16, .680 through Sunday, May 25

    Best pitcher: John Smoltz
    Best position player: Gary Sheffield
    New faces: Mike Hampton, Robert Fick, Russ Ortiz, Roberto Hernandez, Shane Reynolds, Ray King, Horacio Ramirez, Trey Hodges
    Gone: Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood, B.J. Surhoff, Kerry Ligtenberg, Keith Lockhart, Chris Hammond, Damian Moss, Mike Remlinger
    Low point: 4-8 after first two weeks of season

    Is all this premature? Is celebrating 13 straight years of success while still fairly early in the 13th year jumping the love gun a bit? Sure! But do you want to bet the Braves are not going to win their division again at this juncture? Maybe that's the smart way to approach these Braves from now on: don't bet on them to lose the division until they actually do lose the division.

    Jim Baker writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider.





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