To the approbation of their fans, and the consternation of their foes, the Atlanta Braves were the most consistently successful baseball franchise of the period lasting from 1991-2005. During that time-span, they won 14 straight division titles, five N.L. pennants, and one World Championship.
Interestingly, during the era of the steroid-induced home run hitters, it was pitching that was primarily responsible for the Braves good fortune. Specifically, the success of the Braves was largely attributable to the combined talents of starting pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. These three All-Stars combined to win seven Cy Young Awards between them.
But in a typical season, these three future Hall of Famers would combine to make about 100 starts per season. Surely, given the inconsistent nature of the Braves offenses in those days, there must have been some pretty good back-of-the-rotation starters on those teams as well stepping up on the pitcher’s mound for the other 62 games per season.
Turns out there was. Many Braves fans will remember Steve Avery. The name Jason Schmidt might ring a bell to others. And ex-Brave Kevin Millwood now toils away in Baltimore.
But how about Denny Neagle? He was perhaps the best fourth starter on any of those great Braves pitching staffs. Now, that may sound like a backhanded complement, but keep in mind that, in his prime, Neagle could have been the ace of many major league teams.
Denny Neagle’s Best Forgotten Season was 1997.
Normally in this series, I choose a player who performed in a season somewhat further removed from our contemporary era. Yet although ’97 is just thirteen years ago, it feels closer to twenty, especially when one stops to consider how many other fourth starters the Braves have utilized over the past dozen years.
In 1997, the southpaw Neagle rivaled each of the Braves other top three starters for the title of Staff Ace. In 34 starts, he posted a record of 20-5, with an ERA of 2.97. He tossed 233 innings, notched four shutouts, struck out 172 batters, and posted a WHIP of 1.08. His ERA+ was 140. His twenty victories led the National League.
Neagle finished third in the N.L. Cy Young voting in ’97 behind the winner Pedro Martinez (then with the Expos), and runner-up, and teammate, Greg Maddux. Maddux, once again asserting himself as the true staff ace, finished 19-4, but posted an ERA of 2.20, even better than that posted by Neagle.
Neagle sandwiched his league-leading twenty win season in ’97 between two sixteen win seasons. His first sixteen win season occurred while pitching part of the season for the Pirates in ’96 before coming over to the Braves in a timely and fortuitous deal. His second and final sixteen win season came while pitching in his second and final season for the Braves, 1998.
Neagle never had another season in which he pitched quite so effectively as he did in 1997. Despite signing a four-year, 32 million dollar free agent contract to pitch for the Rockies in 2001, he turned out to be a major bust.
Neagle finally retired after the 2003 season, at age 34, with a career record of 124-92.
But the Braves have not, of course, always been a very good ball-club.
Although there aren’t many people under the age of 35 who remember this, the Braves of the 1980’s were sometimes absolutely terrible. In 1989, for example, just a couple of years before the Braves began their incredible run of success, they finished in sixth place in their division (the N.L. West, at that time), with a record of 63-97.
Still, even bad teams sometimes have very good players.
The Best Forgotten Player on the 1989 Braves was Lonnie Smith.
Lonnie Smith patrolled left-field for the Braves for all or most of five seasons, from 1988-92, inclusive. The Braves had picked Smith up as a free-agent after he had been released by the Royals after the 1987 season.
At 5’9″ and 170 pounds, Smith certainly wasn’t a big man, but he did have some pop in his bat, and he could also steal a base. Although his fielding could sometimes be an adventure, he did finish second in Range Factor among N.L. left-fielders in ’89. His Fielding Percentage was also a very decent .993.
But Smith’s greatest contributions in ’89 came with the bat and on the base-paths. Already 33-years old, Smith produced the one and only 20 homer, 20 steal season of his career. Specifically, Smith hit 21 homers and stole 25 bases to go with along with a .315 batting average.
Even more impressively, his 76 walks and eleven times hit by a pitch resulted in a league- leading .415 On-Base Percentage.
Surprisingly, despite his high On-Base Percentage, Smith scored just 89 runs. Apparently, his teammates lack-luster hitting with men on base was just one reason why they lost 97 games.
Smith’s OPS was a stunning .948, and his OPS+ of 168 was good for fourth place in the N.L. He also produced 257 Total Bases for the Braves otherwise anemic offense.
Lonnie Smith finished eleventh in the N.L. MVP voting in 1989, a strong showing for a player on a last-place team who was not a power hitter.
Unfortunately, as with Denny Neagle eight years later, Smith could not duplicate his success the following year. Although Smith was still a useful player in 1990, his skills were quickly eroding as he approached age 35. The Braves released Smith after the 1992 season.
The Pirates, foreshadowing the hapless and misguided personnel decisions that have marked their descent into obscurity, signed the 36-year old Smith as a free-agent for the 1993 season.
Smith, his skills long since having deserted him, inevitably retired in 1994 at the age of 38. He had played for six Major League teams in his seventeen- year career.
But only once did Smith produce a season that truly deserves to be remembered. Lonnie Smith’s 1989 season was one of the Best Forgotten Seasons in Braves history.