Seven teams since 1901 had five players age 30 or under who would amass 50+ career WAR.* But those seven comprise just four distinct clubs. We’ll track the progress of those teams, after the jump.
Teams with Five Players 30 or Younger, Who Would Amass 50+ Career WAR
- Philadelphia Athletics, 1925 through 1928: Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Eddie Rommel
- St. Louis Cardinals, 1970: Steve Carlton, Dick Allen, Joe Torre, Jose Cruz, Ted Simmons
- Houston Astros, 1991: Curt Schilling, Jeff Bagwell, Kenny Lofton, Craig Biggio, Luiz Gonzalez
- Atlanta Braves, 1996: Greg Maddux, Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Andruw Jones
1) The A’s of 1925-28 might boast the best group of young talent ever kept intact for a baseball generation. It took a while to mature, but this team would win three straight pennants starting in 1929:
- Lefty Grove, 110 career WAR, age 25-28 in these years (his 1st-4th)
- Jimmie Foxx, 96 WAR, age 17-20 (1st-4th)
- Al Simmons, 69 WAR, age 23-26 (2nd-5th)
- Mickey Cochrane, 52 WAR, age 22-25 (1st-4th)
- Eddie Rommel, 50, age 27-30 (6th-9th)
5-man Totals: 377 career WAR … 17 WAR in 1925 … 20 in ’26 … 18 in ’27 … 24 in ’28
All five were together for 8 seasons, 1925-32.
Three were together for 9 seasons, 1925-33 (Grove, Foxx and Cochrane).
But would the baby ever come? They finished 2nd in 1925, breaking a 10-year lease on the second division, paced by the super-soph Simmons and a balanced rotation topped by Rommel’s 21 wins. The rookie Grove, a minor-league marvel bought for a hundred grand, was injured and unimpressive, mainly in relief. Cochrane hit .331 as a rook, but was raw behind the plate, and the teenage Foxx just watched. They also had Max Bishop (age 25 in his 2nd year, 37 career WAR), Jimmy Dykes (age 28, 35 WAR), Rube Walberg (age 28, 38 WAR), Bing Miller (age 30, 29 WAR), and landed Jack Quinn in midseason (59 career WAR, and still going strong at 41).
Grove found his groove in ’26, his first of nine ERA titles pacing an historic staff (139 team ERA+). But the lineup didn’t gel: Simmons slumped a bit, Cochrane was learning on the job, and Foxx was still a neutral observer. In ’27, old superstars Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins and Zack Wheat came aboard and hit a combined .344, helping build the club’s best record since 1914, but the Yanks ran away from the pack.
By 1928, the “5×50-WAR” class all were stars; this is the only team with five 50-WAR regulars age 30 or under. The A’s led the race on September 8 — then dropped three straight in the Bronx, and never recovered.
But the payoff was worth the wait. From 1929-31, the quartet of Grove, Simmons, Foxx and Cochrane averaged 7 WAR per man per year, and Rommel still was a useful swingman. The A’s averaged a 104-48 mark, copped each pennant without serious threat, and fell a Game 7 short of winning all three World Series.
The 1932 A’s went after an unprecedented 4th straight AL pennant, but stumbled out of the gate. They recovered to finish 94-60, a .610 W% and 4 games above the NL champs — but 13 games behind the Yankees. Once again, Mr. Mack saw the writing on the wall: Success meant bigger salaries, but the Depression had wiped out attendance. Philly’s gate dropped more than half since ’29, with barely 5,000 a game witnessing this great team. The break-up was inevitable.
Nine key A’s stayed together from 1925 through at least ’32, when Rommel retired, and Simmons & Dykes were sold to the ChiSox (along with Mule Haas).
Athletics’ Core, 1925-32
After 1933, Grove, Bishop and Walberg were parceled off in one deal, Cochrane in another. Miller (*whose term had a one-year sabbatical) was waived after ’34, at age 40. Foxx was the last Beast bartered — in the fall of ’35, after the ashes of Mack’s second dynasty drifted into the cellar. A dozen years passed until the A’s again saw the first division.
The Red Sox bought Grove, Bishop and Wes Ferrell in ’34, and reached .500 for the first time since Ruth. They added Foxx in ’36, and by ’38 had climbed to 2nd place. 1939 was the last great year for Grove and Foxx, and the debut of Ted Williams, all three scoring 6.7 to 7.0 WAR. They had Joe Cronin near his prime, and a young Bobby Doerr just approaching his, but it wasn’t nearly enough to keep the Yankees from a 4th straight championship.
2) The 1970 Cardinals were the next club with “5×50<=30,” going 76-86 with:
- Steve Carlton, 90 career WAR, age 25 in 1970 (his 6th year)
- Dick Allen, 59 WAR, age 28 (8th year)
- Joe Torre, 58 WAR, age 29 (11th year)
- Jose Cruz, 54 WAR, age 22 (debut cameo)
- Ted Simmons, 50 WAR, age 20 (3rd year, but first as a regular)
5-man Totals: 311 career WAR … 13 WAR in 1970
All five were together just that one year.
Four were together 2 years, 1970-71 (Carlton, Torre, Simmons and Cruz).
Three were together 5 years, 1970-74 (Torre, Simmons and Cruz).
After 1968, their third pennant in five years, the Cards still were in shape to contend for years to come. Bob Gibson would average 18 wins and 7.0 WAR in the coming five years, 3rd in pitcher WAR for that span. Lou Brock stayed a potent leadoff man through ’74 (when he set the season steals mark), averaging .305 BA with 106 runs and 70 SB from ’69-74. Carlton turned 24 after the Series, then earned his second straight All-Star nod. By 1970, the system had produced Simmons, Cruz, Bobby Tolan, Jerry Reuss and Mike Torrez, and by ’74 a second wave of Keith Hernandez, Bake McBride, Jerry Mumphrey, John Denny, Bob Forsch and Jim Bibby. And two big trades got the retooling started, landing Torre and Allen in their primes.
Yet they never really came close throughout the ’70s, finishing the decade with a losing record. What happened?
Mainly, a long string of impatient trades. Chronologically:
— Tolan, a triple-A star at 19, didn’t break through in two half-years by ’68. When Roger Maris retired, they swapped Tolan and reliever Wayne Granger (coming off a sharp rookie year) for Vada Pinson. This was a bust: In the next two years, Pinson’s decline continued, while Tolan finally blossomed in the Pinson mold, averaging .310 BA, 18 HRs, 42 steals and 108 runs. Granger averaged 31 saves and 115 IP with a 2.75 ERA, and the pair helped Cincy to the ’70 pennant. When those two years were up, Pinson had been parlayed, through Jose Cardenal and Ted Kubiak, into the Legend of Joe Grzenda.
— Compounding Granger’s absence, closer Joe Hoerner went in the deal that brought Allen for 1970, and it took five years to fill the gap. From 1970-74, Cards closers averaged 10 saves and 1.5 WAR. They reacquired Granger for ’73, when he was about spent, at the cost of Larry Hisle; the former ROY contender had just regained his footing with a huge year at triple-A, age 25, and would average 4 WAR in the bigs for the next six years.
— The Allen trade also brought in veteran 2B Cookie Rojas, whose bat had waned in recent years after a strong start. Rojas was just insurance for Julian Javier, who’d turn 34 that summer. Indeed, Javier faded quickly starting that very year — but Rojas got just 51 PAs in two months before he was dumped, for minor-league veteran Fred Rico. Rojas revived in Kansas City, with four straight All-Star years.
— Allen had an Allen year in 1970: team-high 34 HRs, 101 RBI and 146 OPS+, with 17 of the team’s 51 home-field HRs, and none of the turmoil that dogged his Philly years. But they still shipped him out, just four days after season’s end. The Dodgers gave ’69 ROY Ted Sizemore, who would replace Javier. At least Sizemore out-WARred Rojas in the next four years (10.3-8.3), but that hardly made him a fair return for Allen, who racked up 14.0 WAR and an MVP in just the next two years. St. Louis ran second in ’71, with 1.3 WAR from Sizemore; meanwhile, Allen had a 151 OPS+ for LA, and Philly’s haul from the original trade showed Hoerner with a 1.97 ERA in 73 IP (2.7 WAR), Tim McCarver with 2.1 WAR, and ROY runner-up Willie Montanez with 30 HRs and 99 RBI.
— Two key pitchers from ’68, Ray Washburn and Nelson Briles, got hurt in the next two years, and were swapped out with little return. Washburn was finished, but Briles bounced back with the Bucs, helping them to ’71 title with a 2-hit shutout in the Series.
— Torrez went 10-4 as a rookie swingman in ’69, and was okay as a 23-year-old soph. Injured in ’71, they swapped him to Montreal for ex-1st-round pick Bob Reynolds. After pitching Reynolds for 7 innings in five weeks, they bundled him and Cardenal for the weak-hitting Kubiak — and three months later, Kubiak begat the 35-year-old Grzenda, who won his only St. Louis decision and then retired. Reynolds became a relief ace with the ’73-74 Orioles, going 14-10 with 16 saves and a 2.25 ERA in 180 IP for those division winners. Torrez won 164 games after leaving St. Louis, and won two complete games in the ’77 Series, including the clincher.
— The big one: After Carlton won 20 in ’71, he wanted more dough, and owner Gussie Busch ordered a trade. Carlton went straight-up for Rick Wise, who at least was a year younger (27-26). Each had five full rotation years at that point:
- Carlton, 74-59, 3.11 ERA, 113 ERA+, 905 Ks, 19.7 WAR.
- Wise, 65-67, 3.56 ERA, 99 ERA+, 620 Ks, 11.2 WAR.
Oops. Wise was good in ’72, his 4.9 WAR about matching Carlton’s prior 3-year average — but it paled against Lefty’s historic outburst. So the next year, Wise was moved along with Bernie Carbo, for Reggie Smith and Ken Tatum. They could have won that one — Smith turned in two fine years — but he started ’76 slowly and was dealt to LA, for Joe Ferguson and two guys who didn’t pan out. Then Ferguson didn’t hit in his half-year, so he was shipped to Houston for a washed-up Larry Dierker and a scrub. Dierker won two games in ’77 and retired, while Carlton won his second CYA for Philly. Ferguson rebounded with a 124 OPS+ from ’77-79, and Smith was a key to LA’s ’77-78 pennants, averaging 30 HRs and .302/.406/.568. By ’78, the Cards had nothing left from any of those deals. And we’re far from done.
— Reuss had a sophomore slump in ’71, but more importantly, Busch didn’t like his facial hair — so off he went to Houston for Scipio Spinks. Scipio started well in ’72, but got hurt on July 4 and was basically done. Reuss had his ups and downs, but won almost 200 games after leaving the Cards. His shining moment was the ’81 postseason: 18 scoreless frames in the first round, and a CG 2-1 victory over Ron Guidry in the pivotal WS Game 5.
— Bibby was given 9 starts, then swapped in ’73 for two players: Mike Nagy wouldn’t last even 9 starts, and John Wockenfuss never got a look before they passed him along, for a guy who never reached the majors. Bibby would go 105-84 with a 104 ERA+ through 1981, and had a 2.08 ERA in 3 starts in Pittsburgh’s postseason run to the ’79 title. Wockenfuss logged 10 useful years as a platoon bat / third catcher / utility man.
— Jose Cruz regressed after a promising rookie year, and was sold to Houston after ’74. He’d be consistently good for the next dozen years, compiling 50 WAR (8th overall for 1975-86).
— After landing Ron Reed for peanuts in mid-’75 (and getting a 3.23 ERA in 24 starts), they turnstiled him into RF Mike Anderson, a former hot prospect with a 91 OPS+ in 1,100 big-league PAs. Anderson never earned a starter’s job, while Reed became a closer for the 1976-78 division-champ Phillies, averaging 2.43 ERA, 15 saves and 120 IP per year. Cards closers wouldn’t do nearly so well in that time.
— Denny alternated good years with bad until they dumped him on the downswing, giving Denny and Mumphrey (both age 27) for the 34-year-old Bobby Bonds, who hit .203 with 5 HRs in 1980 and was released. Denny won the ’83 Cy Young Award and the WS opener.
(After finding these by tracking the ’70s Cardinals, I bumped into this old Hardball Times post covering the same ground — and reasonably projecting four or five division crowns, if they’d only stood pat.)
That decade of bad beats at the swap meet did have an upside, ushering in Whitey Herzog as GM and skipper. Whitey promptly dealt off Simmons, the last of the “5×50” guys — and, in the same deal, two future Cy Young winners, all without much return — but he delivered the ’82 title, three pennants, and MLB’s best record from 1981-89.
Who ran this club, Trader Lane? Not every deal cratered, but there’s a fevered quality to all the action, no sense of a long-term plan. Ken Reitz won the Gold Glove in his third year, then was dealt for Pete Falcone, clearing third base for hot prospect Hector Cruz. The next year, after Cruz flopped at third, they sent Lynn McGlothen to get Reitz back. Falcone had two bad years after a good one, so they shuttled him off at 25 for two guys who’d last a total of 35 games, while Falcone logged six more decent years. Those guys weren’t stars, so none of it matters much; but what was the strategy?
From 1970-79, twenty-two different pitchers made at least 15 starts in a year for St. Louis, more than all NL clubs save the ’69 newbies. Nineteen of them were 26 or younger in the first of those years — and 13 of those were traded before age 28:
Years with 15 GS for the ’70s Cards & Traded before Age 28
|John Denny||5||1975||1979||22-26||Ind. Seasons|
|Reggie Cleveland||3||1971||1973||23-25||Ind. Seasons|
|Lynn McGlothen||3||1974||1976||24-26||Ind. Seasons|
|Pete Vuckovich||3||1978||1980||25-27||Ind. Seasons|
|Jerry Reuss||2||1970||1971||21-22||Ind. Seasons|
|Pete Falcone||2||1976||1977||22-23||Ind. Seasons|
|Eric Rasmussen||2||1976||1977||24-25||Ind. Seasons|
|Steve Carlton||2||1970||1971||25-26||Ind. Seasons|
|Alan Foster||2||1973||1974||26-27||Ind. Seasons|
|Rick Wise||2||1972||1973||26-27||Ind. Seasons|
|Tom Underwood||1||1977||1977||23-23||Ind. Seasons|
|Mike Torrez||1||1970||1970||23-23||Ind. Seasons|
|Nelson Briles||1||1970||1970||26-26||Ind. Seasons|
Eight of those 13 started a World Series game after leaving St. Louis: Carlton, Reuss, Torrez, Denny, Briles, Wise, Cleveland and Vuckovich. Underwood pitched in the playoffs for two teams afterward. Even with a pass for Carlton — ownership forced the trade, and it looks worse in hindsight than it did at the time — the balance on these deals still is a pool of red ink. Most were dealt after a bad year, minimizing the return — a common habit of common GMs.
But the man behind most of those trades was the accomplished Bing Devine, who built the title Cards in his first tour (1957-64), then helped mold the Miracle Mets, but didn’t get to enjoy either payoff. Devine returned to the Cards after ’67, but his second stint resembled the work of the man he’d originally replaced in St. Louis — none other than “Frantic” Frank Lane.
In the late ’60s, the Card’ home/road results made a U-turn. From 1960-63, winning years all, their home advantage trailed only the Yankees: .620 at home (3rd in MLB), .465 away. That home edge dwindled in the next few years. And then for five straight seasons, 1967-71, the Cards played at least as well on the road as at home. Their overall record ranked 3rd in this span, but their home/away split was .537-.558. They were the only team in that span that played better out of town. In the ’67-68 World Series, they went 3-4 at home, 4-3 on the road.
It might be just coincidence, but those were also the first five full years in the new Busch Stadium. (Any theories?) Their worst home mark came in 1970, the first with artificial turf; they went 34-47 at home, 42-39 away. That split got more normal in succeeding years, but for their whole turf period (1970-95), the Cards’ home-field advantage was below the MLB average. In their most successful period — three pennants from 1982-87 — it was often said that the speedy Cards were a good turf team. Yet in that span, St. Louis ranked 21st of 26 teams in home-field advantage, and worst of the eight most successful teams. For the pennant years specifically, their combined home edge ranked 22nd — while their record on grass was 80-46, tops on that surface for those years.
3) Next come the 1991 Astros, finishing last at 65-97 with:
- Curt Schilling, 81 career WAR, age 24 in 1991 (his 4th season)
- Jeff Bagwell, 80 WAR, age 23 (Rookie of the Year)
- Kenny Lofton, 68 WAR, age 24 (debut cameo)
- Craig Biggio, 65 WAR, age 25 (4th year)
- Luis Gonzalez, 52 WAR, age 23 (2nd year)
5-man Totals: 345 career WAR … 13 WAR in 1991
All five were together just that one year.
Three were together for 6 years, 1991-95 and ’97 (Bagwell, Biggio and Gonzalez).
It took six years from this point for Bags and Bidge even to reach October, seven years after that to win a playoff series, and one more year for their only WS appearance … whereupon they were swept. The others listed here were dealt away before the first dance (Gonzalez came back for the breakthrough year), as were ’91 teammates Steve Finley (44 WAR, age 26, 3rd) and Ken Caminiti (33 WAR, age 28, 5th year). (Finley makes the ’91 Astros one of 23 teams with six players age 30 or under who would tally 40+ career WAR, joined by the ’96 Braves — but we’ll save that for another time.)
First out was Lofton, a minor-league star dispatched after a brief trial. Houston had decided to move Biggio from behind the plate, and thought that Ed Taubensee was their catcher of the future. He lasted two years there — and as so often happens, the team that lost the first trade lost the follow-up, too: Taubensee never became a star, but had a decent career with Cincy, while the guys they got back did nothing. Lofton was a smash from day one in Cleveland — ROY runner-up, first-8-years average of .311 BA, 105 runs, 54 SB and 5.9 WAR, with 6 All-Star nods and 4 Gold Gloves. Like Bagwell and Biggio, he never won a championship; but he played in two Series, and reached the playoffs with the Braves, Giants, Cubs, Yankees, Dodgers, and Cleveland (all three tours).
Schilling was next to go: Houston had got him with Finley and Pete Harnisch for Glenn Davis the year before — a huge win on future value, as Davis faded away with back trouble. But Schilling still hadn’t made his bones, and after a 3.81 ERA in 76 relief innings, they passed him to Philly for Jason Grimsley, who had walked 103 and fanned 90 in his first 137 IP. After opening ’92 well in long relief, Schill joined Philly’s rotation on May 19. He had just five starts in his first four years, but rang up a 2.27 ERA in 26 starts, with 10 CG and 4 shutouts, leading MLB in WHIP. Grimsley spent ’92 back in the minors, with a 5.05 ERA, then was non-tendered. A year later, Schilling was NLCS MVP and hurled a World Series shutout.
Finley and Caminiti went together after ’94, in a big Padres swap that brought in Derek Bell, slugger Phil Plantier and some other bodies. Caminiti’s power surged in two steps from a career high of 18 HRs, up to 26 (with a .302 BA) and then 40-.326 and the MVP Award. Of course, we all learned the hard way that he was juicing. Finley also jumped from a high of 11 up to 30 HRs in ’96, averaging 26 HRs from ’96 through ’04.
Gonzalez lasted to mid-’95 in Houston. Like Caminiti and Finley, he had some solid years there, but as yet lacked the power expected from left field. He was dealt to Chicago for catcher Rick Wilkins, who had slumped since his .303/30-HR fluke in ’93, and never broke out of it. Gonzalez went on as before for a few years; then he, too, found power suddenly at age 30, swatting 23+ six years in a row, with a freaky high of 57.
In 1999, Finley and Gonzalez were reunited on Arizona, joining Randy Johnson, who had sealed Houston’s ’98 division crown as a deadline rental. They were the top three in WAR as the second-year D-backs won 100 games and the NL West. Schilling came over in 2000; and with monster years by him, Big Unit and Gonzo in 2001, Arizona won it all.
Houston’s path after assembling these “5×50” talents is no paean to management, but it’s a far cry from the ’70s Cardinals. Their total record from 1991-2005 was 5th in MLB, and they made the playoffs six times in those last nine years (knocked out by the Braves in ’97, ’99 and ’01). Lofton was unproven when dealt, and many top prospects fall short of stardom. Schilling and Gonzalez both had been up for a few years without dazzling anyone. Of the 67 pitchers with 50+ WAR in the live-ball era, none had pitched as much through age 24 and done as little as Schilling (145 IP, 0.2 WAR, 88 ERA+).
Luis Gonzalez from age 31-35 had a 140 OPS+, 60th on the modern list for that age range (2,000+ PAs). Through age 30, his OPS+ was 109, with more than 4,000 PAs.
There are 200 players whose age 31-35 OPS+ was 120 or better, with 2,000 PAs. Fourteen raised their OPS+ by 30 points or more from what they’d done through age 30 (excluding those with less than 2,000 PAs through age 30). Caminiti is 1st in points gained (+49), Mark McGwire 2nd (+48), Sammy Sosa 5th (+37), Bret Boone 8th (+32), Gonzalez 12th and Jim Edmonds 13th. But there are others who did this before and after the steroids era:
- Roberto Clemente, +43 — 116 OPS+ through age 30, 159 OPS+ for 31-35.
- Augie Galan, +38 — from 107 to 145 OPS+.
- Willie Stargell, +35 — from 136 to 171 OPS+ (7th-best ever for 31-35).
- Adrian Beltre, +34 — from 105 to 139.
- Cy Seymour, +31 — from 104 to 135.
- Jim Hickman, +31 — from 94 to 125.
- Frank Howard, +30 — from 131 to 161.
- Hal Chase, +30 — from 102 to 132. (Oh, what the hell … let’s say he used sheep testes.)
Next down that list are Honus Wagner, +28 (155 to 183, 3rd all-time), and Dixie Walker, +28 (110 to 138).
Some people assume that Gonzalez and Finley used steroids, just because of their 30s power surge. Neither was ever suspended for PED use, nor named in the Mitchell Report. I have no other information on this score; does anyone?
But here’s the point: What’s odd about that line of thinking is that, although Bagwell and Biggio both had mid-career power surges, only one has been broadly tarred with steroids innuendo:
- Craig Biggio averaged 7 HRs in his first 4 full years, age 23-26. He leaped to 21 HRs at 27, and remained a steady 20-HR man through age 40, averaging 18 HRs in that span, and 24 HRs from age 38-40.
- Jeff Bagwell averaged 18 HRs in his first 3 years, age 23-25. He leaped to 39 HRs at 26, and averaged 36 HRs from age 26-36.
Whatever the logic of suspicion based on a power spike, it applies equally to Bidge and Bags. So does guilt-by-association: Both played with Caminiti, and were ’93 spring training teammates of Jason Grimsley, a central figure in the Mitchell Report. Both also played with admitted HGH user Andy Pettitte and accused doper Roger Clemens, although that came near the end of Bagwell’s career.
Advanced stats and at-the-time accolades favor Bagwell as the better player: He won an MVP Award, and got MVP votes in 10 seasons, while Biggio peaked at 4th place and got votes in 5 years. Bagwell earned half again more money than Biggio, despite a shorter career. But Biggio fared better in HOF voting right from the start, with 68% in his first vote and induction in his third, while Bagwell hasn’t reached 60% in five tries. In three shared ballots, Biggio outpolled Bagwell by an average of 75%-57%. I don’t get it.
4) Lastly, the 1996 Braves: 96-66, but just short of a second straight championship, with:
- Greg Maddux, 107 career WAR, age 30 in 1996 (his 11th year)
- Chipper Jones, 85 WAR, age 24 (3rd year)
- Tom Glavine, 81 WAR, age 30 (10th year)
- John Smoltz, 70 WAR, age 29 (9th year)
- Andruw Jones, 63 WAR, age 19 (debut cameo)
5-man Totals: 406 career WAR … 26 WAR in 1996
All five were together for a 7-year span, 1996-2002 (though Smoltz missed 2000).
All three pitchers were together for a 10-year span, 1993-2002.
The lone rival to the Grove/Foxx Athletics in this little study, in terms of both talent and tenure together. The A’s group lasted one year longer, but each group had 5 years when all were regulars. None of these Braves played for all 14 division winners from 1991-2005, but each man won at least 10 (Smoltz 13, Glavine and Chipper 11), and the whole group shared six crowns.
Other ’96 notables: Fred McGriff, 52 career WAR (age 32); David Justice, 41 WAR (age 30); Javy Lopez, 30 WAR (age 25); Marquis Grissom, 29 WAR (age 29); Terry Pendleton, 28 WAR (age 35); Ryan Klesko, 27 WAR (age 25); Jason Schmidt, 32 WAR (age 23).
The ’95 Braves had a payoff moment like that of the ’20s Athletics: After losing two World Series and an NLCS from ’91-93, losing ’94 ROY favorite Chipper to a late-spring torn ACL, and seeing that postseason scotched by the strike, Atlanta finally took the title. Every soul in baseball foresaw more to come.
The next summer, Smoltz made it six straight Cy Young Awards for the Big Three, and Chipper made his first dent in the MVP vote. Andruw came up that August, blasting through three minor-league stops at 19, homering in the NLCS clincher and twice in the WS opener — the youngest ever with Series yard work, plating 5 runs in his first two times up in Yankee Stadium. When Maddux stoned the Yanks in Game 2, the monkey seemed off their back for good, and the Bronx air smelled of dynasty.
A crystal ball at that moment would have shown this in the next six years:
- Maddux, 108-48, 2.77 ERA, 157 ERA+, 5th in pitcher WAR.
- Glavine, 103-51, 3.25 ERA, 134 ERA+, 9th in WAR, and another Cy Young Award.
- Smoltz, 43-23, 3.04 in three years before injury struck, then an NL-record 55 saves in his first full turn at closing.
- Chipper 7th in total WAR, averaging .316-33-107 and 6 WAR, with the ’99 MVP.
- Andruw (3rd in WAR) becoming the greatest defensive outfielder since(?) Willie Mays, with more homers by age 25 than Hank Aaron.
Improbably, this also was written in the stars:
- No World Series games won since that Maddux whitewash in ’96 Game 2.
After dropping the last four games in ’96, Atlanta won its division for nine more years, right on through Smoltz’s surgery and the free-agent departures of Glavine (after 2002) and Maddux (’03). But they lost the ’97-98 NLCS by 4-2 each; got swept in the ’99 WS and the 2000 first round; were crunched 4-1 in the ’01 LCS; and lost the LDS from 2002-05.
Their .604 winning percentage from 1996-2005 is the second-best 10-year span with no championships, trailing only the Dodgers of 1945-54 (.607). Brooklyn broke through at the end of that stretch, whereas the Braves tumbled under .500. But that was no fault of Smoltz (16-9, 211 Ks, 5.9 WAR at 39), or Chipper (.324 BA/1.005 OPS in 110 games at 34), or Andruw (41 HRs, 5.6 WAR) — and in spite of recent system products Brian McCann (.333/.961 in his first full year) and Adam LaRoche (.285 and 32 HRs). Rather, it was the rest of the pitching staff: Non-Smoltz starters let in 5.58 runs per 9 innings, and the closing committee blew 28 of 48 save tries before Bob Wickman was brought in at the deadline. For the first time since 1990’s last-place finish, Braves pitching was worse than average.
Many other fine players came and went in the long run of excellence, especially outfielders: Ron Gant (34 career WAR), David Justice (40 WAR), Ryan Klesko (27), Marquis Grissom (29), Brian Jordan (33), B.J. Surhoff (34), Reggie Sanders (40), Gary Sheffield (60), J.D. Drew (45). Some were let go as free agents and had good years afterwards, but it’s hard to fault the overall strategy. After all, you can’t finish higher than first place. Atlanta’s payroll was #1 just once from 1991-2005, never above #3 in the last 10 years.
Some blame the offense for the fall disappointments — or, putting that another way, some think too much team strength was packed into the rotation. A quick check suggests otherwise. For 1996-2005 postseason games:
- Atlanta went 37-41, scoring 4.2 runs per game and yielding 3.9.
- All other NL teams went 116-130 — virtually the same W% as Atlanta — scoring 4.1 runs and allowing 4.3.
- The Yankees went 74-41 (4 titles, 6 pennants), scoring 4.4 and allowing 3.8 — with a DH in most of those games.
The Braves’ postseason punch rivaled the Yankee dynasty, once you adjust for the DH. They scored more and yielded less than other NL teams, but fared no better.
Meanwhile, the Big Three’s combined postseason performance was such that, if the Braves had won more titles, the aces would have been hailed as a big reason why. There’s a better case that they didn’t get enough from their 4th starters, than there is that the team was rotation-heavy. Comparing 1996-2005 postseason starts by Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz to those of other Braves:
- Big Three: 2.92 ERA, 3.62 RA/9, 6.6 IP/G (53 starts, 22-23 individual W-L)
- All others: 4.61 ERA, 4.87 RA/9, 5.5 IP/G (25 starts, 6-10 individual W-L)
And for the whole 1991-2005 playoff run:
- Big Three: 2.95 ERA, 3.55 RA/9, 6.6 IP/G (86 starts, 36-32 individual W-L, team 46-40)
- All others: 4.01 ERA, 4.29 RA/9, 5.7 IP/G (39 starts, 11-13 individual W-L, team 17-22)
Others point to Bobby Cox’s disdain of marquee closers. But besides Mo Rivera, non-Braves WS-winning closers from 1991-2005 converted 81% of postseason save tries (47 of 58), with a 2.66 ERA. Atlanta’s closers converted 21 of 28, 75%, with a 2.57 ERA. The difference between 75% and 81% is less than two games. Even the difference between 75% and Mariano’s career 89% is just four games. Atlanta went 3-4 when their closer blew the save, and one of the losses came in the ’95 championship. Smoltz was an elite closer from 2002-04, but they lost each first round anyway. Were Atlanta’s closers really a main difference between dynasty and disappointment?
Those who seek “character” in close games and title tilts may groan at this suggestion, but the whole bridesmaid syndrome could be laid on unlucky run distribution. Atlanta outscored the ’91 Twins, ’92 Blue Jays and ’96 Yanks in those WS losses (75-59 combined). They topped the ’93 Phils in the NLCS by nearly 2 runs per game (+16 in two wins, -6 in four losses). They nosed the ’97 Marlins by one run in the NLCS, and the ’02 Giants by two in the NLDS.
“Just a bunch of stuff that happened” is a punchline in place of a moral, not a satisfying summation of 13 October ousters. But if there’s a better explanation, I’ve yet to find it. The Boys of Summer dropped five of six World Series, but four of them made the Hall anyway. Bobby’s Braves will fare at least that well in Cooperstown — Chipper in 2018 should be their 4th first-ballot selection, and Andruw looks good by the HOF Monitor, JAWS and Hall of Stats. No one should doubt their greatness, even with just one ring.
Atlanta won 101 games in 2002 and ’03, despite an amazing reversal of team strength:
- 2002: 1st in run prevention (3.51 R/G), 9th in scoring (4.40)
- 2003: 9th in run prevention (4.57 R/G), 1st in scoring (5.60)
I haven’t studied such things, but I doubt there’s been another switcheroo like this, without a change in home parks. In a single year, scoring in Braves games increased by 1.26 runs, or 29% — even though their one-year home park factor went down sharply (106 to 96). Scoring in their road games jumped by 33%.
Chipper and Andruw had worse years in ’03 than ’02, but Javy Lopez went nuts, Sheffield had his last great season, the keystone tandem of Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal had career years, and there wasn’t a weak spot in the lineup. On the pitching side, Glavine had left, Maddux stepped down to merely good, and the bullpen beyond the sublime Smoltz was a smoking ruin (nearly 5 runs per 9 IP).
Their 5.60 scoring average was a franchise record since 1901, by a margin of 0.41 over their next-highest year (1999) — and more than every AL team but one that year:
It’s the only time since 1983 that Atlanta led the NL in scoring. The increase of 1.20 R/G over the year before was the club’s biggest since 1925, which had followed the lowest-scoring year by any team in that whole decade.
But all the firepower went for naught: They hit .215 with 3 runs per game in the LDS, totaling 4 runs in three losses to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.
So, how would you rank these four collections? It’s a two-way battle for the top spot, and a doozie. The Braves’ case:
- Most career WAR (407-377).
- Best WAR and only pennant of these “30-and-under” years.
- Five great players versus four.
And for the A’s:
- Best pitcher and best position player in this fight.
- Both quintets averaged 24.9 WAR in their years together, but the A’s did it one year longer.
- Their 8-year record was better than Atlanta’s 7-year mark (.629-.610).
- Two championships versus none.
- In the discussion for greatest team ever.
It’s close, but I’ll take the A’s. Not just for the titles; those have a random element, especially in the Braves’ era of three rounds. Five players can’t make a champion, and besides, Atlanta won just before Andruw arrived, while Rommel wasn’t a huge force in Philly’s crowns. Still, titles have to count for something in this matchup, and the Braves didn’t really come close to one with this quintet. None of their five lost WS and LCS went the distance; their record in those tilts was 7-20, 2-8 in the Series. The A’s won two World Series handily against the two best NL teams of that era, the Cubs and Cards. It’s a toss-up on talent, but the trophies break the tie.
- 1925-28 A’s: 377 career WAR … 24 WAR in ’28 … 3 pennants, 2 championships
- 1996 Braves: 406 career WAR … 26 WAR in 1996 … 2 pennants … 7-6 in playoff series with all 5 players
- 1991 Astros: 345 career WAR … 13 WAR in 1991
- 1970 Cards: 311 career WAR … 13 WAR in 1970
The 20 players ranked by WAR:
- (PHA) Lefty Grove, 110 WAR
- (ATL) Greg Maddux, 107 WAR
- (PHA) Jimmie Foxx, 96 WAR
- (STL) Steve Carlton, 90 WAR
- (ATL) Chipper Jones, 85 WAR
- (ATL) Tom Glavine, 81 WAR
- (HOU) Curt Schilling, 81 WAR
- (HOU) Jeff Bagwell, 80 WAR
- (ATL) John Smoltz, 70 WAR
- (PHA) Al Simmons, 69 WAR
- (HOU) Kenny Lofton, 68 WAR
- (HOU) Craig Biggio, 65 WAR
- (ATL) Andruw Jones, 63 WAR
- (STL) Dick Allen, 59 WAR
- (STL) Joe Torre, 58 WAR
- (STL) Jose Cruz, 54 WAR
- (PHA) Mickey Cochrane, 52 WAR
- (HOU) Luis Gonzalez, 52 WAR
- (PHA) Eddie Rommel, 50 WAR
- (STL) Ted Simmons, 50 WAR
* Players appearing for more than one team in a season were ignored in these counts, due to how the data was gathered: A general search with the Baseball-Reference Play Index gives transferred players no team identity, and to track them all down is a lot of work for a little info. It’s possible that some teams missed the study due to an ignored transfer year; two of the four teams above had all five players together for only one season.
Also, I rounded WAR to the nearest whole number (so 49.6 = 50), and for pitchers I used what I call “best WAR” — the higher of pitching WAR alone, or the sum of pitching and hitting WAR. This credits good-hitting pitchers for that value, without punishing bad-hitting pitchers. Ten out of 103 studied pitchers with 50+ “best WAR” needed WAR/pos to clear the threshold, most notably Wes Ferrell and George Uhle; but none of those ten turned up on the “5×50” teams.