As part of SB Nation’s theme week, we are taking a look back at the best Atlanta Braves team not to win the World Series. Given Atlanta’s overall success in the 90s but the lack of championships, there were a lot of possibilities. When I first sat down to write this I was almost sure that this article was going to be about the 1996 team that lost to the Yankees in the World Series. However, after a little more research I believe the correct answer to this question is clearly the 1998 Braves.
One reason I don’t think the 1998 team stood out to me as much originally was that there was some sense of Braves fatigue that started to set in really in the mid-90s. Everyone was on board for the postseason runs during the 1991 and 1992 seasons. After years of losing, it was a new phenomenon for many of us who grew up watching the team. The team fell short of the World Series in 1993 and then the strike ended the 1994 season. I think that is a very important marker when you look back at team history, because Tom Glavine was one of the more prominent players that was a part of those ongoing labor negotiations.
Once baseball did return in 1995, fans booed Glavine loudly in his first start. The fanbase was a little slow to come around, even as that team ran through the Indians to give the city its first professional championship. The fans being a little hesitant to embrance the Braves was best signified by the controversy surrounding David Justice, who called out the Atlanta fanbase after playing in front of raucous crowds in Cleveland.
This all led into the 1996 season, when it looked like the Braves were on their way to a second straight championship but ultimately let a 2-0 lead in the World Series slip away in a loss to the Yankees. The 1997 season brought another loss in the NLCS, this time to the Marlins and a lot of that magic of 1991 and 1992 had really started to disappear. That is really a sad thing when I look back on it now and consider how many Hall of Fame players those teams had. I didn’t appreciate it nearly as much as I should have and that is something that I will always regret.
With that as the backdrop, here is why the 1998 team was the best Braves team to fall short of a championship. The 1998 Braves won a franchise-best 106 games and finished 18 games up in the NL East. That was the second-best record in the majors that year, behind only the Yankees who won 114.
The 1998 club had the best run differential and best total fWAR of any Braves team during their division titles run. It also had the best position player group in franchise history and the fourth-best pitching group, by fWAR.
Offensively this team had a little bit of everything. Andres Galarraga led the team with 44 home runs. Chipper Jones and Javy Lopez both hit 34. Andruw Jones was fourth on the team in homers with 31. Ryan Klesko added 18 more in just 117 games.
Galarraga’s dominance at the plate was best illustrated by his OPS+ of 157. In addition to the homers, Chipper racked up 29 doubles, stole 16 bases and had an OPS+ of 148. Even Gerald Williams was a solid contributor, producing a 122 OPS+ and a slugging percentage of .504 in 129 games. The Jones boys each finished with right around 7 fWAR or more, and Galarraga added 5. Four others had more than 2, and even Eddie Perez almost cleared the 2.0 fWAR threshold.
This team wasn’t lacking in the pitching department either. Both Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine finished with sub 2.50 ERAs. Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood would have been top of the rotation arms for many teams. John Smoltz made just 26 starts in 1998 but went 17-3 and still finished second on the team in strikeouts with 173 despite throwing just 167 2/3 innings. Both Maddux and Smoltz finished with FIPs below 3.00. The worst fWAR for the Braves five starters was Neagle’s 3.1. The bullpen wasn’t a particular strength, but Kerry Ligtenberg had a career year in his first full season, setting marks in saves, innings, fWAR, RA9-WAR, WPA, ERA-, and FIP- that he would never outdo.
We will take a closer look at that series later this week but for now I am curious as to which Braves team do you think was the best to never win it all? Let us know in the comments below and check back on Friday when we will dive further into that championship series loss to the Padres.