The Braves didn’t know it until it had already happened, but 2006 was the end of an era. The division title streak — snapped — and not just in a close race, but due to a team that never really got going, and was five games out on June 1 (and only got further and further away from there). The reason was pitching: the last few years of the streak featured progressively diminishing pitching effectiveness, a trend somewhat obscured by the fact that the bats (and defense) kept producing. In 2002, the Braves had a top-five pitching unit. In 2003, the pitching was dead average, as the Braves had to rely on the likes of Horacio Ramirez and Shane Reynolds to throw 300-plus innings. The 2005 Braves had one pitcher with more than 2.0 fWAR (though Chris Reitsma was very good in relief with 1.5 fWAR himself), and that foretold the streak’s end.
The Braves probably didn’t have any specific reason to suspect that disaster was on the horizon at the very beginning of the season. They won two of their first three games to open the season against the Dodgers, and each game was a one-run contest. That brought them into San Francisco for the Giants’ home opener, They’d go on to lose the game 6-4, in a way that wasn’t particularly close despite the final score. But, what mattered here, in retrospect, is that the Braves lost in a way that was kind of the story of their season.
How it happened: The Braves entered the 2006 season with full-fledged rotation member status conferred on Jorge Sosa. In some ways, this made perfect sense: the former Rule 5 draft pick was acquired from the Rays in exchange for Nick Green before the 2005 season and spent the first two months of that year in relief, before eventually moving into to take a spot in a very injured rotation. By the end of the season, the Braves potentially looked like geniuses for giving Sosa the shot, as he went 10-3 with a 2.62 ERA (that was a 63 ERA-) in those days.
But, you can probably tell where this is going. While Sosa had a great run, results-wise, that was really the only encouraging thing about his performance. He had a 103 FIP- and 110 xFIP- as a starter, numbers that were certainly fine but not great. Going deeper into his performance just didn’t suggest any kind of coherent changed identity from the passable swingman he had been with the Rays — while he was throwing more sliders and getting very good o-whiff, he was allowing a lot more z-contact and getting fewer whiffs overall. A lot of his gains seemed to come from getting fewer swings overall despite throwing more first-pitch strikes, a precarious proposition for continued success.
In any case, Sosa was the Braves’ fourth starter to open 2006, and he took the ball against southpaw Noah Lowry, who at the time was establishing himself as a young and very effective pitcher in San Francisco. Lowry broke out with 3.5 fWAR in 2005 and afterward signed an extension for $9.25 million and four years (with a fifth-year option), which at the time was the second-biggest such deal for a pitcher with just one year of service time. Unfortunately for Lowry, that was really his peak... he faced six batters in this game before torquing his oblique and missing the next month. He never experienced that level of success again.
Whatever magic Sosa had employed to run a 62 ERA- but 110 FIP- as a starter in 2005 seemed to be prominently on display in the first inning of this game. After two batters and five pitches, the Giants had runners on second and third with none out (single, double to deep right field). Sosa then got a pop out to catcher from Ray Durham, before intentionally walking Barry Bonds (yes, Barry Bonds, he appears in these recaps!). On the very next pitch, Sosa got the most routine of double-play balls from Moises Alou, working out of a big mess. Two groundouts and a strikeout gave him an easy second.
With Lowry gone, the Giants gave the ball to 43-year-old Jeff Fassero, who was playing in his last season of a strong, long career that became a husk of itself as Fassero hit his mid-thirities. (He compiled 26.6 fWAR over his first eight seasons, and then a total of 4.0 fWAR over his remaining nine.) Fassero struck out Brian Jordan to end the second, but then gave up a dinger to Brian McCann (who would go on to post his best offensive year in his first full season in 2006) to lead off the third. That brought up Sosa, who, amazingly, cranked a homer of his own into left-center. Fassero looked to be a bit on the ropes — he didn’t give up any more runs in the inning, but Edgar Renteria and Chipper Jones ended the frame on consecutive lineouts.
Sosa’s homer was fun, but the party pretty much ended after his trot took him across the plate. After Fassero made the first out of the bottom of the third with a bunt attempt back to Sosa (oy, a 43-year-old pitcher bunting for a hit), Sosa yielded a five-pitch walk to Randy Winn, and then allowed a liner base hit to right by Omar Vizquel that pushed Winn to third. Vizquel then stole second, which set up a Durham grounder up the middle to that tied the game.
Things did not get any better from there. With Bonds up, Sosa threw a wild pitch that moved Durham up a base, but set up another intentional walk. This time, Alou didn’t bail Sosa out, but lined a single back up the box, scoring Durham. After a seeing-eye grounder to left loaded the bases, Sosa fell behind 3-1 to Pedro Feliz, which led to a bases-clearing double over the head of Andruw Jones in center. Sosa had gotten one out and allowed six runs in the inning, and was promptly pulled from the game. Lance Cormier came on and got two consecutive groundouts, the latter from Fassero as the Giants had batted around.
With a two-run lead turned into a four-run deficit, Atlanta’s offense went into hibernation. Fassero worked two 1-2-3 innings (the first thanks to Jeff Francoeur hitting into a double play after Andruw Jones singled to lead off the fourth). Cormier issued back-to-back walks to Winn and Vizquel in the fourth, but got three groundouts to get out of the inning, including one from Bonds. Chuck James worked a 1-2-3 fifth, and the Braves were able to claw back a run when Edgar Renteria doubled with one out and scored on Chipper Jones’ grounder up the middle. That was it for Fassero, but Andruw Jones and Francoeur couldn’t extend the rally against new reliever Tyler Walker.
The rest of the game was pretty uneventful, featuring all sorts of relief names from days past: Ken Ray, Scott Munter, and 39-year-old one-time San Francisco closer Tim Worrell, for whom the 2006 season would also be his last as a major leaguer. Worrell allowed a two-out homer in the ninth to Brian Jordan, but got McCann to ground out to second to end the game.
Game MVP: The Giants’ Omar Vizquel, who went 2-for-3 with a walk and a double. While his first-inning double didn’t result in any runs, his third-inning single set up the Giants tying the game and everything else that followed. 2006 was Vizquel’s last good season, and the final one in which he had anything resembling a decent batting line (95 wRC+).
Game LVP: Jorge Sosa, of course. By WPA, it was the worst outing of Sosa’s career to date (-.454), though he’d outdo himself in that regard afterwards, including an extra-inning relief appearance later in the 2006 season in which he would come in with a one-run lead, issue a one-out walk to Jason Giambi, and then a walkoff homer to Alex Rodriguez.
Biggest play: The Pedro Feliz three-run double, the dagger in the heart of the Braves in this game. Feliz was an odd player, providing really good defense and decent pop with essentially no on-base skills that nonetheless got over 4,500 career PAs despite 1.0 fWAR/600, but none of that mattered given the timing of his one hit in this game.
I want a recap: As always, if anyone has video footage of stuff more than a decade old, show us!
The game, in context of the season: The Braves hit three homers in this game to account for three of their four runs. They would finish the season first in the NL in homers (second in MLB), and were a top-six team in MLB in both wRC+ and overall position player fWAR. The real problem for 2006, as evidenced in this game, was the pitching. The entire staff finished 24th in MLB in fWAR, with half of that being provided by John Smoltz alone. Two of Atlanta’s relievers in this game, Lance Cormier and Chuck James, would combine for 27 starts in a rotation that was all patchwork and band-aids after Smoltz and Tim Hudson. Jorge Sosa ended up with a 123 ERA-, 132 FIP-, and 103 xFIP- across 13 starts, a cosmic balancing for his 2005, and didn’t fare any better after being booted back into the bullpen. He ended up being given away at the Trade Deadline to St. Louis (the return was a non-prospect pitcher who never made the majors), where he fared even worse in relief than he had with the Braves.
Amusingly, Sosa was more valuable as a hitter in 2006 than as a pitcher. He’d go on to hit two other homers that year for the Braves, but that didn’t quite make up for his -0.3 fWAR on the pitching end. By the time he was booted from the rotation, the Braves were 30-41, 14.5 games out of first place, and deep in the midst of their worst-ever calendar month in Atlanta, a horrific 6-21 June. While they’d finish five games over .500 in their final 82 games, it was too deep a hole to climb out of.
The Giants, meanwhile, were in the midst of their own late-aughts slide, where they finished with fewer than 80 wins for four consecutive seasons. It was a happy home opener for them, and they’d take three of four from Atlanta to start off a winning April, but mostly just treaded water the rest of the year to finish in third place with 76 wins. They actually hung around competitiveness for much of the year, even jumping into a division lead on July 22, but went 10-17 to end the year. That was a horrifically weak year for the NL as a whole — only one team won more than 88 games, and the 83-win Cardinals won both the Central and the World Series. Ah, baseball.
Anything else? I was surprised to see that Brian Jordan was still with the Braves at this point, and not just that but penciled in at first base. Jordan actually returned to the Braves in 2005 after a disastrous year (-1.2 fWAR) with the Rangers. However, Jordan was effectively done as a useful regular due to aging and injuries. His best wRC+ in his final three years was 67, and his best fWAR was 0.5 in 251 PAs, both coming for the Braves in 2005. In 2006, he could no longer really play the outfield, and was instead a platoon partner at first for Adam LaRoche despite having previously played all of three innings at first base at any point earlier in his career.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 6: In 1896, this was the date for the (re-)opening of the modern Olympic Games.