Our trip down Atlanta Braves’ memory lane continues with a look at one of the big sluggers from that magical 1990s run. Before Ryan Klesko was belting home runs for Atlanta, he was one of the best prospects in all of baseball.
We’ll take a look at Klesko’s career in just a minute. First, here’s who we’ve looked at so far in our Braves prospect retrospect series.
- Jose Peraza
- Tyrell Jenkins
- Steve Avery
- Lucas Sims
- Keeping up with the Joneses (Andruw and Chipper)
- Jason Heyward
- Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur headline the 2003 Rome Braves
- Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez and the 100-win 1992 Greenville Braves
- David Justice, Ron Gant star on 1989 Richmond Braves championship squad
Now, let’s take a look at the rise of Ryan Klesko.
Ryan Klesko, a top-10 MiLB prospect
Klesko was a big-time pitching prospect for Westminster High School in northern Orange County, California in the late 1980s. As the story goes, it’s all thanks to his mother, who built a mound in the backyard and even caught him — in full catcher’s gear — in his youth. Klesko packed the stands in high school with scouts primarily due to a big fastball and even starred on the 1988 U.S. Junior Olympic team before dealing with elbow problems.
Despite being one of the more exciting high school pitching prospects, Klesko could always hit. He put on a display for the Braves at Dodger Stadium prior to the draft and the Braves still liked his raw power.
The once highly-sought after pitching prospect fell to the Braves in the fifth round of the 1989 MLB draft.
It turned out to be a steal.
Coming off a big 1990 season split between Low and High-A, Klesko entered the 1991 season as the No. 3-ranked prospect by Baseball America. He certainly delivered, taking home the Southern league MVP for Greenville. He hit .291 and led the team with 14 home runs, 64 runs scored and 67 RBI. That same Greenville team led the league in runs and RBI while finishing second in home runs.
Klesko, who found himself inside Baseball America’s top 100 prospects four times, had two strong seasons in Triple A in 1992 and 1993 with brief appearances in the bigs. And that was the end of Klesko’s minor-league career.
A 1995 World Series home run tear to remember
Klesko finally got his shot in 1994, but he probably wanted it under different circumstances. Injuries opened the door for Klesko the ‘94 season: a preseason dirt bike injury to Ron Gant and Chipper Jones tearing his ACL in spring training led both to miss the entire season. In their stead, Klesko shifted from first to left field and had a strong debut in a strike-shortened season.
Klesko didn’t play often against lefties in the early going. But in 1995, Chipper shifted to third and opened the door for Klesko to get more time in left and in the lineup. Klesko still platooned, but finished the regular season with a strong line — .310, 1.004 OPS and 23 home runs in just 381 at bats. He was almost unstoppable against righties, slashing .331/.412/.657 with 20 home runs and 20 doubles.
And it was in the postseason that Klesko truly arrived.
Klesko erupted in the NLDS against the Rockies, hitting .467 in the four-game series. After going hitless in the NLCS, Klesko made World Series history. He hit a home run in three-straight road games of the World Series, the first player to do so.
Braves won that World Series, of course, and Klesko went on to have four more very solid seasons with Atlanta before being traded to San Diego.
The legacy of Ryan Klesko
Klesko got the opportunity to go home and finally became that everyday player with the San Diego Padres, so it wasn’t a bad trade for either the Braves or Klesko. He averaged 26.5 home runs in his first four years with the Padres and earned his lone All Star appearance in 2001.
All in all, Klesko played 16 seasons, half of which were with the Braves. He’s still No. 4 in Braves lore with a .525 slugging percentage and his .886 OPS is tied for fifth all-time in Braves history. In his eight seasons with Atlanta he slashed .281/.361/.525 with 139 home runs and 450 RBI.
A historic October home-run streak and two top-five finishes in Braves history. That’s certainly getting the job done for a former fifth-rounder.