We’re not breaking any news here to point out that the late Hank Aaron might be the most consistently excellent player in major league baseball history.
Aaron’s 23-year major-league career included just nine (1966-74) spent in Atlanta, but several were among his best. And not surprisingly, there are several Aaron seasons among the tops in the 50-plus years since the Braves moved from Milwaukee.
There are six seasons in Atlanta Braves history in which a position player has posted a bWAR of at least 8.0, as well as eight in which a player posted an OPS+ of 165 or better. Using those — in addition to Fangraphs’ equivalent metrics — as a guide, here are the 10 best seasons by a position player in Atlanta Braves history (in chronological order):
1. Hank Aaron, 1967
Key stats: .309/.369/.573, 113 R, 37 2B, 39 HR, 109 RBIs
Key metrics: 168 OPS+; 163 WRC+; 8.5 bWAR; 7.3 fWAR
Notable: Aaron led the NL in home runs and RBIs in 1966, the Braves’ first season in Atlanta. However, he was even better the next year, upping his doubles from 23 to 37 and leading the league in runs, home runs, slugging and total bases (344). His bWAR total is third-best in Atlanta history, while his OPS+ ranks seventh.
2. Hank Aaron, 1969
Key stats: .300/.396/.607, 100 R, 30 2B, 44 HR, 97 RBIs
Key metrics: 177 OPS+; 170 WRC+; 8.1 bWAR; 7.6 fWAR
Notable: After slipping a bit in 1968 (along with the rest of the league), Aaron returned to dominance in 1969, hitting exactly 44 homers for the fourth and final time in his career. He led the NL in total bases for the eighth time. His bWAR total is sixth in Atlanta history, while his OPS+ is second-best.
3. Rico Carty, 1970
Key stats: .366/.454/.584, 84 R, 23 2B, 25 HR, 101 RBIs
Key metrics: 171 OPS+; 173 WRC+; 5.8 bWAR; 6.7 fWAR
Notable: Carty had bad knees and couldn’t play defense very well (the two were related, of course), but boy, could he hit when he was healthy. His 1970 season was the best of his career, with his OPS+ fourth in Atlanta history. His bWAR is just 40th, dragged down as it was by below-average defensive numbers.
4. Hank Aaron, 1971
Traditional stats: .327/.410/.669, 95 R, 22 2B, 47 HR, 118 RBIs
Key metrics: 194 OPS+; 191 WRC+; 7.2 bWAR; 7.1 fWAR
Notable: Based purely upon offensive metrics, Aaron’s 1971 season is greatest in Atlanta history, first in OPS+ by a significant margin. At age 37, Aaron led the league in slugging and OPS (1.079), both of which were career-highs — as were his home run and intentional walk totals (21). Aaron’s defense in the outfield had slipped severely by that time, and he began to split time between right field and first base. Thus, his bWAR is “only” 14th in Atlanta Braves history.
5. Darrell Evans, 1973
Key stats: .281/.403/.556, 114 R, 25 2B, 41 HR, 104 RBIs
Key metrics: 156 OPS+; 158 WRC+; 9.0 bWAR; 9.7 fWAR
Notable: Evans was a good, steady player for most of his 21-year MLB career, but his 1973 season in Atlanta sticks out. His bWAR is No. 1 for Braves since 1966, boosted by a league-leading walk total (124) and 2.2 defensive WAR. Evans was still excellent in 1974 (7.2 WAR), before vision problems briefly curtailed his career. He never totaled more than 4.9 bWAR in any other season.
6. Lonnie Smith, 1989
Key stats: .315/.415/.533, 89 R, 34 2B, 21 HR, 79 RBIs
Key metrics: 168 OPS+; 167 WRC+; 8.8 bWAR; 8.1 fWAR
Notable: Speaking of outliers, Smith’s 1989 certainly was that in what was an admirable, if ill-fated, 17-year career. He’d signed with the Braves as an afterthought in 1988 after washing out in St. Louis and Kansas City due to drug problems. In his first full season in Atlanta, Smith put up an all-timer of a season for a bad Braves team. His bWAR is second in Atlanta history, while his OPS+ is sixth. His 8.8 WAR was 30 percent better than his second-best season, 6.2 for the Cardinals in 1982.
7. Chipper Jones, 1999
Key stats: .319/.441/.633, 116 R, 41 2B, 45 HR, 110 RBIs
Key metrics: 169 OPS+; 165 WRC+; 6.9 bWAR; 7.3 fWAR
Notable: Jones won the MVP award in 1999, when he carried the Braves down the stretch in what is to date their most-recent pennant-winning team. He didn’t lead the league in any major categories, but knocked 87 extra-base hits and posted a career-high in slugging. His OPS+ is fifth in Atlanta history, though his WAR is dragged down by what was at that point in his career below-average defense at third base.
8. Andruw Jones, 2000
Key stats: .303/.366/.541, 122 R, 36 2B, 36 HR, 104 RBIs
Key metrics: 126 OPS+; 127 WRC+; 8.2 bWAR; 7.7 fWAR
Notable: Andruw Jones’ 2000 season was solid enough offensively, but gets a boost from 2.7 WAR on defense. That lifts his bWAR total to fifth in Atlanta history. (He’d been even better on defense the two previous years, but wasn’t as good with the bat.) It was neither Jones’ best offensive or defensive season, but his best all-around. His totals in runs, average, doubles, hits (199) and total bases (355) were all career-highs.
9. J.D. Drew, 2004
Key stats: .304/.436/.569, 118 R, 28 2B, 31 HR, 93 RBIs
Key metrics: 157 OPS+; 162 WRC+; 8.3 bWAR; 8.6 fWAR
Notable: Drew’s 2004 season is an outlier by definition because it was his only one in Atlanta, but it was also the best of his career. His bWAR total is fourth in Atlanta history, while his OPS+ is 12th. Drew set career-highs in runs, walks (118), home runs, on-base and total bases (295). Unfortunately for Braves fans, he not only left as a free agent for the Los Angeles Dodgers after the season, but Atlanta also traded top prospect Adam Wainwright (who is STILL active) to St. Louis as part of the package to acquire him.
10. Chipper Jones, 2008
Key stats: .364/.470/.574, 82 R, 24 2B, 22 HR, 75 RBIs
Key metrics: 176 OPS+; 174 WRC+; 7.3 bWAR; 7.1 fWAR
Notable: Jones never really had a bad year in 19 major-league seasons, but had a late-career renaissance in his mid-30s. After leading the league in OPS+ in 2007, he followed that up with his only career batting title (and also leading the NL in on-base percentage) at age 36 the following year. His OPS+ is third in Atlanta history, while his bWAR is 12th. According to dWAR, 2008 was also Chipper’s best with the glove.
• You might be asking “where’s Dale Murphy?,” which is a valid question. Murphy was incredibly steady at the plate from 1982-87, though his “highs” were not as high as some of the others on this list.
Murphy’s best season came in 1987, when he put up a 157 OPS+ (14th in Atlanta history) and 7.7 bWAR (9th). However, the defensive metrics didn’t particularly like him, despite five straight Gold Gloves in center field from 1982-86.
• In case you’re wondering, the greatest pitching seasons in Atlanta Braves history are dominated by Greg Maddux and Phil Niekro. Maddux owns five of the top six seasons in ERA+: 1994 (271), 1995 (260), 1997 (189), 1998 (187) and 1993 (170); Niekro has the other (179 in 1967).
In pitching bWAR, Niekro’s 1978 is tops at 10.0; his 1977 season is third at 8.9 and his 1974 (7.9) is sixth. Maddux is second (9.7 in 1995), fourth (8.5 in 1994) and seventh (7.8 in 1997), while Tom Glavine’s 1991 (8.5) is fifth.
• The defensive list, as you might have guessed, is made up largely of Andrelton Simmons and Andruw Jones. Simmons has the top two and the seventh-best season in Atlanta history in dWAR, while Jones is third, fourth and sixth (Rafael Furcal’s 2005 season is fifth).
Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at email@example.com. No, that’s not his real name.
Sources: BaseballReference.com; Fangraphs.com