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Starting Nine: Rafael Furcal, a Very Good Brave

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How old was he? That was part of the story during his run in Atlanta, but the switch-hitting shortstop brought hardware and impressive numbers as well

Rafael Furcal dodges pitch
Rafael Furcal’s 189 steals in a Braves uniform are the most of any player in franchise history through their first 817 games. 
Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Rafael Furcal would spend 14 seasons in the majors, winning a World Series with the Cardinals in 2011.

Signed by the Braves for a mere $5,000 on Nov. 9, 1996

Fourteen days after the Braves lost the 1996 World Series, they’d land one of their best international signings, getting Rafael Furcal out of the Dominican Republic for a mere $5,000.

He’d use the money to buy his parents a car.

Furcal, meanwhile, was in the driver’s seat for the Braves offense for over 700 games in the leadoff spot during his five years in Atlanta (2000-2005), a run that saw him win National League Rookie of the Year, become an All-Star and one of the best switch-hitters in franchise history.

Like the rest of the players in the series, Furcal’s time on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot was short, failing to draw a single vote in 2020. While he’s not destined for Cooperstown, it’s clear that Rafael Furcal was a Very Good Brave.

Kevin Millwood, a Very Good Brave

Javy Lopez, a Very Good Brave

1. On an award tour

He went to spring training in 2000 as a non-roster invitee and ended it as the landslide winner of the NL Rookie of the Year. Furcal led all NL rookies in runs (87), walks (73) and on-base percentage (.394), becoming the first middle infielder to win the award since the Dodgers’ Steve Sax in 1982. “I’m so young,” Furcal said during the season, a quote that could be seen as a punch line years later (more on that soon). “When I made the team, it was a big surprise for me.” Furcal earned 25 of the 32 first-place votes and was the only player listed on all 32 ballots, drawing six seconds and one third to beat the Cardinals’ Rick Ankiel by 57 points. Seven Braves have won ROY — Alvin Dark (1948), Sam Jethroe (1950), Earl Williams (1971), Bob Horner (1978), David Justice (1990), Craig Kimbrel (2011) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (2018) — but only Dark (3.9) and Acuña (3.7) posted fWARs better than Furcal’s 3.3 during their trophy runs.

2. For starters

An injury to Walt Weiss paved the way for Furcal to make his debut one game into the 2000 season. He’d go 2-for-4 with a stolen base against the Rockies, getting singles off Rolando Arrojo and Jose Jimenez. There have been much louder debuts, but it summed up Furcal, who has the second highest OBP and the second most stolen bases of any Braves rookie ever. He’s just the ninth player to debut with a pair of hits and a steal, and before Furcal, the last player in franchise history to open that that kind of performance was Bull Bruton in 1953.

3. What’s my age again?

It wasn’t exactly a 30-year-old Alan Ruck playing 17-year-old high schooler Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but we all had it wrong when we thought we were watching a 19-year-old Furcal at work in 2000. After an arrest on driving under the influence, HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel showed a photo of Furcal’s birth certificate, obtained from a government office in Furcal’s hometown of Loma de Cabrera in the Dominican Republic. He wasn’t 19. He was 22. Furcal’s reaction: “You’re crazy.” Said general manager John Schuerholz “If it is true that there is a different age than he is believed to be, he won’t be the first, nor will he be the 100th.” Furcal persisted the report was wrong, but in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the shortstop was among the foreign-born MLB players who suddenly had a different age on their bios. Furcal finally owned up to it all when he arrived at spring training in 2002, saying lying about his age came at the advice of a youth coach. “That’s what the guy told me,” Furcal told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He said if you want to play baseball, you have to change your age. ... So that’s what I did. I wanted to play.” He’d go from 21 to 23 overnight, but it wasn’t the last time revelation regarding Furcal’s age. In 2004, he was again arrested for DUI, which was followed by reports that he wasn’t the 25 he was believed to be, but turning 27. Furcal had gone from everyone believing he was born in 1980, to 1978, and then finally, his now listed date of birth of Oct. 24, 1977.

4. All-Star moment

An All-Star during his stops with the Dodgers and Cardinals, Furcal made his first trip to the Midsummer Classic in 2003, when he had 107 wRC+, a 4.0 fWAR and slashed .292/.352/.443. Part of a seven-Braves contingent along with Marcus Giles, Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez, Russ Ortiz, Gary Sheffield and John Smoltz, Furcal came off the bench for future Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria, delivering a single off Shigetoshi Hasegawa and scoring a batter later off a ground-rule double from Andruw Jones. While Furcal is not the lone Braves shortstop to deliver a pinch hit in an All-Star Game, he’s one of two Atlanta players to ever be driven in by teammate, joining Chipper Jones, who scored off a Walt Weiss single in 1998.

5. A season unmatched by any Braves shortstop

This past season, Dansby Swanson set a franchise record with 27 home runs and 88 RBI and since the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, Jeff Blauser owns the best fWAR at 5.4 in 1993, but based on Offensive Runs Above Average and Defensive Runs Above Average, Furcal’s 2005 is in a class all its own. His 17.7 Off and 11.0 Def that year stand as the only season by an Atlanta shortstop in which both of those statistics have been in double figures. He’s also the only Braves player at the position to post a double-digit Def and a positive Off, doing so twice, with a rookie season in which Furcal had a 6.5 Off and 10.7 Def.

6. Setting the basepaths ablaze

Furcal was fast. How fast? Without the benefit of Statcast’s sprint speed metrics, we’re largely left gauging it through the words of those he shared the field with. “As far as quickness, I don’t think there’s anyone better,” said his former Atlanta teammates, Brian Jordan. “This guy gets started as quick as I’ve ever seen. You don’t think he’s going to tag up, and he takes off like he’s shot out of a gun. Pretty exciting to watch.” Since World War II, the only player with more stolen bases than Furcal’s 189 during their time in a Braves uniform is Hank Aaron (240), who played in 2,259 more games with the franchise. When Furcal left for the Dodgers via free agency in 2006, his total is the most of any Brave through their first 817 games, 49 better than the next closest player (Ron Gant).

7. Switch-hitting impact

Any and all historical switch-hitting conversations regarding Braves start with the franchise’s lone Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones. The recent talks revolve around Ozzie Albies, but don’t let Furcal get lost in the shuffle between them. In the Live Ball Era, Furcal trails only Jones in hits (924), runs (554) and on-base percentage (.348), leads in stolen bases (189). Albies has played 560 career games going into the 2022 season, and through that point in his career, Furcal 12 had more hits (625 of 613), a .283 average to Albies’ .273, a higher OPB (.246 OBP to Albies’ .325) and 120 steals to Albies’ 60. Ozzie does blow Furcal away in home runs (90 to 24), doubles (137 to 109), slugging percentage (.477 to .399).

8. A near-reunion and hurt feelings

In the winter of 2008, Furcal was coming off back surgery that limited him to 36 games and 143 at-bats for the Dodgers. Add in that he’d had a mere 1.4 fWAR the season before, and he wasn’t exactly at the top of his game. But the free agent and the Braves were close to a three-year, $30 million deal to return the shortstop to the club where it all started. Only the reunion didn’t happen, as Furcal would return to Los Angeles on the same contract term. Atlanta, meanwhile, thought they had a deal in place. “From our perspective, we reached an agreement ..., Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “They asked for a term sheet for us to sign ... and we sent over the signed termed sheet. It was then that his agent [Paul Kinzer] informed us that [Kinzer’s] partner had been in contact with the Dodgers.” Said Furcal of the allegations: “That is not true. We never, not my agents nor me, agreed to anything with the Braves.” Atlanta was miffed and Schuerholz vowed to never do business with Kinzer again. Furcal had a 3.0 fWAR 2009 and hit 26 percent above league average in 4.1 fWAR 2010, but by 2011, his skills had eroded to the point where he was traded to the Cardinal and never hit better than 14 percent below league average. The Braves deal, like the one Furcal signed with the Dodgers, included an option for 2012 that kicked in based on plate appearances. Considering 2012 marked the arrival of Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta may have made the right move in not blocking one of the great defensive players in franchise history.

9. For your viewing pleasure

For your viewing pleasure, here’s Furcal turning the 12th unassisted triple play in MLB history. On Aug. 10, 2003, he made a leaping catch on a line drive from the Cardinals’ Woody Williams, stepped on second base to get Mike Matheny, then ran down Orlando Palmeiro as he tried to make it back to first. “I didn’t know right away,” Furcal said. “I wasn’t thinking of trying to get three outs by myself, I was just trying to get outs.” It was the second unassisted triple play in franchise history, with the first coming via the Boston Braves’ Ernie Padgett on Oct. 6, 1923.