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Starting Nine: Javy Lopez, a Very Good Brave

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Looking back on the career of the three-time All-Star catcher, as we dive into the resumes of Braves who have fallen off the Hall of Fame ballot

Atlanta Braves Javy Lopez
Javy Lopez belted 43 home runs in 2003, 42 of them as a catcher. No one has ever hit more in a season when only taking into account games played behind the plate. 
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The lockout wears on, with no talks scheduled. The animosity and toxicity within the relationship feels Gallagher brothers-level, and while there’s still more hope of a quick return for MLB than an Oasis reunion, there’s still nothing positive about the current lack of tangible negotiations.

While the current state of the game is in disarray, they can’t take away the past — a quick check of MLB’s digital platforms backs that up, at least for now. The debate over the Hall of Fame fates of former Braves on the ballot rages on, but what about those guys who long ago fell out of the BBWAA vote? They won’t be ushered into Cooperstown but are worth our time as we look back with the path forward covered in fog.

The Starting Nine is diving in with career retrospectives of those who won’t be getting the HOF call but were Very Good Braves.

We open up with Javy Lopez, the catcher who didn’t make it past his first year on the ballot. His 15-year career included 12 seasons with the Braves, in which he hit 214 of his 260 home runs and was a three-time All-Star, but Lopez earned just one vote in 2012, a 0.2 percent that dropped him off the ballot. While the Baseball HOF may note be in the cards for Lopez, he is part of the Braves Hall, inducted in 2014.

1. Still the standard for power-hitting catchers

The apex of Lopez’s career at the plate came in 2003 — his last season in Atlanta before he left for the Orioles and a three-year, $22.5 million deal — when he started in the All-Star Game and hit 43 home runs. That year included 42 HRs with him at catcher — one homer came as a pinch-hitter — which set a single-season record for catchers (and came a year after had had just 11 HRs). Salvador Perez is credited with taking down Lopez’s record this past season with 48 homers, but technically, the former Brave still owns the mark. Perez hit 15 of his HRs as a designated hitter in 2021, and when you consider Johnny Bench — who hit 45 homers in 1970 — had five as a left fielder, one in right field and one at first base, Lopez is one of only three full-time catchers to ever hit more than 40 in a season, joining Roy Campanella and Todd Hundley, who hit 41 in 1953 and 1996, respectively. Lopez’s 1.065 OPS that season is surpassed by only Mike Piazza’s 1.070 in 1997, and the ex-Brave is also behind Piazza’s 183 wRC+ in tying Joe Mauer for second all-time at 170 wRC+. Along with those Hall of Famers, Lopez turned in what remains one of the most prolific seasons for a catcher in history.

2. His rank in franchise history

While his 25.7 fWAR trails Brian McCann (43.6), Joe Torre (34.9) and Del Crandall (27.5), the argument for Lopez in the all-time Braves catcher pecking order is intriguing. His nine full seasons in Atlanta included a 115 wRC+, just a tick behind McCann (119) in his full seasons and no one has hit more homers (214), and or produced a higher OPS (.839). While Lopez doesn’t get credit for strong defensive play — more a byproduct of his not catching Greg Maddux, which we’ll get into shortly — his 5.3 dWAR ranks only behind McCann’s 6.0 among Braves catchers in the Expansion Era. As an aside, Lopez really ushered in a remarkable run of catching for the Braves. Ranking 16th in catcher fWAR in 1994, when Lopez played 80 games, they’d finish outside the top 10 once the rest of his tenure, and in the past 27 years, rank third among all teams in catcher fWAR (99.3), trailing the Dodgers (107.7) and Yankees (99.4).

3. Place among Puerto Rican players

When it comes to Puerto Rican-born catchers, any and all arguments begin and end with Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez and Yadier Molina, who will likely follow him into Cooperstown. But only Jorge Posada (121) has a better career OPS+ than Lopez at 112, and more homers with 275 to Lopez’s 267. Strip away positions, and among Puerto Rican players with at least 5,000 plate appearances, Lopez is ninth in OPS (.828), just behind Roberto Clemente (.834). By the way, second on that list is Juan Gonzalez (.904), who was Lopez’s brother-in-law for two years when the former American League MVP was married to Lopez’s sister, Elaine.

4. The man for the moments

No catcher has been behind the plate for more touchstone moments in the Braves history than Lopez. He was the one that jumped into Mark Wohlers’ arms, celebrating the first championship in Atlanta sports history, after Lopez caught Tom Glavine’s gem in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series. “Once I saw that ball in the air, a lot of things went through my head,” Lopez told me. “From the beginning of spring training, all the issues, all the things we went through to get to that point when the ball was still in the air. Once (Marquis Grissom) caught it, it was like the greatest thing in the world.” That franchise-defining moment was big, but Lopez was also the receiver when Kent Mercker threw the Braves’ last no-hitter on April 8, 1994. This was, mind you, just five games into Lopez’s first full season as the Braves catcher — he’d started a combined six games the previous two seasons, completing two of them. He’d become the youngest catcher since Ted Simmons in 1971 to be part of a no-no.

5. The beginning of his offensive breakout

“Javy came into his own this postseason,” Glavine said in 1996, after Lopez went 15-for-29 with five doubles, three home runs and seven RBI in the Division Series vs. the Dodgers and Championship Series against the Cardinals. The catcher’s .542 average and 1.607 OPS, which included two home runs and six RBI, led to him winning NLCS MVP. “I don’t look at myself as a star,” Lopez said at the time. “I consider myself a guy who does the job quietly.” There was nothing quiet about it. Among catchers with at least 20 at-bats in a single LCS, it’s the highest OPS ever. Lopez did struggle in the World Series against the Yankees, hitting .190 with a .470 OPS and no extra-base hits, but that LCS proved a breakout overall. The next season, he was a first-time All-Star with 3.7 fWAR, and again the following year with 3.8 fWAR and 34 homers.

6. Manny being out

Game 2, top of the eighth, with the Braves holding a 4-3 lead on the Indians in the 1995 World Series. Manny Ramirez had reached with a one-out bloop single behind second base, and future HOFer Jim Thome stepped to the plate for the Indians. Before the 2-2 pitch from reliever Alejandro Pena, Lopez signaled to first baseman Fred McGriff, touching the ground and picking up dirt; McGriff tugged on his pants in response. The next pitch was down and in, and Lopez fired to McGriff, tagging out Ramirez. Thome walked, chasing Pena, who was replaced by Wohlers. The Braves got out of the inning and won the game 4-3. “I know a lot of people don’t look at me as a great defensive catcher,” said Lopez. “But a lot of people remember that play.”

7. A day off, whether he likes it or not

Lopez caught over 9,000 innings in a Braves uniform, and, yes, some of them were with Maddux on the mound. In 1994, Maddux claimed the ERA crown with a 1.56, and Lopez was behind the plate for 22 of his 25 starts. Whatever rift — real or contrived by those watching from afar — existed, it was hard to argue the reality that as time went on, there was a disdain for pairing Lopez and Maddux. While Eddie Perez got the label of being Maddux’s personal catcher, Paul Bako, Henry Blanco and Charlie O’Brien all took turns in the role. While Perez had the most starts with Maddux (121), he had his best career ERA with O’Brien (1.61). Behind him? Lopez at 2.35, better than with Perez (2.52), but Lopez caught Maddux just 72 times, including fewer than six times from 1997-2003. They went from Sept. 8, 1998, to Sept. 28, 2003, without starting a game together, the only pitches Lopez caught from Maddux being off the bench. It’s staggering and considering that cost Lopez 35 starts in his historic 2003, makes you wonder what his final numbers could have looked like with those additional at-bats.

8. The draw of TBS

Back in 1987, when he was being pursued as a free agent, Lopez had offers of $75,000 from both the Expos and Padres. The Braves were dangling a mere $45,000, but they would be the team that inked the Ponce, Puerto Rico native. The state of Atlanta’s catching depth was a part of the decision, with then-Braves catcher Ozzie Virgil entering his age-30 season, but the real reason was the power of TBS. Be a Brave, and Lopez could guarantee his family could see him play one day. “I had no doubt that I should play for the Braves –- they were the only team we could watch at home because we didn’t have cable, but the Braves games aired on TBS,” Lopez said in 2014.

9. Backstop’s backside

There are no analytics tied to a catcher’s backside and his ability to call a game or frame pitches, but the popular sentiment was Lopez was all-world when it came to, well, his derriere. As the catcher wrote in “Behind the Plate: A Catcher’s View of the Braves Dynasty,” “I guess they liked my butt! At least the women did, because the men were saying ‘My wife loves your butt. Can I take a picture of your butt for my wife?’” It’s a fact backed up via a search of Twitter, so it must be true. In this regard, Lopez was in a class all his own.