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Starting Nine: Steve Avery, a Very Good Brave

Derailed by injury, Avery ultimately couldn’t live up to the hype and production of his early years 

Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves, 1991 NL Championship Series
The 1991 NLCS MVP and an All-Star in 1993, Steve Avery threw 14 complete games and seven shutouts in his Braves career.
Set Number: X42012

They were baseball’s answer to John Tunstall’s Regulators, the Braves’ 25-and-under staters in Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, Kent Mercker and John Smoltz, nicknamed the Young Guns, as in the 1988 flick about the fabled ranch hands.

If we’re casting this Emilio Estevez/Kiefer Sutherland/Charlie Sheen/Lou Diamond Phillips vehicle, then clearly — at just 20 when he made his debut — Avery was William H. Bonney, sharing The Kid nickname with the gunslinger.

The rise was a spectacle, but unlike the Bon Jovi track off the western’s 1990 sequel, Avery didn’t exactly go “down in a blaze of glory,” though his last start with the Braves did help win a championship. His was a decline spurred by injury, attempting a comeback with Atlanta in 2000 that never saw him make it higher than Triple-A.

Ultimately, he’d appear in 19 games as a reliever with the Tigers in 2003, but the potential his career began with was met with a different reality at the end of his 11-season run.

No, he wouldn’t join fellow Young Guns Glavine and Smoltz in Cooperstown, but over the course of seven seasons in Atlanta, Avery was still a Very Good Brave.

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1. The rise of a phenom

He first took the mound at 20 years, two months, the youngest Braves starting pitcher since Mike McQueen, who debuted at 19 in 1969. After 2 1/2 years in the minors, Avery made his MLB debut and ... it wasn’t pretty. He lasted 2 1/3 innings, allowing eight runs on eight hits as that season’s eventual champion Reds jumped all over the left-hander. The growing pains were real, with Avery allowing five or more runs four times in 20 starts with a 5.64 ERA. As the Braves went from worst to first in 1991, Avery’s star rose with them, earning the first win of the season — against those same Reds that spoiled his debut — in a 3.38-ERA season with 18 wins and a 2.6 fWAR. Over his 1992 and 1993 seasons, Avery’s combined 8.5 fWAR was bested by five NL pitchers: two of his Hall of Fame teammates, Greg Maddux (14.5) and John Smoltz (8.9), along with Jose Rijo (12.2), Doug Drabek (8.8) and Curt Schilling (8.7), and Avery was 10th in ERA (3.07). No disrespect to Ian Anderson, another Braves draft pick who has been historically great in the postseason, but through the same stages in their career, Avery had a 2.94 ERA to Anderson’s 3.58 with a 1.60 WHIP to Anderson’s 1.231. From a larger-scale perspective, through his age-23 season, Avery had the ninth best ERA (3.46) among starters with 120-plus starts and 700 or more innings, tied with HOFer Catfish Hunter. That’s the course he seemed to be on in those early seasons.

2. With the third pick ...

Was headed for Stanford, but the Braves changed his mind with a $211,500 signing bonus and a promise they’d rush the No. 3 overall pick in 1988 through the system. Avery’s bonus was a record for a high school pitcher that stood for just five weeks, as the Expos inked Reid Cornelius for $225,000. It remained a high-water mark for Atlanta for a year, beaten by catcher Tyler Houston ($232,500) in 1989. Among all pitchers taken with the No. 3 pick, Avery’s 13.8 career bWAR ranks fourth, trailing Joe Coleman (23.2), who was taken by the Senators in 1965, Trevor Bauer (20.5), a Diamondbacks pick in 2011 and Rangers selection Bobby Witt (14.6) in 1985.

3. The legend grows

In 1991, the Pirates had the game’s best offense, and it wasn’t particularly close. Their 31.0 fWAR was nearly 8.0 higher than the next-closest team, and they led the NL in runs, wOBA and wRC+. Plus, they had the circuit’s best player in reigning MVP Barry Bonds and another top-30 player in fWAR in Bobby Bonilla. Avery would shut them down in the League Championship Series, making two starts and holding Pittsburgh to nine hits with 17 strikeouts and four walks over 16 1/3 scoreless innings in winning NLCS MVP. In Game 2, only three runners made it to third, and no one reached second base in Game 6. If there wasn’t enough hype around then then-21-year-old Avery, these comments from the Pirates clubhouse sent it to another level. “You talk about (Bob) Gibson and (Sandy) Koufax, and you put this kid right there,” said pitching coach Ray Miller. “... It’s unbelievable what that kid’s done” in this series.” Added centerfielder Andy Van Slyke “The only break Avery is going to give us is if he retires next year. If I have to face him for the next however many years, I think I’m going to have a stomach flu. It’s Avery-itis ... poison Avery.”

4. The 11-strikeout gem

Avery threw 15 complete games with seven shutouts over his 201 starts with the Braves, and while it ended up being on the downturn of his run with the franchise, Avery never had a game quite like he did on Aug. 8, 1994. He struck out 11 over eight scoreless innings, allowing three hits with three walks. Since 1969, there have been 11 starts by Braves starters with three or fewer hits and three or less walks that produced a better Game Score than Avery’s 84. Among Avery’s victims that day, was former Braves teammate Deion Sanders, who he struck out three times. “I had a real good fastball,” Avery said afterward. “I spotted it well and threw it hard. I felt good. I felt I could throw it by people. I tired a little. It was hotter than I thought, and I’m not used to striking out a lot of batters.”

5. Making his case

“It’s a terrible process, but it’s the process,” Avery would say of salary arbitration hearings. “I didn’t enjoy it. You sit there for two hours with someone saying how great you are and two more hours with someone saying how terrible you are.” As uneasy as the situation was, Avery was a perfect 2-0 when it came to, he and the Braves facing off. In 1994, he received the $2.8 million he filed for instead of the $2.1 million the club offered, then a year later, he was given $4.2 million compared to the $3.6 the Braves wanted him to make. Coming off his second straight season with an ERA over 4.00, Avery’s agent, Scott Boras, presented a case that showed he had the 79th worst run support among all 94 starters, leading to 13 losses for Avery in 1995. It also included this nugget: Avery’s value was enough — coming off a 4.67 ERAA — that the Braves were willing to go through an arbitration process rather than non-tender him. ... Wait. What? It worked, though Avery’s case in sticking around wasn’t strengthened by a 4.47 ERA in what would be his final season in Atlanta.

6. Derailed by injury

Many have pointed to Avery’s heavy workload — he had 135 starts before he was 24, the 23rd most in history at the time — as the cause for the pulled muscle on the left side of his rib cage on Sept. 12, 1993. In his age-21 season, Avery threw 210 1/3 innings, then reached 233 2/3 the next season, and 223 1/3 in 1993. Whether or not the innings caught up to him, Avery simply wasn’t consistently the same pitcher after that injury (though there were moments, including that 11-strikeout gem in 1994 and posting a 1.42 ERA in the 1995 postseason). From 1994-on, the lefty had a 4.86 ERA compared to 3.49 in the four seasons before that, and he’d go over 151 2/3 innings once in his next six seasons as a starter.

7. Setting the stage for history

When Avery took the ball in Game 2 of the 1991 NLCS, he did so at just 21 years, making him the youngest Braves pitcher in history to start a postseason game. He was sensational over those playoffs with a 1.53 ERA, the standard for young dominance for this franchise until Ian Anderson’s emergence over these past two Octobers. But in 1995, Avery was at a different point in his career. He’d posted the highest ERA (4.67) of any of his seasons with the Braves in which he pitched more than 99 innings, and his fWAR was more than half (2.5) of what he’d post in his peak of 1993 (5.1). But Avery would loom large during the 1995 title run, posting six strong innings against the Reds in the NLCS, then followed by giving Atlanta a 3-1 World Series lead on the Indians when he tossed six one-run innings in front of 43,578 in Jacobs Field. He wasn’t dominant, walking five (one intentionally) as 49 of his 109 pitches were balls, but with questions coming as to why Bobby Cox went with the struggling Avery instead of Greg Maddux, Avery stepped up. “The last thing I wanted was for (Cox) to have to answer a lot of questions about why he pitched Avery tonight,” Avery said. But Avery’s performance would turn out to be more important than anyone realized, as the Indians got to Maddux for four runs in seven innings in a Game 5 loss. Without Avery setting the tone in Game 4, the heroics of Tom Glavine in Game 6 wouldn’t have been that seminal moment in Braves history.

8. One thing missing from high school dominance

Avery, was every bit a high school phenom. He won four Michigan Tri-River League championships at John F. Kennedy High School, which is familiar to anyone who hoarded his 1989 Topps card thinking it would later be the backbone of their retirement riches. In 1988, he took them to the state baseball finals in Michigan. In the district doubleheader, Avery pitched and won both games ... and he also hit three home runs. There would be no state title though, as Avery struck out 19 of 30 batters in the semifinals but had reached his 10-inning allotment for the week as the game stretched into extras. Avery and Kennedy lost to Seaholm 11-9 in the championship.

9. For your viewing pleasure ...

On the topic of Avery’s abilities at the plate, while he was a .179 hitter in his seven years in Atlanta, he capped that by slashing .239/.245/.500 in 1996 and combined for four home runs, five doubles and two triples over his last two seasons as a Brave. One of four pitchers with a slugging percentage over .500 in 1996, Avery was the only one with double-digits in RBI and multiple home runs. But there would be no Silver Slugger Award in his future. That went to Glavine, who hit 50 points higher than Avery. Watching someone else celebrate despite his exploits at the plate would seem to be Avery’s lot in life, as he put on a show in the Braves Alumni Home Run Derby in 2018, only to be upstaged by Jeff Francoeur in the final round.

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