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Exceptional Braves Seasons you probably forgot about

There are many great single season performances that have been overshadowed over the years.

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at Toronto Blue Jays
Michael Bourn had a great 2012 for the Atlanta Braves
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves have a long history of excellent seasons from all-time great players. Because of this extensive history, sometimes some all-time great single seasons get forgotten.

It is easy to remember the great seasons of Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, etc. Let’s take some time and dig deep to reflect on some all-time great seasons that may have been lost in the noise. Of course, some of these seasons may be remembered by some fans, but we will do our best to point out ones that are largely not talked about very often.

To make it even more fun, let’s do one season from each position (minus DH because that basically been just Ozuna).

1st Base – Felipe Alou (1966)

With potential future Hall of Famer Freddie Freeman having a streak of excellent seasons for the Atlanta Braves in recent years, it makes it easy to forget that there have been quite a few good seasons from other players manning the position.

Although he played six different positions, Felipe Alou had an excellent season in 1966 playing 1st Base in 90 of his 154 games that season. During this season, Alou had a slash line of .327/.361/.533, which equated to a 146 wRC+ (46.0 percent higher than league average).

There were only 10 players in all of MLB with a higher offensive WAR than Alou in 1966. He had an overall fWAR of 6.1. In terms of 1st Base in Atlanta Braves history, only Hank Aaron and Freddie Freeman had higher fWAR in a single season.

Alou was deservingly an All-Star and finished 5th in MVP voting.

2nd Base – Marcus Giles (2003)

It is sad that injuries ultimately shortened Marcus Giles’ career. He had a streak of excellent seasons from 2003-2005. In only 139 games in 2003, Marcus Giles accrued an impressive 6.7 fWAR, and if you prefer bWAR, he had a 7.9.

The only single season with higher WAR by a second baseman in Braves franchise history was Rogers Hornsby way back in 1928 for the Boston Braves in which he had an unheard of wRC+ 96.0 percent higher than league average.

Giles was a doubles machine win 2003 with forty-nine. He even tied an MLB record with four doubles in one game and consecutive doubles in one game on July 27th.

Overall Giles had a slash line of .316/.390/.526, with a wRC+ of 139. He also was insanely good at defense in 2003 with nineteen defensive runs saved (DRS), and 8.3 ultimate zone rating (UZR). Neither of those numbers are a typo. For reference, the entire 2022 Atlanta Braves team had thirty-one DRS.

3rd Base – Eddie Mathews (1953)

This season may be the biggest stretch on the list. Anyone that was a fan around this time likely remembers the Eddie Mathews breakout of 1953. However, Eddie Mathews often understandably gets overshadowed by first ballot HoFer Chipper Jones.

Fun fact; did you know Eddie Mathews has a higher career fWAR and bWAR than Chipper Jones? His 8.1 fWAR in 1953 was also higher than any season Chipper Jones ever had too. Of course, this factors in more than just his bat in which Jones is an absolute legend.

This is not say anything bad about Chipper, this is just a reference point in how impressive Mathews truly was. Had Chipper Jones played for any other team, Mathews would likely be to Braves fans what Chipper is now.

In 153 Mathews had a slash line of .302/.406/.627. He led the league in HRs, wRC+, and IBB. Somehow he did not win MVP (although he did place 2nd), and was deservingly an All-Star.

Although Mathews played for the Boston Braves, Milwaukee Braves, and Atlanta Braves, fans during the Atlanta era may not realize how good Mathews’ 1953 season really was.

SS – Denis Menke (1964)

When thinking about single seasons that stick out among Atlanta Braves shortstops, odds are the 1964 season for Denis Menke did not come to mind. This could be for several reasons. Typically players who are on a team for a short period of time do not stick around in fans minds as part of the team lore of old.

Second, the Braves have had some really good seasons from players like Dansby Swanson, Rafael Furcal, and even Andrelton Simmons, so someone like Menke may get put to the back of your mind when you think of great seasons by a shortstop.

Menke was not on offensive whiz. In fact, his career wRC+ is 103. However, in 1964 he had his best offensive year with a slash line of .283/.368/.479, which was good for a wRC+ of 136. Overall, Menke had an fWAR of 6.1 and 6.7 bWAR in 1964. 6.7 bWAR is the highest of any single season for a shortstop in franchise history, and 6.1 fWAR is second only to Dansby Swanson in 2022.

C – Brian McCann (2008)

When in discussions of best Atlanta Braves catcher of all time, Brian McCann often comes up for debate. However, many fans turn to the legendary 2003 that Javy Lopez had when looking at the best single season from a catcher. That season is talked about quite often, so it would not be fair to add it to this list.

That 2003 season by Lopez also overshadows what is arguably the best overall performance by a catcher in Braves history in McCann’s 2008 All-Star and Silver Slugger winning season.

In 2008, McCann had a slash line of .301/.373/.523, which equated to a 135 wRC+. This was not even his best offensive output in a season having a wRC+ of 142 in 2006.

However, his overall output was insane in 2008. McCann ended the season with 8.6 fWAR. The only player with a higher fWAR in MLB that season was Albert Pujols with 8.7.

This excellent fWAR was due to McCann’s exceptional defense in which he had 34.5 runs saved via framing. This framing was so good, that in the following decade (2008-2018), only one catcher had a better season in framing (Jonathan Lucroy in 2011). For reference, the best framer in 2022 was Jonah Heim with 9.1 runs saved. Again, McCann had 34.5.

It is easy for fans to not realize how good McCann’s 2008 was if they do not track framing, which is hard to see with the naked eye. However, what McCann did in 2008 was an all-time great season.

RF – J.D. Drew (2004)

Obviously if we were to strictly look at all-time great seasons, Hank Aaron’s name would be here. If we were to simply look at the top single seasons for Braves regardless of position, the list would be full of Hank Aaron seasons. With that in mind, let’s look at a season that many fans may have forgotten about.

The 2004 season J.D. Drew had is rarely talked about, at least not because of his performance. This could most likely due to him only being on the team for one year, or it could be overshadowed by the fact that the Atlanta Braves gave up multiple years of control of then prospect Adam Wainwright to acquire Drew.

Drew had an outstanding season. In fact, he had the best year of his career by fWAR standards with an 8.6. The only three players with a higher fWAR in 2004 were Barry Bonds, future HoFer Adrian Beltre, and the newest member of the Hall of Fame, Scott Rolen.

Drew ended the season with a slash line of .305/.436/.569 which equated to a wRC+ of 164. He also had 15 DRS and a UZR of 16.3. Sadly, even though the Braves won 96 games that year they were ousted in the NLDS. Had they won the World Series that year, Drew’s exceptional season would likely be one that is talked about on a regular basis.

LF – Lonnie Smith (1989)

Lonnie Smith’s 1989 season could easily be titled “the greatest Atlanta Braves season everyone forgot about”. Think about it, when was the last time someone brought this season up? This season was easily the best single season by a left fielder in Atlanta Braves franchise history, yet it is never talked about.

Smith had an impressive showing by leading the league in OBP with a slash line of .315/.415/.533 which equated to a wRC+ of 167. This could be due to the fact that his numbers in 1989 translate better to modern day MLB stats where high OBP is looked upon as more valuable than it used to. Smith did not have much power with only twenty-one HR so this could play a part in him not getting credit he deserves, but he did have thirty-four doubles and was constantly on base.

Smith’s overall game is what makes this season such a good one. In fact, his 8.8 bWAR led all position players in 1989, ahead of players like Ricky Henderson, Will Clark, Wade Boggs, and Barry Bonds.

Smith had 2.1 defensive WAR (dWAR) in 1989. For reference, Barry Bonds has the second highest dWAR in 1989 with 3.6 and he and Devon White are the only two outfielders in the top ten. In terms of Fangraphs’ Total Zone (TZ), Lonnie Smith was tied for 4th in all of MLB with 23.

CF – Michael Bourn (2012)

It is easy to forget a season like the one Michael Bourn had for the Atlanta Braves in 2012 for a variety of reasons. When you think great seasons from a center fielder, odds are you pick one of numerous ones from either Andruw Jones or Dale Murphy.

Believe it or not, on a team with Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman, and Martin Prado, Bourn was tied with Jason Heyward with the most fWAR for position players on the Atlanta Braves.

Sure, Bourn did not light the world on fire with his wRC+ of 117 and slash line of .274/.348/.391, but it was 17.0 percent better than league average. Factor in his defense, and Bourn was well deserving of that All-Star nod. Bourn had 2.9 dWAR (3rd in all of MLB), 11 DRS, and 8.5 UZR.

SP – Kevin Millwood (1999)

When great seasons from starting pitching for the Atlanta Braves comes up, you could write an entire novel on it. You have the more modern pitchers like Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and even guys like Tim Hudson. Then, you have the pitchers from further back like Warren Spahn, Phil Niekro, and Kid Nichols (who is the all-time and single season bWAR leader in franchise history).

Because of this, it is easy to overshadow other impressive performances over the years. Millwood had one of these seasons. In 1999 Millwood had an exceptional 5.5 fWAR which was good for 7th in MLB. What is crazy is Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood, and John Smoltz held the 6th-8th spots in fWAR for that season. Talk about a dominant rotation.

Millwood ended his season having the best WHIP in the league with 0.996, and allowing the fewest hits per 9 innings with 6.6. His SO/W ratio was also excellent at 3.47. He had an ERA of 2.68 and if we adjust for ball parks, it was the 3rd best among qualified starters. He finished the year 3rd in Cy Young voting, while also earning an All-Star Nod, and some MVP down votes.

CP – Mark Wohlers (1995)

Much like the rotation, the Braves have a history of very good closers. John Smoltz, Craig Kimbrel in his prime, and HoF hopeful Billy Wagner. With names like these, it is easy to forget that Mark Wohlers had a few seasons of being dominant himself.

In 1996, Wohlers had the most saves of his career with 39, but in 1995 is when he was most dominant. Although he only 25 saves in 1995, hitters struggled mightily against him.

Wohlers sported an ERA of 2.09, and when adjusted it was 104.0 percent better than league average. He also had an insanely low FIP of 1.88 while carrying a WHIP of 1.160 while only allowing 7.1 hits per nine innings and striking out 12.5 hitters per nine innings. Any team would have been elated to have that output from one of their relievers, regardless of the number of saves.

There are many more single season outputs worthy of more love. List yours in the comments!

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