I love stories that start by making you say “Huh?” and leave you saying “Hmmm …” And I’m happy to report that David Schoenfield of ESPN’s Sweet Spot baseball blog has generated one. I’d suggest you leave me for the time being and go read it first, but if you’re click-averse I’ll summarize:
According to Mr. Schoenfield’s research, the greatest National League team of the past three-plus decades was …
The 1998 Atlanta Braves.
Not the worst-to-first Braves of ‘91. Not the 1993 crew that added Fred McGriff and overhauled the Giants. Not the 1995 club, which actually won the World Series. Not even the 1996 assemblage, which led the World Series 2-nil and prompted one idiot (blush) to liken those Braves to the ‘27 Yankees.
The ‘98 Braves, who lost the NLCS to San Diego in six games (after falling behind 3-0).
The genesis for Mr. Schoenfield’s comparison was his attempt to rate the current Phillies, who are on pace to win 106 games, against high-yield NL clubs of “recent memory.” Using copious data, he arrayed the 2011 Phils against the 1975 Big Red Machine (108 wins), the 1986 Mets (also 108), the 1998 Braves (106) and the Cardinals (105). Rating the teams position by position, he reached the fairly stunning — at least to me — conclusion that the ‘98 Braves stand as the best of the five.
Schoenfield’s ranking, top to bottom:
A personal note: Having seen all those clubs in person, and having lived 84 miles from Cincinnati in 1975, I’d say the Reds were the best of the bunch, not the worst. And Marty Brennaman, the Hall of Famer who broadcast those games on Reds Radio, would surely agree. When I once mentioned that the Braves of the early ’90s were reminding me of those imperial Redlegs, Marty said: “Don’t ever compare any team to the Big Red Machine.”
But back to the ‘98 Braves. This was their starting eight: Javy Lopez, C; Andres Galarraga, 1B; Keith Lockhart/Tony Graffanino, 2B; Walt Weiss, SS; Chipper Jones, 3B; Ryan Klesko/Danny Bautista, LF; Andruw Jones, CF; Michael Tucker/Gerald Williams, RF. To me, that lineup doesn’t stack up against the ‘75 Reds or even the ‘93 Braves of McGriff and Justice and Gant and Pendleton and Blauser and Lemke. (Those Braves won 104 games, you’ll recall.)
The ‘98 Braves had great starting pitching, duh: Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Neagle and Millwood. The bullpen was pretty good by Braves standards: Ligtenberg, Rocker, Seanez, Dennis Martinez.
That team won the NL East by 18 games and swept the Cubs in the Division Series. And there the troubles began: Ken Caminiti homered in extra innings off Kerry Ligtenberg to win the rain-delayed Game 1, and Kevin Brown shut the Braves out in Game 2.
Game 3 featured the strangest postseason lineup of Bobby Cox’s stewardship. Down 0-2, the Braves didn’t start Lopez, Lockhart, Klesko or Tucker, going instead with Eddie Perez, Graffanino, Bautista and Williams. (The latter three because they were right-handed hitters and the Braves were facing lefty Sterling Hitchcock, Perez because he’s was Maddux’s personal catcher.) The Braves lost 4-1 and trailed 3-0, and the aforementioned idiot wrote a column that bore the sarcastic headline: “Let’s start with that lineup.”
To their credit, the Braves won Game 4 (Galarraga hit a grand slam) and Game 5 (Tucker homered off Brown, whom Bruce Bochy strangely deployed in relief) in San Diego to bring the series back here. Again the Braves faced Hitchcock, and again Cox trotted out his righty platoon. The Braves mustered two hits and lost 5-0, all the Padres’ runs coming in a sixth inning unhinged by Bautista’s error in left.
Thus did the greatest NL aggregation of “recent memory” take a Matterhorn nosedive. And to me, the most intriguing part of Mr. Schoenfield’s altogether intriguing take is his ranking of the 1998 Braves’ bench — counting Perez and the righty platoon guys — as the second-best of the five teams examined. The point being (I guess): Those guess were great in supporting roles, but they showed in the NLCS why they weren’t full-timers.
OK, enough. Using the old (and always unreliable) Bradley Eyeball Exam, I’d say Mr. Schoenfield’s conclusion is faulty — but I applaud his effort and enjoyed the heck out of his story. I suspect you will, too.
By Mark Bradley