ESPN: Best NL team of free agency era is … the ‘98 Braves?

That rat Sterling Hitchcock baffiling the Braves in Game 6 of the 1998 NLCS. (AJC file photo)

That rat Sterling Hitchcock baffling the Braves in Game 6 of the 1998 NLCS. (AJC file photo)

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:

  1. The 1998 Braves.
  2. The 1986 Mets.
  3. The 2011 Phillies.
  4. The 2004 Cardinals.
  5. The 1975 Reds.

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

80 comments Add your comment

Paul H

August 10th, 2011
10:32 am

Herschel Talker

August 10th, 2011
10:36 am

MB:

And then Bobby played Danny Bautista and Keith Lockhart in the playoffs! What an idiot! No wonder we won only one title under that idiot.

HT

LEGEND

August 10th, 2011
10:37 am

LEGEND batted cleanup on that team i believe

Curious George

August 10th, 2011
10:38 am

Wasn’t 1998 the year Chipper was “distracted” by the knocked-up Hooters waitress while his then-wife probably nagged & whined to him when she found out about it?

Curious George

August 10th, 2011
10:40 am

If the Braves 1998 was truly the “Best of the Free Agency Era,” does that mean it was the manager’s fault for not winning the World Series?

Curious George

August 10th, 2011
10:43 am

Didn’t Chipper Jones win the M-V-P Award for that ‘98 NLCS against the Padres, the Most Variety of Pop-Ups?

Were the judges counting the one from the Hooters restaurant, too?

Jamaaliver

August 10th, 2011
10:44 am

The link above in the article leads me back to your blog, Mark!

That’s a pretty sly way of getting more blog hits! :)

dtanner

August 10th, 2011
10:58 am

cox was a fool,everybody thought he was so great hell i could have won all those games with that pitching staff,should have won at least four world series.

Allan

August 10th, 2011
10:59 am

The 98 Braves had what is considered by many to be the greatest starting 5 of all time. That’s a big, big deal.

GT71

August 10th, 2011
11:00 am

Everyone has an opinion – none truly objective: see MB’s Reds comment and their announcer’s.
The ESPN guy has to fill space as does Bradley.
Seems to be still mostly empty space, but it tides fans over until a real game starts.

reebok

August 10th, 2011
11:00 am

Yep, 106 wins in the regular season, and then, thanks to the unique managerial genius of Booby Cox, run out of the playoffs by an inferior team. I wonder what a real Manager, such as Joe Torre or Tony LaRussa, would have done with the Braves through the decade of the 90’s? 4 World Series wins? 5?

UGABugKiller

August 10th, 2011
11:00 am

Proof AGAIN that Bobby Cox is THE MOST OVERRATED MANAGER IN BASEBALL HISTORY and the absolute WORST MANAGER IN POSTSEASON HISTORY.

The man is single-handedly responsible for the Braves not winning the three or four World Series a COMPETENT manager would’ve had them win in the 1990’s.

All you morons attending “Bobby Cox Day” are lemming blind homers who have no ability to see the truth of reality, y’all just buy into the b.s. hashed by guys like Bradley who’ve told you how “great” Cox is so much that you believe it.

Sparky Anderson, Joe Torre, Terry Francona, shoot, even Davy Johnson would’ve won more than a single-solitary World Series with the 1990’s Braves.

Bobby Cox owes his ENTIRE managerial success to 1) John Schuerholtz and 2) His own acumen as a GM.

Bobby Cox, who built the Braves farm system, and then was given the most talented teams in baseball history by Schuerholtz, kept all of that talent from winning multiple World Series.

He should NOT be praised.

He should be shunned and ridiculed.

VOLinATL

August 10th, 2011
11:01 am

It seems the guys at ESPN have way too much time on their hands!! What a pointless excercise!!

Hankie Aron

August 10th, 2011
11:03 am

Herschel Talker- The eternal optimist

retired broke and .......

August 10th, 2011
11:05 am

Mark I finally took that article off the wall in 2007. (the one the idiot wrote about the 27 Yankees and Braves of 96) Was a great teaching tool for my children. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch type teaching tool. I cursed you every October for a decade. I cursed you when you wrote it (all in good sports fun) Now since you brought it up again you can do me a favor, buy the cap I bought from that WS and end the issue. Go to this link on ebay and end that heartache forever…… ……..http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=200639997297&ssPageName=STRK:MESELX:IT#ht_1618wt_1083 ……..!

sidslid

August 10th, 2011
11:06 am

The 93 Braves team with Gant and Justice having their best years was the best. The pitching depth of the 98 team doesn’t help in a three man rotation series, and I suspect that depth is what put that team on this guy’s plateau. Platooning Klesko was always Bobby’s greatest FUBAR. Klesko had a great eye at the plate so his OBP would have justified letting him play.

retired broke and .......

August 10th, 2011
11:07 am

how does one ad a link was told once and lost those notes

ATL Fan

August 10th, 2011
11:09 am

I’m just glad to see Vizcaino has been called up and Scott Proctor is gone.

extremus

August 10th, 2011
11:09 am

I happened to read that article yesterday and found it quite interesting as well. As most others here will also likely agree, the conclusions are questionable, though I did enjoy seeing the Braves at the top of the list. One also would have to say that the criteria for measuring the true success and capability of a team ISN’T whether they win/won a World Series championship, but rather, since baseball is a marathon like no other in sports, how they performed consistently across that particular season.

That of course is the crux of the dilemma that Braves fans have faced since the early 1990s. 14 straight division titles, multiple NL championships…and only a single World Series championship. When you have an assemblage of talent like the Braves had during that incredible run, from a fan’s perspective anything less than another World Series championship is considered a failure, but is that really fair to those great Braves teams or even to us as fans?

I remember a story my pastor shared with our church from a true story someone had written. The author said he was sitting with an old friend and talking about baseball, and the friend recounted how as a boy one year he got to skip school to go see his Brooklyn Dodgers play the hated Yankees in the World Series. He lamented how utterly disappointed he was in that the Dodgers hadn’t even gotten a single runner on base that day. That’s when the author had asked, “Do you mean to tell me that YOU were at the game where Don Larsen threw the ONLY perfect game in World Series history!!?” It was only then that the truth of the message became clear; the man’s disappointment had literally blinded him to the fact he had witnessed something very special and unique, something that should be treasured and appreciated simply as a fan of the game.

Just like we Braves fans had for fourteen wonderful seasons. Don’t let the sting of those playoff crapshoot disappointments take away from the magnitude of that accomplishment. We got to witness some special stuff ourselves, many times over. We should always be thankful for that, regardless of what this season or the future may hold for the Braves and Atlanta team sports.

extremus

August 10th, 2011
11:11 am

Umm, having a delay seeing my post again, Mr. Bradley…

James Stephenson

August 10th, 2011
11:13 am

The Braves did not win a few WS for one reason only, we did not have Mariano Rivera. Lets be honest, our closer situation has always been horrible. The 90s, we had some decent ones that just blew up, Wohlers was good until a slider, Rocker until an interview. But mostly just bad.

SimpleDawg

August 10th, 2011
11:14 am

Way to go, Bradley…..write an inane article that will bring out all of the idiots, zealots, haters, and crackpots.

Just Asking

August 10th, 2011
11:14 am

Mark, How would you rate the Braves teams of all time? Just asking.

Andy

August 10th, 2011
11:15 am

Mark

Your link to the article does not work.

You are who we think you are

August 10th, 2011
11:19 am

I believe the ‘93 team was better on paper. Three Braves players finished in top five of MVP voting: Gant (36 homers, 117 RBI), Justice (40 homers, 120 RBI) and McGriff. Otis Nixon stole 47 bases, Jeff Blauser hit .305. Glavine won 22games and Maddux won 20. Stanton had 27 saves. And, of course, they lost the NLCS despite outscoring the Phillies in the series.

ArkyTech

August 10th, 2011
11:30 am

You can’t just gloss over that rotation. It’s a ridiculous starting five.

DCBrave33

August 10th, 2011
11:31 am

I agree the ‘98 team was probably not the greatest, but I think the point of the article on ESPN was also to highlight that being the best team in the regular season and having a dominant season doesnt GUARANTEE ANYTHING in the postseason. We went into the playoffs with the best team at least 4 times (across all of MLB) but only came away with 1 WS. Some of that can be contributed to other factors (managing, matchups, lineups, etc…) but a lot of it can be attributed to just flat-out rotten luck! I mean, seriously, we could have easily won in ‘91, ‘92, and ‘96 but had bad breaks or missed one of two key plays to win.

The Yankees didnt win 4 titles in the late ’90s and early ’00s simply because they were so awesome, they also had a bit of good fortune.

It happens.

That is why I am holding out hope this one year (maybe this year) we can be the team that wasn’t necessarily the best, but the most fortunate and best when it counts…in October! We are overdue to have something like that happen, right!?

Herschel Talker

August 10th, 2011
11:35 am

Hankie Aron:

What does this have to do with being optimistic? I’m looking back and Bobby’s failures, not looking at Fredi’s future failures. You’re happy with Bobby’s postseason performance?

HT

DCBrave33

August 10th, 2011
11:46 am

As much as you can be critical of Cox in our postseason failures, look closer at some of the losses:

1991- Lose the most evenly played series of all-time. One baserunning mistake made the difference.
1992- Lost four 1-run games, including a blown save from Jeff Reardon. Not necessarily better than Toronto, but definitely could have won.
1993- Ran out of gas after running down Giants. Lost LCS despite outscoring Phillies. Tough loss.
1995- Hey, we got it right!
1996- Wohlers…enough said. But also, dont forget RF umpire getting in way of Dye chasing a foul pop who could have slowed the rally in that 8th inning before it started. Also, Dye made huge mistake on ball in gap in 1-0 game 5 loss.
1997- Ran into Eric Gregg behind plate in crucial swing game. Brutal performance. Kevin Brown also was tough on us.
1998- Kevin Brown. Sterling Hitchcock. They killed us. This probably was the best example of “choking” from this team.
1999- Made WS with depleted roster. Should have shown better than a sweep from Yanks, but definitely not the better team.
2000- No Smoltz, not best season. ran into buzzsaw in St. Louis. Weird season. 2nd best choke.
2001- Another undermanned team. Made run into LCS and lost to better D-Backs team. No Furcal, diminished Smoltz.
2002- Great team. Just couldnt finish in series with Giants. Probably better team, but couldnt close out with a 2-1 advantage. Probably should have added legitimate 1st baseman or 2nd baseman.
2003- Really good team, but ran into hot Cubs pitching.
2004- Just a good team. Lost to a better Astros team. Jaret Wright started game 1 and 5, do you really blame them for losing.
2005- Also just a good team that lost to a better Astros team.
2010- Injuries…they killed that team.

Anyone have thoughts on these losses? I contend that only a few of these are terrible performances. Some are just bad circumstances and/or luck.

PMC

August 10th, 2011
11:46 am

I always felt the 1999 Braves were better than the 1998 team.

Doesn’t really matter though since the 1996 spectre of Leyritz lay over them until the bottom finally fell out around 2005. They weren’t a championship quality team after around 2001 or so.

Dr Henry

August 10th, 2011
11:47 am

The 98 braves season can be summed up in 2 words – ERIC GREGG – Greggs comments when asked later about his strike zone was ‘Everybody knows MY strike zone’ … I know that Gregg is deceased now but thinking about that game still riles me.

Ted Striker

August 10th, 2011
11:48 am

Any team without a Clusters shouldn’t be in the discussion.

mike lum

August 10th, 2011
11:57 am

The 98 Braves aren’t the only “loaded” team in history not to win the World Series. Based on these comments the Phillies had no business not going all the way the last two years, nor this year. Was it Charlie Manual’s fault the Giants got hot last October?

In baseball it’s not the best (or highest paid) team that wins out. You’d think most braves fans would’ve figured that out by now.
It’s not the t

retired broke and .......

August 10th, 2011
12:05 pm

Wasn’t Gregg the culprit in 1997 vs Marlins?

retired broke and .......

August 10th, 2011
12:08 pm

practice run ignore this post …….End this misery

Mark Bradley

August 10th, 2011
12:10 pm

Much belated kudos, Paul H.

Robert 08

August 10th, 2011
12:11 pm

The Eric Gregg fiasco was the 97 NLCS against the Marlins …

retired broke and .......

August 10th, 2011
12:12 pm

Mark Bradley

August 10th, 2011
12:12 pm

And the link to Mr. Schoenfield’s article has now been fixed. I apologize for the snafu, but I was at the PGA press center — I listened to Tiger Woods this morning — and I was faced with a choice: Pay $85 to use the wireless or rely on my broadband card, which could barely hold a signal. I took the latter option and wound up mangling many things. Again, I apologize.

retired broke and .......

August 10th, 2011
12:13 pm

Since you brought it up!

shmoe

August 10th, 2011
12:13 pm

DO NOT TALK ABOUT ERIC GREGG!! I’m trying to keep my lunch down.

Those repeated calls 4 feet outside were both absurd, strange, sickening, revolting, vomit inducing, and weirdly comical. Livan mustve felt like he won the lottery.

Dave

August 10th, 2011
12:16 pm

why doesn;t your paper do a story on the fact that there are over 5000 tickets still for sale through a website for bobby cox night

what kind of sportstown is this?

Chuck

August 10th, 2011
12:23 pm

MLB still owes the fans of Atlanta an apology for that atrocity.

Ted M

August 10th, 2011
12:26 pm

Cox lost that series for us…no question about it.

Godfather

August 10th, 2011
12:29 pm

“The Braves did not win a few WS for one reason only, we did not have Mariano Rivera. Lets be honest, our closer situation has always been horrible. The 90s, we had some decent ones that just blew up, Wohlers was good until a slider, Rocker until an interview. But mostly just bad.”

I totally agree there James, that and lack of some juiced bats is what got us only one WS.

Bob Pettit

August 10th, 2011
12:42 pm

hey DCBrave33 – when you are 1 for 17 in the postseason there has to be something more than circumstance or luck – Bobby is the common thread running from Toronto to 3 generations of Braves teams. All you Bobby loyalists can say whatever you want, but his postseason record speaks for itself…….

Crime Dawg

August 10th, 2011
12:43 pm

I think the 1997 team was the best of the run, that team just ran into a Marlins club full of Brave Killers.

The chokes were in 96-98. Every other season, outside of maybe 2002-03, can be considered a good to great run. Heck the team in 1999 had to be one of the worst WS teams ever, that lineup outside of Chipper was pitiful.

Gene Garber

August 10th, 2011
12:49 pm

only Cox would sit a player hiting over .500 in the WS….Deion in 92 v Toronto. The “book” that Cox followed must have been flagged becasue it obviously was read while on the crapper…where it belongs. The Braves won despite Cox…anyone can win division titles with 3 HOF pitchers going to the mound every 5 days. Cox was totally out managed by Kelly, Gaston, Torre, Bochy, LaRussa, Baker, when it counted.

Sutton's Fro

August 10th, 2011
1:02 pm

Could not agree more with extremus and DCBrave33! As heartbroken as I was for nearly every postseason of the last 20 years, I have always kept one thing in mind: We Braves fans were (and maybe “are”) incredibly lucky to a have contending team every year.

Since 1991, would you rather have been a Braves fan or a Royals fan? Or worse, a Pirates fan? The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since Sid Slid, and crept over the .500 mark for the first time briefly this June. And of course, they just ended an 11-game losing streak! As frustrated as I have been with roster moves, lineups, pitching changes (or leaving a pitcher in too long), bad hitting coaches, reduced payrolls, etc. etc. — it was still more exciting than a continual parade of 90+ loss seasons.

NorCalBrave

August 10th, 2011
1:10 pm

All this chatter stirs up terrible memories of all the times in the 90’s the highly-favored Braves succumbed to underdogs. Maybe this will be the year we flatten some other teams on high horses.