Why Didn’t the Atlanta Braves Win More World Series Titles in the 1990s?

Former Braves general manager John Schuerholz on Sunday was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He joins former Braves manager Bobby Cox and pitchers Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux.  Chipper Jones will most likely join them in 2018.  The common thread here is that all six participated in the Braves’ amazing run during the 1990s.  So the Braves now have from that era their general manager, manager, and three starting pitchers in the Hall, with their third baseman soon to follow.  The Braves, in the 1990s, won eight consecutive division titles, five national league pennants but only one World Series.  How is this possible? Let’s look at some theories behind the Braves’ failure to bring home more titles.

Leo Mazzone blames the lack of World Series titles on the extra round of playoffs added in 1995.  In his book Tales from the Braves Mound (Sports Publishing LLC, 2003, p. 74), Mazzone makes his case:

“The only time I felt anxiety is in that first round of the best-of-five.  In a

seven-game series, we’ve always felt that the depth of our starting rotation

and the depth of our pitching staff and the depth of our ball club could beat

anybody.  You go best-of-five and you lose one, there’s a sense of urgency.

You’re scrambling already.  One pitcher gets hot, one bad hop, one crazy thing

happens and before you know it, you’re scrambling.  That’s the only reason why

the Atlanta Braves have won only one World Series.  I guarantee we would have

won more World Series if we were winning our division, then going straight to

the NLCS.”

 

I respect Mazzone’s argument but that does not explain World Series losses to the Minnesota Twins in 1991 and the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992.  Remember the best-of-five first round playoffs did not begin until 1995.  However, maybe they would not have lost to the Florida Marlins in 1997 and the San Diego Padres in 1998 and would have gone on to win the World Series in those years.

John Smoltz is his book John Smoltz Starting and Closing (William Morrow, 2012, p. 220-229) offers several theories on why the Braves did not win more titles.  First, he claims that power pitching wins in the playoffs.  While finesse pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were great pitchers, they pitched to contact.  They wanted hitters to hit the ball to their infielders and outfielders.  Smoltz states that this philosophy works well over the course of a 162-game regular season, but facing good hitters in the playoffs translates to more hits and more runs.  On the other hand, a power pitcher such as Smoltz can generate more strike outs thereby keeping more hitters off of the base paths and less runs from scoring.  There may be some truth in this theory.  Maddux had an 11-13 postseason record with a 2.81 ERA with the Braves and allowed an alarming 18 earned runs in 27 starts. Glavine had a 12-15 postseason record with the Braves while compiling an ERA of 3.44.  Smoltz’s postseason record with the Braves was 15-4 with an ERA of about 2.70.

The Braves played a total of 29 games in their five World Series in the 1990s.  Seventeen of those games were decided by one run and the Braves lost 12 out of 17.  All the losses to Toronto in the 1992 Series were by one run.  Fewer base runners would have meant fewer runs and maybe more wins for the Braves.  Another power pitcher may have helped.

Smoltz also points to the lack of timely hitting by the Braves in these losses and the preponderance of timely hitting from their opponents.  He argues that sound pitching and timely hitting win titles.  Hard to argue with that logic.  Oh what a timely hit in Game 7 against Minnesota would have meant to the outcome of that game and the Series.  Interestingly, Marquis Grissom had a reputation for timely hits throughout his career and he was arguably the catalyst behind the 1995 title against the Cleveland Indians.  He also hit .444 against the New York Yankees in the 1996 Series, but weird things happened in that Series (See below).

Smoltz offers one more reason for the lack of titles in Atlanta.  He argues that the Braves experienced some bad luck that decided several games and eventually cost Atlanta an extra title or two.  For example, if Lonnie Smith picks up the ball while running the bases in Game 7 against Minnesota, or at least watched his third base coach, he would not have slowed down and would have scored easily.  Maybe if the Braves had the extra home game instead of Minnesota, Atlanta wins the 1991 World Series.  Remember, the home team did not lose in 1991.  Also, if umpire Time Welke does not interfere with Jermaine Dye’s attempt to catch a very catchable foul ball during the sixth inning of that fateful Game 4 of the 1996 Series, then Derek Jeter would have been out.  Instead he singles on a later pitch and begins a three-run rally to cut Atlanta’s lead to 6-3.  The next inning, usually dependable Rafael Belliard boots a sure double-play grounder and only gets one out.  So instead of one on and two outs, there were two on and one out when Jim Leyritz launches his home run to tie the game.  The Braves would lose that game in extra innings and eventually the Series.  Again, Smoltz may have an argument here.

I have a little different take on why the Braves could not produce more titles and it revolves around John Schuerholz.  I concur with Smoltz that the Braves could have used another power pitcher and more contact hitters.  During the 1990s run the Braves were built on the long ball.  Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, David Justice and Javy Lopez were power hitters.  All played major roles in Atlanta’s ability to get to the World Series, but other than the 1995 Series, these players did little with their bats in other Series.  However, Mark Lemke, a contact hitter, did his part to win the 1991 Series when he batted .417 and hit .273 against Cleveland in 1995.  Unfortunately, he didn’t hit well against Toronto in 1992 and the Yankees in 1996.  Marquis Grissom, another contact hitter, batted .360 against Cleveland and .444 against the Yankees, then Schuerholz traded him to Cleveland. Grissom would lead the Indians to the 1997 World Series where he would extend his hitting streak in World Series games to 15.  The Braves did receive Kenny Lofton as part of that trade, but Lofton played one year with Atlanta before returning to Cleveland as a free agent. Another contact hitter or two may have changed the outcomes of some of the games against elite opponents in the World Series, where hits are generally at a premium because of the strong pitchers associated with each club.  Grissom brought the added dimension of speed, which enables clubs to manufacture runs more easily.  Just look at what Kenny Lofton did to the Braves in 1995 and may have done with Atlanta Braves if the Braves had elected to re-sign him after the 1997 season.

So had the Braves acquired another power pitcher or two or another contact hitter or two or someone besides Grissom who could manufacture a run with his bat and legs, would that have possibly allowed the Braves to win more of those one-run games and change the total of their World Series titles?  Maybe, but we will never know because the man responsible for acquiring such pieces, John Schuerholz, did not do so.  I am not laying the lack of more titles completely at his feet because I don’t know what he was or was not told to do by upper management.  However, Ted Turner owned the Braves for most of this run and I have to believe if Schuerholz requested that the Braves add one or more aforementioned pieces Turner would have agreed to do so. I don’t believe money really was an issue back then.

You can make your own judgments.  Maybe the Braves needed another power pitcher, or contact hitter, or base stealer.  Maybe they were just unlucky.  Or maybe, some other factor(s) played a role in the lack of titles that have not come to mind.  I really don’t know, but I give much of the blame to John Schuerholz, the man just elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  One thing I am sure of—the Atlanta Braves should have more than one World Series title.

 

 

Comments

  1. Lewis S. says:

    I am an Atlanta native and will always be a Braves fan. I lived and died with the Braves during those years. Although I respect John Smoltz’s opinion, I felt, at times, the Braves just didn’t play the fundamentals as well as other teams. For instance, basic things like hitting the cut-off man or being able to do the little things that could manufacture runs drove me absolutely nuts in the post-season. I also believe, and I know this is heresy, that Bobby Cox just got out-managed plain and simple by the likes of Joe Torre and Jim Leyland in the post-season and in the World Series.

    I no longer live in Georgia, but I still follow the Braves when I can and I hope that 1995 will someday repeat itself in the near future.

    • Lewis,

      Thank you for your comment! I think Cox deserves some culpability, as you say, but I can’t get past the idea that Schuerholz pulled the strings and didn’t do more to get the one or two players the Braves needed to win more Series. I am very hopeful for the Braves’ future and very much respect Coppolella. We will see.

      Thank you again for writing!

      Take care.

      Jim

  2. The Atlanta Braves have a mysterious history of acquiring good players, who come to Atlanta and become a bust. They suddenly can’t hit or pitch any longer. They also trade away guys who go on to be stars for other teams. Look at Colon. He was a complete bust with the Braves this year, and looked like he was finished, but, goes to Minnesota and instead is a winner again. How do you explain this? You can’t blame Schuerholz or Cox for that. It is just plain mysterious. Did the Braves do something or are they doing something that brings them bad luck on a annual basis? Its a profound mystery.

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