In 1991 two Cinderella teams, who had gone from last place the previous year to first, met in the World Series. It was a Cinderella story out of nowhere just like a former greenskeeper becoming the Masters champion. Thank you, Bill Murray. The winner, however, had just won their second world championship in five years. They would not finish any closer than six games out of first (in '92 and '01) again until they won their division title this year. They were and are the Minnesota Twins.
The other team would win the World Series in 1995 and has yet to fail to qualify for the playoffs since their Cinderella season. They are of course the Atlanta Braves. This year was one of their best with 101 wins in only 160 official decisions. They have eclipsed 100 wins five times (1993, '97, '98, '99, and now 2002) and were on a pace to do so in the abbreviated '95 season. Their highest win total during the streak is 106 in 1998 though at one point this season it seemed they would easily surpass that total. They have had the best record in the NL in eight of the seasons in the streak including this one.
But it appeared that their streak was nearing an end as they completed the 2001 season. After eking out only 88 wins last year and being dogged by an overachieving Phillies team until the final week of the season, they entered 2002 with seemingly more question marks than in any other season since 1991. Baseball Weekly in its season preview pointed to their rebuilt bullpen as the team's major weakness. Kevin Millwood and Andruw Jones were listed among their major worries. Only three of the five BW analysts picked Atlanta to win its division in 2002 (though one picked them to win the World Series).
In the off-season, the Braves had added Gary Sheffield's bat and a number of fungible role players had transmogrified, but this was basically the same team as 2001's version, just a year older and deeper in debt. Chipper Jones switched from third base to left, thereby potentially weakening two positions. Who was going to be the second baseman? Keith Lockhart, Mark DeRosa, Marcus Giles, or maybe Jesse Garcia? Quilvio Veras was no longer in the mix at least. Surprisingly, for a team built on pitching, there were question marks in the rotation for the first time in recent memory with Smoltz' defection to the bullpen, Kevin Millwood's ineffectiveness, the loss of John Burkett to the Red Sox, and only unproven Jason Marquis and Damian Moss to fill out the starting corps. Second-year closer John Smoltz was re-signed to the tune of $30 million over three years-that's a tune with a good beat and you can dance to it-and the supporting reliever caste was rebuilt.
The problems from 2001 still had not been resolved: There seemingly wasn't a player on the major league roster to play first of third base. B.J. Surhoff and former Mexican-Leaguer Julio Franco were to platoon, sort of, at first. This was put on hold as Surhoff got playing time in rightfield while Gary Sheffield was nursing a sore wrist in mid-April. Surhoff slid into a wall on April 27 chasing down a triple destroying his knee (but did have the wherewithal to hit the cutoff man) and has been out since. Jones' switch to left created a hole at third base. Vinny Castilla was signed after seemingly righting his career with Houston in the last three-quarters of 2001but Castilla still had an OPS under .600 for the Devil Rays in each of two partial seasons. There still was no clearcut starter at second. (Imagine if this team had not made the Ryan Klesko and Bret Boone for Reggie Sanders, Wally Joyner, and Veras trade.)
Remarkably the Braves have had a healthy lead for most of the season and finished the season 19 games ahead of second-place Montreal. The division standings are a testament to their dominance in 2002. They sit alone atop the NL East while only 7.5 games separated the second through fifth team (and they were within a just a few games of each other until the last week of the season). Atlanta was 47-28 against the rest of the division. The other four teams were slightly below .500 (37-39 to 34-41) against the rest of the NL East. Clearly the Braves are the class of an otherwise evenly matched, mediocre division.
Does this dominance bode well for the Braves' playoff hopes this year? Tim Kirkjian thinks that it does. Most fans are more skeptical given this team's past postseason failures. Kirkjian points to the Braves' bullpen as "the best bullpen in the National League, the best bullpen they've ever had" and to the dominance of closer John Smoltz in particular as major improvements over the underachieving teams of the past. Kevin Millwood's turnaround and the development of youngsters Damian Moss and Jason Marquis have solidified the rotation, says Tim. He offers that Gary Sheffield's bat has made up for the deficiencies at first and third base. He reminds us that Rafael Furcal's speed was dearly missing in the playoff run last year. These are all valid points to some extent, but are they enough to rid the Braves of their recent playoff demons.
To determine that we need to figure out what went wrong in the past and determine if those root causes still exist on the current team. Did their notoriously bad bench let them down? Did their starting lineup? Is their historically uneven bullpen to plan or was it their starters? Where there injuries to key players?
Here are the yearly postseason batting numbers for the entire Atlanta Braves team for every year in the 1990s in which they did not win the World Series (i.e., not 1995).
[Note: I have again used Sean Lahman's database for 1991-'99 and ESPN for the last two years]:
Other than 1993 and 1996, those numbers are pretty poor. Who is to blame, the starting lineup, the bench, or both. I took the top eight players in at-bats in each postseason and designated them starters, removed all the pitchers, and designated the remainder the bench (I know that this is somewhat arbitrary especially in years in which they used a DH in the World Series, but it was the best that I could think of). Here are the yearly number for the starters and the bench. First the starters:
So what does this tell us? A. The Braves have not been exactly setting the world ablaze with their bats. The starters have done better than the bench, but B. the bench has not been tremendously worse throughout, as is their rep. Sure, in 1991, '97, and '99 the bench was pretty worthless, but in 1992. '93, '98, and 2000 it did a better job than the starting lineup. The bench batted .364 and the starters .173 in their 2000 early exit.
Now, let's take a look at the pitching. Here are the pitching totals for each of the years:
Those are pretty good numbers in general. In 2000 the starters got roughed up early and the Braves had an early exit. And in 1992 the pitchers had a few problems, but aside from that these numbers are very good.
What if we compare starters to relievers like we did early with bench and starting players' batting? These roles are easier to classify. I have divided up the numbers for starters who came in relief. Here are the starters:
Those aren't bad numbers, not so bad for a much maligned bullpen. Their worst year was probably 1999 in which they had an ERA near 4 for over 40 innings. A few years they were a real strength: zero ERA in 14.1 innings in 1997-you can't beat that.
Let's again compare relievers to starters by comparing their ratios:
The relievers actually have a lower ERA and Walks Plus Hits per Innings Pitched and a higher strikeout-to-innings-pitched ratio. They have given up more walks though so there strikeout-to-walk ratio us lower.
One last thing, injuries, and then we'll make a final assessment. Here are the position players that played more than 80 games in a season for the Braves and did not end up playing or had limited playing time (i.e., were not designated starters):
1991 Otis Nixon (OF, 124 games)
1992 Greg Olson (C, 95)
1996 Dwight Smith (backup OF, 101)
1997 Mark Lemke (2B, 109)
1999 Randall Simon (backup 1B, 90)
2000 Quilvio Veras (2B, 84)
2001 Rafael Furcal (only 79 games but was the starting shortstop
I don't have anything to compare it to, but that seems like a pretty bad run of luck. Most of those injuries happened mid-year though, and the team had time to replace the player.
So now let's get to the fun part, assigning blame. I have singled out the starting or relieving corps if they have an ERA over 3.50 in a given postseason and a starting or bench position player corps if they have an OPS under .700. Here's my assessment:
1991 Bench (plus a key injury)
1992 Starting pitching and position players
1993 Relief pitching
1998 Starting position players
1999 Relief pitching and bench
2000 Starting and relief pitching and starting position players
Note that the notoriously poor role players only had one year in which they both plagued the team (1999). 2000 was a complete breakdown (except for the bench) but was only three games. 1992 wasn't much better even though they got to the World Series. There were two years in which none of the groups broke down: the Braves were just outplayed. The Braves strength, starting pitching, has been a problem area almost as often as their much maligned starting position players and relief pitching (they also has a few years with an ERA over 3, but not over 3.50).
So other than one or maybe two years, the Braves have had some major facet of their game working for them and still did not garner the World Series trophy. That shows that even a very good club can play well and lose to another good club that just happens to play better in the postseason. What does this mean for the Braves 2002 playoff run? Well, the inconsistency so far of their starting pitching (i.e., Glavine) does not bode well. They are currently out-hitting San Francisco, but have a 5.40 staff ERA (and 7.78 starter ERA-relievers have a 2.35 ERA) in the series. If they win tonight, stranger things have happened than their winning the World Series. But if they don't win tonight, the point will be moot.