Fangraphs’ version of WAR doesn’t tell the whole story, but it gives us a nice and easy snapshot of a player’s value. With that in mind, what three Braves outfielders account for the top five best seasons according to fWAR in franchise history? You’d quickly guess Hank Aaron and with good reason. He had three of the top five seasons, including his 1961 campaign that saw him post a 8.9 fWAR. Two more seasons left. Andruw Jones? No. Chipper Jones played the outfield for a couple of years, but no. Gary Sheffield? Brian Jordan? David Justice? Ron Gant? Nick Markakis? Nope, nah, no siree, unfortunately no, and hahaha.
In 1945, Tommy Holmes finished with a 8.7 fWAR, second on the list. The third spot belongs to J.D. Drew. In his only season in Atlanta, Drew had an 8.6 fWAR. Today, I’ll look back at one of the best offensive seasons by an individual in Braves’ history.
The 2017 winter meetings have begun and we expect some big moves similar to the one that occurred in 2003. It was on December 13 that Atlanta acquired Drew from the Cardinals in a deal that would pay off big for both clubs. Coming to Atlanta with Drew was Eli Marrero, a super utility player capable of playing catcher if needed. Going to Atlanta was a trio of pitchers – Ray King, Jason Marquis, and a young righty in Double-A named Adam Wainwright.
The Cardinals were dealing from a strength to patch up a weakness. They had scored the second-most runs in the NL the previous year with a big three of Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, and rookie Albert Pujols leading the way. Drew had been effective, slashing .289/.374/.512, but had missed two months of the season with injury – something that often muted Drew’s offensive potential during his career.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals needed pitching and needed it bad. Woody Williams and Brett Tomko threw 200 innings for them in 2003 and despite solid records, neither were considered plus pitchers at that point. Most of the rotation was in its 30’s outside of the 28-year-old Matt Morris and 22-year old Dan Haren. They also had no middle relief. Marquis would be counted on to help the rotation while King would give the pen a boost. The Cardinals also had an empty farm system at the time and needed talent like Wainwright. St. Louis wanted Horacio Ramirez from Atlanta but had to settle on Wainwright. They’d get over that.
For Atlanta, this trade was simply about replacing a stud outfielder like Gary Sheffield with another one in J.D. Drew. No one could argue that Drew hadn’t been productive with the Cardinals. He slashed .282/.377/.498 with them, but injuries had kept him from playing in more than 135 games. When the trade was made, the Braves even acknowledged the double-edged sword of adding a difference maker to the lineup, but one that would likely miss action.
When the season opened on April 6 with the Mets in town, Drew was hitting fifth behind the Joneses with Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles leading off. It was an enviable position to be in. Cox would flip-flop Andruw Jones and Drew based on whether the opposing starter was left-handed or right-handed. Drew smacked his first homer in the seventh game of the year, but left later and missed the next five games. His numbers would fall to .200/.378/.343 over his first 15 games before exploding during a three-game set in Florida. Drew picked up six hits, walked, twice, and doubled, tripled, and homered. His OPS jumped nearly 200 points. After an 0’ffer the next day in San Francisco, he went 3-for-5 with his third homer of the year in a 12-3 win. His OPS would never fall under .900 again.
Drew made his return to St. Louis for a series from May 11 to May 13. Atlanta would lose two of the three games, but Drew went 4-for-12 with two homers. He would homer on May 14 in Milwaukee, extending a season-best streak of three games with a homerun.
In June, Drew’s homers seemed to only come at big moments. On the first day of the month, the Expos had built a three-run lead on Atlanta, but Nick Green erased that with one swing of his bat in the ninth. With the next pitch, Drew ended the game with a walk-off solo bomb.
On June 6, with Kevin Millwood out-pitching Jaret Wright, Drew delivered a big blow to the former Braves with a three-run blast with two outs in the fifth, erasing a 4-2 lead. Atlanta would hold on for a 6-4 win. Near the end of the month, Drew got a rally going with a two-run homer. The big knock shrunk a Baltimore lead from six to four. Atlanta would score five more times in the inning to take the lead and won an inning later as John Smoltz shut down the O’s. In the final day of the month, Drew homered twice and drove in five runs in a 9-6 win.
Drew remained hot in July. He had a pair of four-hit games and three homers over the first eleven days of the month. That ended in the first half and he was hitting .312/.434/.628. In a shocker, he was left off the All-Star roster. Drew would have to wait four more years to finally go to the Midsummer Classic.
Shaking off the snub, Drew continued a streak he had begun before the All-Star Break with a single against the Expos when the second half started. His two-homer game against the Marlins to end June was followed by 21 more games with a hit, giving Drew a career-best 22-game hit streak. He hit .384 during the run with eight homers. Before he finally went 0-for-3 in Pittsburgh on July 27, he had increased his slash to .311/.425/.615. He still walked twice that day, which would be the final day of a career-best 41-game streak of reaching base at least once.
Drew’s run was not lost on the Braves. Cox had moved Drew into the #3 spot back in May with Jones falling to #4. Part of that was due to Jones’ struggles that season – he would hit an un-Chipper like .248 that year. But, to me, a bigger part was Drew’s success at the plate.
It’s important to remember that Drew wasn’t just a talented hitter, but at this point in his career, he was a plus fielder. He finished 2004 with 13 DRS, an 18.2 UZR/150, and 14 rPM in right field – the best defensive season of his career. He even logged 49 innings in center field and never looked as good playing the position as he did in 2004. Drew was a complete player for the Braves.
None of this would have been possible had Drew not stayed fairly healthy. He’d miss a few days here-and-there, but what the Braves feared would happen – Drew missing a long stint of action – never happened. Perhaps it was the contract season working its magic. When players have everything to gain by staying in the lineup, they seem to do it more often. Drew never missed more than five games in a row and only twice missed more than two games in a row.
Over his final 42 games, Drew slowed down a tad. Nobody was knocking his .294/.463/.510 run to finish the season, though he only hit five homers in 188 PA. Not quite as impressive as his numbers before that stretch of action, but a .973 OPS is still pretty good, right? Drew finished the year at .305/.436/.569. His 18.3% walk rate was the sixth-best all-time by a Brave while his 1.006 OPS is one of just 20 seasons in which a Brave finished with an OPS over a thousand. He set personal bests in PA, AB, RS, H, 3B, HR, BB, and total bases. Despite Chipper’s down season and Giles missing significant time, Drew helped to push the Braves to a fifth-place finish in runs scored.
Next up was the National League Division Series against the Houston Astros. Unfortunately for Drew, the Astros had his number. In 24 trips to the plate, he had just four hits – all singles – and walked four times to seven K’s. He did have one big moment in the series. In Game 4, a game the Braves had to have to force a fifth game, Rafael Furcal was hit by a pitch with two outs and a 5-5 score in the ninth. The speedy shortstop would swipe second base as Drew pushed the count full. Russ Springer cocked and fired. Drew swung on and hit the ball up the middle. It landed in the outfield, scoring Furcal easily, and giving the Braves a 6-5 edge. John Smoltz induced a double play off the bat of Jeff Kent to end the game the next inning.
Game Five got away from the Braves in a big way. Down just 4-2, the bullpen imploded as Chris Reitsma and Tom Martin gave up knocks that led to a 9-2 deficit in the span of just one inning. Juan Cruz would give up three more runs in the 8th to further the route. In the ninth inning, with one out, J.D. Drew hit a grounder that Jose Vizcaino picked up and went the short distance to second to force a runner. Chipper Jones would fly out to left field to end the game and series.
It would be the last time Drew would wear a Braves’ jersey. With super agent Scott Boras anxious to test out the market and the Braves unable to match any kind of offer he received, Drew left his home state once more for bigger money, signing a five-year, $55 million contract with the Dodgers. He would play there just two seasons before opting out of his contract to land another five-year contract with Boston. This time, he’d get $70 million. Drew would play five years in Boston and finally go to an All-Star Game. However, he was never the difference maker he was in his one season in Atlanta.
Previous “A Year in the Life” retrospectives…
Brooks Conrad, 2010