The Atlanta Braves can trace their lineage well into the 1800s. That’s a long time to build an excellent collection of talent. Over the next few weeks, I plan on releasing my choices for the Top 50 Braves of all time. I want to thank previous writers of this blog who helped me build the criteria to make this list.
What is the criteria? I start with a player’s WAR from both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. I then take the average. Here’s an example from a player who missed the Top 50. Steve Avery ended his career with a WAR from Fangraphs of 20.1. Baseball-Reference gave him a WAR of 13.6. That gives us an average of 16.85.
From there, I added some bonus points. Players get 1 extra point for being on a World Series-winning team or winning an MVP, Cy Young, or Rookie of the Year. They also get a half-point for a number of All-Star Games, Silver Sluggers, or Gold Gloves they had during their Braves career or if they won a pennant with the franchise before the AL and NL merged to form MLB. Further, I give relief pitchers a little more value – essentially utilizing any kind of relief award I could find. You can call this exception the Kimbrel rule.
Back to Avery, his total was increased by 1.5 points with a World Series title and an All-Star appearance, giving him 18.35 points. That left him nearly five points short of this list.
One more thing – this list only recognizes a player’s accomplishments with the organization. I don’t care what Greg Maddux did with the Cubs or Dodgers. This is all about the Braves. And with that said, let’s get on with it starting with #50.
50. Jimmy Collins, 22.35 pts
The Beaneaters of the 1890s were a dynasty and had Jimmy Collins showed up a few years prior, he would be much higher on this list. But because he didn’t land in Boston to stay until 1896, he missed out on the bigger days and subsequently the extra points for being on a championship squad. All that said, Collins quickly became one of the top third basemen in baseball for Boston. In parts of seven seasons, Collins hit .296/.336/.423. That may not sound like a lot until you notice that based on his park and the time he played, Collins had a weighted OPS of 124 – or nearly 25% better than the league average. He was also a defensive standout. He popularized the third basemen fielding bunts, which was shockingly the thing shortstops used to do back in the day. Only Brooks Robinson made more putouts than Jimmy Collins.
But Collins didn’t stick around for too long. Because of a salary he felt was kept low by National League teams, Collins was fed up. After hitting .304 with a .747 OPS in 1900, Collins jumped for an opportunity in the American League. He became the first manager for the Boston Americans – later the Red Sox. Collins then recruited other NL stars like Cy Young. Collins was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1945 via the Old Timers Committee.
49. Ross Barnes, 22.4 pts
We’re going way back for this one. Ross Barnes was one of the game’s pioneers. If we accept the Boston Red Stockings of 1871 as the first team in franchise history, as Baseball-Reference does, Barnes was a pivotal player on that team along with the four that followed as part of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. It was the first professional league – and eventually helped pave the way for the National League – and Barnes was one of the undisputed stars. Unfortunately, because he fell one year short of playing in the game, he has yet to join many of his former teammates and rivals in the Hall of Fame. You need ten. He finished with nine.
Over five years, Barnes led the league in runs scored (three times), hits (three times), doubles (twice), triples, stolen bases, batting average (twice), and slugging percentage (also twice). Over his first three years, Barnes slashed .424/.457/.597. That’s an adjusted OPS+ of 203 – or 103% above average.
Of course, these were different times. Barnes was considered the master of the “fair-foul,” a legal hit where the ball struck fair territory first and then shot off into foul territory. Later on, baseball adopted the rule that a ball that went foul before the first-and-third base bags was considered a “foul.” Barnes was a member of the Chicago White Stockings by that point, having jumped to the NL in 1876. In fact, Barnes hit the first homer in NL history.
Barnes’ career was shortened more by a mysterious illness in 1877 than outlawing the fair-fouls that year. He’d come back in 1878, but he was never the same. In 1881, he returned to Boston, hitting .271/.309/.325 for the Red Stockings of the NL. He committed 52 errors in 574 innings at shortstop that season.
T-47. Johnny Sain, 22.6 pts
Oh, you know the poem. “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” That’s an abbreviated version of the work by the Boston Post’s Gerry Hern, but there was a reason for Sain to be included next to one of the greatest pitchers to ever play. For a time there, he was just about Warren Spahn‘s equal. Actually, he was a bit better.
Granted – Sain was older than Spahn and got more time to shine than the southpaw, but from 1946-48, Sain had a 2.77 ERA while Spahn had a 2.97 ERA. Sain beats him in nearly every category. But while Spahn was starting a career that would one day land him in Cooperstown, Sain’s career quickly went in the opposite direction after 1948, when he finished second to Stan Musial in the MVP ballot.
In 1949, his ERA ballooned to 4.81. It normalized some the following year, but he wasn’t nearly as good as he once was, leading the year in homers allowed. The Braves traded him to the Yankees the following year and he became a swingman before moving into a relief specialist role in 1954. Retroactively, studying boxscores from that season gives him 26 saves, a league-high. He’d make just 28 more appearances as a major leaguer the following season.
Sain’s career is fascinating. Even before he came to the Braves, he was made a free agent after corruption in the Tigers’ organization led Kenesaw Mountain Landis to grant several farmhands free agency, including Sain. He fell under the eye of the right scout to land in Boston. He then taught Navy pilots during World War II – hardly the safest job in the world. Even during the downturn of his career, he became one of the first pitchers to win 20 games in a season and also save 20 games. He then became one of the best pitching coaches the game has ever seen – though his personality often led to Sain being let go.
By the way…the guy the Braves got for Sain? Lew Burdette. He’ll be on this list later.
T-47. Felipe Alou, 22.6 pts
We all remember Felipe Alou for the years he managed the Montreal Expos. Or maybe after the move to San Francisco where he went to the playoffs for the only time in his managerial career. But he was a pretty decent ballplayer, too.
Alou broke into the majors in 1958 with the Giants. He’d play with them for seven years, making it to the All-Star Game in 1962 when he bashed 25 homers with a .868 OPS. In December of 1963, the Giants moved Alou to the Braves in a deal that sent the aging Del Crandall to San Fran along with a pair of decent Bobs (Hendley and Shaw). Alou struggled to find time behind the young Rico Carty, the solid Lee Maye, and some guy named Hank Aaron. In response, Alou started to play a lot of first base.
Alou’s breakout as a Brave came in the franchise’s first year in Atlanta. He led the Senior Circuit with 218 hits – 69 of which went for extra bases, including 31 homers. Alou’s power left him soon after, though. He belted just as many homers over the next three years, 31, as he bashed in his first season at the Launching Pad. The Braves traded him back to the Bay Area in 1970 where he was a solid addition for the Oakland A’s.
In his time with the Braves, including two seasons in Milwaukee, Alou hit .295/.338/.440 with 95 of his career 206 homers. He also swiped 40 bases, though he did get caught 35 times so we might not want to focus on his baserunning. Regardless, compared to his career marks, he enjoyed some of his greatest glory as a player with the Braves. He then spent much of his career as a manager trying to beat them.
46. Jack Stivetts, 22.65 pts
In 1892, the Boston Beaneaters had themselves a new toy on the mound. The dynamic duo of Kid Nichols and John Clarkson – along with Harry Staley – were already one of the best pitching staffs in the National League. But “Happy” Jack Stivetts would explode on the scene in 1892. Unfortunately, his time as one of the elite players for the team was short-lived.
A former coal worker, Stivetts started his career under Charles Comiskey with the St. Louis Browns. After three impressive years, he joined Boston and picked up the slack with Clarkson aging. Stivetts helped Boston win 102 games in his first year and took the ball in Game One against the Cleveland Spiders in an experimental Championship Series pitting the First Half Champion (Boston) and the Second Half Champion (Cleveland). Stivetts faced Cy Young to open the series and threw 11 scoreless innings. As did Young. The game was called because of darkness and declared a tie. Boston would sweep the Spiders after that with Stivetts a top contributor.
After 1892, Stivetts was never as dominant again. Rule changes before the 1893 season led to his ERA jumping from 3.03 in his first year in Boston to 4.41 the following his season. Drinking and refusing to take care of his own body only hurt Stivetts. He still pitched in six more seasons with Boston after his breakout campaign, though he was moved out of the rotation and spent much of his final year as a backup outfielder. In 237 games with Boston, he had a 4.12 ERA and threw six shutouts.
I hope to make this a once-a-week thing. Maybe even a twice-a-week report as I countdown to the number one player in franchise history. If you were hoping to see Ronald Acuna Jr., I can tell you he missed the Top 50. That said, if I waited one more year, he probably does show up on this list – which is remarkable.