Braves by Decade: 1990s, Pt. 1

The 1990s were a time of advancement in all stages of the world. In politics, the United States won the Cold War. Communism finally fell and Russia was liberated from it. In pop culture, movies like Titanic, Forrest Gump, and Jurassic Park ruled the landscape. The early part of the decade saw the rise of the grunge movement. Big hair and hedonism were replaced by torn jeans, flannel, and a sense of nihilism.

In the sports realm, the Chicago Bulls dominated the NBA. The NFL saw the rise of Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. The NHL was led by the Detroit Red Wings. In baseball, the Atlanta Braves were the true kings of the decade.

However, things did not start out this way. When the decade began, the team seemed to have no future. Stumbling out of the 1980s, they needed a miracle to get back into relevance. Attendance had not broken a million in two seasons. Future stars like Tom Glavine and John Smoltzwere struggling. Dale Murphy had ground to a halt. In short, the team was taking on water and sinking fast. Something had to happen and luckily it did.

Braves by Decade: 1990s, Part 1

A Bad Start

Russ Nixon continued to manage the team through the first part of 1990. After a 25-40 start, he was ousted. Bobby Cox came back for his second stint managing the team. Even through this monumental change, the team continued floundering. The offense was the worst in the league, hitting a pitiful .250. Although, there were some bright spots. Outfielder Ron Gant was the best all-around hitter (.303/.357/.539, 32 HR, 84 RBI, 174 H, 33 SB, 139 OPS+). He was joined by rookie David Justice, who posted a .282 average and 28 homers. Second baseman Jeff Treadway had a solid season as well (.283 avg, 11 HR, 59 RBI). Everyone else was mediocre though.

The pitching was nothing if not a flaming mess. A 4.58 ERA put them 12th in the league. Staff ace John Smoltz did manage to win 14 games with a 3.85 ERA. Charlie Leibrandt, despite a losing record, posted a 3.16 ERA and a 128 ERA+. Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation struggled. Rookie Steve Avery only won three games with a 5.64 ERA. Southpaw Derek Lilliquist posted a 6.28 ERA and a 65 ERA+ in 11 starts. Closer Joe Boever only managed eight saves with a 4.68 ERA. The rest of the bullpen struggled as well. All in all, the Braves had one of the worst pitching staffs in the league.

Success Starts for the 1990s Braves

The tide began to turn in 1991 as the team went from worst to first. They made it to the World Series for the first time since 1958. Cox managed his first full season back with the team. General Manager John Schuerholz started his time in the front office. The offense, while not spectacular, did boast some potency. Gant had yet another 30-30 season (32 HR, 34 SB). Third baseman Terry Pendletonwon both the batting title and the MVP Award. His statistics were very consistent (.319 avg, 22 HR, 86 RBI, 187 H, 139 OPS+). Treadway had his second straight terrific year (.320 avg, 116 OPS+).

Even the bench had its share of excellence. Brian Hunter and Jeff Blauser combined for 22 homers. The true story here was the pitching though. The team posted a 3.49 ERA, led by Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine (20-11, 2.55 ERA, 153 ERA+). Sadly, they lost the championship to the Minnesota Twins. However, the future looked bright.

In 1992, the team had another successful season. A 98-64 record gave them back-to-back division titles. The offense continued to be passable overall. Those hidden doses of potency shone once again. Justice and Pendleton both hit 21 homers. Pendleton backed his work up with a .311 average. Hunter and Blauser were solid off the bench once more, combining for 28 homers.

Meanwhile, the pitching held the spotlight. Smoltz, Avery, Glavine, and Leibrandt all wound up with double digit win totals. Glavine was the most impressive out of all of them (20-8, 2.76 ERA, five shutouts, 134 ERA+). He finished second to Greg Maddux in Cy Young voting. Unfortunately, all of this talent was unable to win them a coveted World Series title. They fell to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games.

A Massive Free Agent Signing

In 1993, the Braves won 100 games for the first time in 95 years, going 104-58. In the offseason, they made perhaps the biggest free agent signing in franchise history. Greg Maddux himself came to Atlanta. He led a dominant pitching staff that balanced out a somewhat underwhelming offense. Additionally, for yet another season, hidden gems popped up. Gant was spectacular (36 HR, 117 RBI, 26 SB, 126 OPS+). Justice posted a 40-homer, 100-RBI campaign. Pendleton slipped a bit, but still hit a respectable .272. However,  the big offensive deal was midseason pickup Fred McGriff. He hit .310 with 19 homers in 68 games.

The pitching continued its great work, boasting two 20-game winners: Maddux and Glavine. Avery won 18 games, and Smoltz had 15 victories. Mike Stanton and Greg McMichael combined for 46 saves. The rest of the bullpen was just as terrific. In short, the group led the league in ERA with a whopping 128 ERA+. Sadly, the Philadelphia Phillies bested the Braves in six games in the National League Championship Series.

A Strike and The Unknown

When 1994 rolled around, the league found itself in turmoil. It ultimately ended up in a strike by the players. Commissioner Bud Selig was forced to cancel the World Series for the first time in 90 years. For the 114 games that were played, the Braves were still solid. McGriff had 34 homers and hit .318. He was backed up by Justice (.313 avg, 19 HR), and young outfielder Ryan Klesko (.278 avg, 17 HR).

The rest of the offense was okay. They finished in the middle of the pack in most categories. Although, the pitching kept steamrolling opposing offenses. Maddux went 16-6 with a sparkling 1.56 ERA and a monumental 271 ERA+. Glavine and Avery backed him up with winning records of their own. McMichael saved 21 games out of the closer’s spot. At the time of the strike, they were second in the standings.

Unfortunately, we will never know how good this team could have been.

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Players Mentioned: Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Dale Murphy, Ron Gant, David Justice, Jeff Treadway, Charlie Leibrandt, Steve Avery, Derek Lilliquist, Joe Boever, Terry Pendleton, Brian Hunter, Jeff Blauser, Greg Maddux, Fred McGriff, Mike Stanton, Greg McMichael, Ryan Klesko

Managers Mentioned: Russ Nixon, Bobby Cox