Thursday, November 6, 2014

Card #126: Braves Team Leaders

Oops, skipped right over this one!

Who Can It Be Now?
Claudell Washington and Rick Mahler leading the 1981 Braves in batting average and ERA.

While many people are aware of the "Worst to First to World Series loser" of the 1990 to 1991 Atlanta Braves, how many people remember the 1982 Braves and their improbable run to the post-season? While the 1982 Braves were not "worst to first" -- a terrible San Diego Padres team propped up the rest of the NL West during the weird 1981 split season -- their first place finish in 1982 was still unlikely.

After the 1981 season, the Braves fired their incompetent nincompoop future Hall of Fame manager -- a 40-year-old named Bobby Cox -- and replaced him with another future Hall of Fame manager: 41-year-old former Braves player Joe Torre.  

Give Ted Turner some credit here, in that the early 1980s were when he really had his business acumen in full flourish. In the space of 6 years, he turned Atlanta's Channel 17 from a UHF deadzone into the original cable Superstation, he hired two future Hall of Fame baseball managers, he came up with the idea for and then started the first 24-hour news station in CNN, and purchased the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. Oh, and he also won the 1977 America's Cup. Remember when that mattered to people?

Anyway, coming out of the 1981 season, the Braves made some minor changes at the margins -- letting Gaylord Perry, Brian Asselstine, and John Montefusco go, and trading for Donnie Moore -- but it wasn't like management decided that a complete overhaul was necessary. In fact, all 8 fielding positions were manned by the same starters in 1982 as in 1981. What changed, though, to make the Braves into a winning team?

First, just a little bit of luck. The team outperformed its expected winning percentage based on runs scored and runs allowed (the Pythagorean W-L record) by 4 games. So, instead of being 85-77, the team finished 89-73 -- one game ahead of the previous year's champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers and two games ahead of the San Diego Padres.

Second, the batting lineup's average age was exactly 27.0. Of the regular starters, only Chris Chambliss at age 33 and half-time left fielder Rufino Linares at age 31 were over the age of 30. Most of the hitters were 27, 26, or 24 years old (Claudell Washington at 27, Dale Murphy and Bruce Benedict at 26, and Glenn Hubbard, Rafael Ramirez, and Bob Horner at 24) -- ages at which greater improvement often comes about.

Who improved? Dale Murphy went from a decent centerfielder with some speed and some power to being MVP DALE MURPHY, hitting 36 HR, stealing 23 bases, and improving his slash line from .247/.325/.390 in 1981 to .281/.378/.507 in 1982. Bob Horner hit for more power (SLG: .460 in 1981; .501 in 1982) and improved his batting eye to keep his OBP at or around .350 despite a dip in AVG. Add in Rafael Ramirez going from total waste of a lineup slot (.218/.276/.303 in 1981) to nearly league average hitter (.278/.319/.379 in 1982), and you have the types of improvement a team needs to get better hitting-wise. That's especially true because no one else in the lineup regressed.

On the pitching side, the team made a couple of key changes. Jettisoning Perry and Montefusco (and Tommy Boggs's health issues as well) made room for youngsters Pascual Perez and Steve Bedrosian to play key roles.  And, the team moved Rick Camp out of the closer role when he struggled and plugged in Gene Garber; Garber responded with 30 saves and a 2.34 ERA (with an 8-10 record). Torre used his bullpen to close out games more frequently than most managers as well -- the team led the NL with 51 saves, showing an effective use of bullpen arms that gives that 4-game bump over the Pythagorean winning PCT.

It also did not hurt that the team started out the season 13-0. Those 13 wins gave the team some leeway and made everyone else have to play catch up. Split those 13 games up as a 7-6 record, and suddenly the Braves are an 83-79 team. 

The Braves finished up their storybook season by getting swept by the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS. The next season, the Braves regressed by one win, and their luck reversed as well -- their Pythagorean W-L was 92-70, 4 games worse than their actual 88-74 record. By 1985, the team had dug its way back near the basement in the NL West -- the hole from which the 1991 team emerged.

Mustache Check: Washington and Mahler make this card a clean sweep for the hirsute.

Trivial Pursuit
The Braves' 13-0 record to start the season set a major league record for best start to a season. That record was tied in the American League in 1987 when the "Team Streak" Milwaukee Brewers -- a team which lost 12 straight about two weeks later and also enjoyed Paul Molitor's 39-game hitting streak -- also won 13 in a row to start the season.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
As the 1982 season wound down and the Braves and Milwaukee Brewers both won their divisions, a lot of fans in Milwaukee who had been around for the Braves' departure to the South really wanted the Brewers and Braves to square off in the World Series. It was something of a let down to those fans when the Cardinals beat the Braves so soundly in the 1982 NLCS in games that ended 7-0, 4-3, and 6-2.  

I'm not saying that the team would have been motivated more to play against the Cardinals, however, nor am I saying that the fans weren't as vociferous during the 1982 World Series with the Cardinals being there. I attended Game 5 of that Series, and it was as loud as you would expect for a World Series.

But, the symmetry of the Brewers and Braves squaring off would have been a nice touch. I also have a feeling that the Brewers would have beaten the Braves that year.

Now, for the Brewers and HOF Countdown:

Former Brewers on the Checklist
Not a single one of these guys had appeared for the Brewers.

Former Brewers Appearing in 1982 for the Royals but not on Cardboard
There were two. 

Donnie Moore made three appearances in four games for the 1981 Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers had purchased Moore's contract from St. Louis for the final month of the season, and then decided to give him back after the season. The Cardinals then traded him to the Braves on February 1, 1982.

The other pitcher to appear for the Brewers before being an Atlanta Brave in 1982 was Tom Hausman. Hausman pitched for the Brewers in 1975 and 1976 at the ages of 22 and 23 before becoming a minor league free agent and signing with the New York Mets. The Mets traded him to the Braves in September of 1982 in exchange for pitcher Carlos Diaz, and Hausman made three appearances before being cut at the end of the year and to end his career.

Future Brewers on the Checklist
There are no future Brewers players on the checklist. However, Jerry Royster "led" the Brewers to a 53-94 record in 2002 after the Brewers fired former Dodger Davey Lopes after 15 games and a 3-12 record. And wow, was that 2002 team a train wreck.

Future Brewers Appearing But Not on the Checklist

Future Hall of Famers on the Checklist
The two "ancient" ones -- Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry -- both hung around long enough and racked up enough wins over fairly pedestrian but lengthy careers, and both were elected to the Hall of Fame as a result.

Future Hall of Famers Appearing in 1982 but not on the Checklist

I'll address Dale Murphy's Hall of Fame candidacy at his card in the set. Outside of Murphy, who stayed on the ballot all 15 years but never got more than 23.2% of the vote in his second year of eligibility, and the two who made the Hall, pretty much no one else on the team got much consideration for enshrinement nor did they deserve much consideration.

Don't get me wrong -- as was the case with the Royals, guys like Steve Bedrosian, Brett Butler, Bob Watson, Chris Chambliss, and Bob Horner had decent to good careers. But none of them fall outside that "Hall of the Very Good" category.

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