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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Retired Numbers Series: Atlanta Braves

The Braves are a challenging team to cover for in the Retired Numbers Series. Only one team-the Cubs-can compare to them in age; both teams got their start in 1876, making them the two oldest teams in existence. Thanks to their long and storied history, they have a wealth of candidates for future retirement. What does the future hold for them? Well, there’s at least one obvious candidate. Let’s begin.


Notes on the Numbers
Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.

There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers, until recently (as in, after I started this series), only went back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them. 


The Already Retired Numbers
The Braves have so far retired nine numbers. The first one was number 21 back in 1965, in honor of Warren Spahn. Spahn spent 20 of his 21 seasons as a member of the Boston and Milwaukee Braves (plus three seasons he missed in the middle when he was in World War II). He would only pitch one more season after that, split between the Mets and Giants. His time as a Brave was worth just shy of 86 bWAR (less than a win came from his final season). For additional trivia, Fangraphs credits him with 80 WAR.

Their second number came within four years, as they honored Eddie Mathews’ 41. Of Mathews’ seventeen seasons, fifteen came as a Brave (including one season in Boston, one in Atlanta, and the entire span in Milwaukee). That time saw him produce 90 of his career 92 bWAR and 102 of his 107 fWAR.

Eight seasons later, they honored his longtime teammate, Hank Aaron. All but the final two seasons of Aaron’s twenty-three year career came as a Brave, during which time he accumulated almost all of his 137 bWAR and 150 fWAR. Aaron wore number 44 during his career.

Seven years later, Phil Niekro’s number 35 was retired, the first one honored for a Brave who spent a majority of his career in Atlanta (the team moved in Niekro’s third season). Twenty-one of the knuckleballer’s twenty-four seasons came as a Brave, a time frame that included 85 of his 92 career bWAR (and 78 of his 85 fWAR).

A decade later, during the 1994 season, the team honored it’s only player (to date) who hasn’t made the Hall of Fame: long-time candidate Dale Murphy. The two-time MVP, who wore number 3, spent 15 of his 18 seasons in Atlanta. In that time, he was worth 44 bWAR and 47 fWAR (his time outside of Atlanta did not impact his career value much).

Then, in 2009, the team finally began to honor players from the 1990s dynasty, starting a run of four straight seasons (and counting) with a retired number being added to their ranks. In 2009, in was Greg Maddux’s turn. Maddux, who also saw his 31 retired by the Cubs, joined the Braves in 1993 and stayed for the next eleven seasons. His seasons with the Braves were worth 61 bWAR (and 74 fWAR), during which time he also won three Cy Young Awards. For his career, Maddux won four Cy Youngs and was worth 97 bWAR (and 121 fWAR).

Tom Glavine would follow suit the next season. Glavine, number 47, spent seventeen of his twenty-two seasons with the Braves. The two-time Cy Young winner was worth 55 of his 69 career bWAR (and 57 of his 69 carer fWAR) while there.

In 2011, longtime manager Bobby Cox got his number 6 retired by the team. Cox managed the team for twenty-five seasons, a time which saw him win a World Series, four additional pennants, three Manager of the Year awards, and 2149 out of 3860 games (a .557 winning percentage). I couldn’t include him in my study, but he was a pretty obviously deserving candidate.

Finally, this past season, number 29 was officially taken out of circulation for John Smoltz. He fell just short of being a career Brave, leaving the team in his twenty-first and final season. A Cy Young winner himself, Smoltz was worth 63 bWAR, all of it from his time in Atlanta (81 of his 83 career fWAR was from his first twenty seasons).


Compared to the League
First, some background: to compare different teams’ standards for retired numbers, there are three different factors I can look to. I can look at bWAR or fWAR; I can look at the median value or the average of the players; or, I can look at the value the players accumulated with the team or the players’ career values.

The Braves pretty much have the highest standards, across the board, of any team in the majors. They finish in first in every category except for two where they finish second, and those two are more of a fluke than anything; since the Rays, of all teams, have only retired one number-Wade Boggs’-they have a high average career bWAR and fWAR. So it’s pretty safe to just say the Braves have higher standards than any other team in the league (although that might change).

The Braves have retired nine numbers total, tied for sixth most in the league. They’ll probably be the next team to reach double digits, too, since they’re currently tied with the Pirates, White Sox, and Astros. The five teams with more than the Braves are the Yankees (16), the Cardinals (13), the Giants (11), the Dodgers, and the Reds (10 each).


So Who’s Next?
The Braves have actually done a decent job of exhausting their existing retired number candidates, particularly considering how old the team is. However, there are definitely still options. In fact, the Braves could probably continue their run of four straight seasons with a retired number for another year, possibly two.

The most obvious candidate to start with is Chipper Jones. With his retirement, he officially places third on the Braves’ list of all-time WAR among hitters (both versions), behind Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. For his nineteen-year career, he amounted to an astounding 90 fWAR and 82 bWAR. As a note: the Braves, to date, have such hilariously high standards that Chipper Jones, one of the best third basemen ever, will actually decrease almost all of their benchmarks. That’s what happens when you start with players like Aaron and Mathews, I guess. In any case, I would bet he extends their run of consecutive summers with a new retired number to five this season.

Another hitter from the ‘90s Braves rates behind Chipper-Andruw Jones. Both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference rate him as the fourth best position player in Braves history, right ahead of Dale Murphy. Thanks to Andruw’s incredible defense, he’s credited with 69 fWAR and 58 bWAR in twelve seasons in Atlanta. Those are actually Hall of Fame-type numbers, believe it or not. Even traditional observation supported Jones’ defensive ability, as he won ten Gold Gloves in his career. His sudden decline and off the field issues might delay any honoring of his number, but in time, I do think it’s a very real possibility, especially if he generates a lot of Hall support down the road.

After the Joneses, the list of hitters contains a glut of earlier players, a function of the team’s long history. Many of them played before uniform numbers were even common, which means they also played for the Braves before they reached Atlanta and have no ties to the team’s current fan base. Furthermore, most of them attained their spots on the list due to the reserve clause that kept them bound to the Braves for a long time, rather than dominance. On top of that, this group of players is rather bunched together; none particularly stands out from the other.

Among these players are: Fred Tenney (36.5 bWAR, 44 fWAR), Wally Berger (34.9 bWAR, 39 fWAR), Tommy Holmes (33.4 bWAR, 39 fWAR), Herman Long (32.3 bWAR, 36 fWAR), Johnny Logan (30.4 bWAR, 38 fWAR), Rabbit Maranville (27.1 bWAR, 35 fWAR), Hugh Duffy (26.6 bWAR, 30 fWAR), Billy Nash (26.6 bWAR, 29 fWAR), Bob Elliott (24.9 bWAR, 28 fWAR), Del Crandall (24.5 bWAR, 33 fWAR), and Joe Adcock (24.3 bWAR, 32 fWAR). The only two with an even slight advantage are Maranville and Duffy, who can at least say they’re Hall of Famers. Even then, though, they’re both considered on the lower end of the Hall’s standards. So, the Braves are unique from other teams in this sense; most of the time, I can scan the WAR leader boards and the top few will be the best choices. I’ll need to skip around more for the Braves, as outside of the Joneses, there’s really only one player at the top of their WAR leaders who stands out.

Joe Torre played in an era with much more movement, so his totals with the Braves might not look as impressive (31.5 bWAR, 39 fWAR). However, there are two mitigating factors. First, as a catcher, his numbers take a bit of a hit due to lower playing time associated with the position. Second, due to a trade mid-career, Torre has fewer plate appearances with the franchise than any player around him in the rankings. Despite only 4099 plate appearances (across eight full seasons) as a Brave, he still wound up tenth in bWAR and eighth in fWAR. Torre has been rather underrated as a player, however. If he makes the Hall as a manager, he might get enough attention that the Braves are inspired to retire his number (over three decades since he retired, too). As is, though, his underratedness and the length of time since his retirement work against him.

My normal approach is thrown off, so I’ll be jumping around more than usual looking at candidates. David Justice might get support as a member of the 1990s Braves. And he was good in that time (23.1 bWAR, 26 fWAR). However, he was only with the Braves for eight seasons, an even shorter time span than Torre. If you want to give him extra credit for his role on those teams, that’s more or less the only way he stands a chance.

Javy Lopez might stand a better chance; he was also a member of those teams, and his tenure with the team was of comparable length to Torre’s (ten full seasons, 4368 plate appearances). Again, though, his numbers are hurt by being a catcher (21.6 bWAR, 28 fWAR). On top of that, I can’t see any reason to retire his number before Torre’s, outside of maybe fan support. I can’t see Lopez happening in the near future.

Darrell Evans falls right around Javy Lopez (22.0 bWAR , 27 fWAR), but he might stand a better chance. Plenty have argued that the third baseman was undervalued in his career, and may actually be deserving of the Hall of Fame. With his career numbers (55.1 bWAR, 68 fWAR), it looks even more clear (it’s also worth noting that he’s still fourth all-time in home runs by a third baseman, behind only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, and Chipper Jones). If he does make the Hall, he has the interesting case of not really having a clear team. He spent nine seasons in Atlanta and eight in San Francisco, but two of his seasons in Atlanta were call-ups, but his seasons in Atlanta were better... Anyway, the point is, if he does get selected by the Veterans Committee, he could very easily go in as a Brave, which would dramatically help his chances at a retired number. Right now, I can’t see it happening though.

Fred McGriff is kind of similar. He’s been getting some Hall of Fame support lately, but he lacks a team to associate with (he spent fives seasons with each of Tampa, Toronto, and Atlanta). As a member of the 1995 Braves, he might be most associated with them. He also hit 130 of his 493 home runs as a Brave (although the Blue Jays are right behind, at 125). However, his seasons in Atlanta weren’t overall as valuable as his Toronto numbers (10.0 bWAR to 18.4, 15 fWAR to 21). In any case, his number being retired is almost entirely contingent on him making the Hall of Fame, which will probably take a while given his current level of support.

I’m running out of batters to suggest, so it’s probably time to move on to pitchers. The Braves’ all-time leader in pitching bWAR isn’t Maddux or Smotlz or Niekro or Spahn; it’s actually Kid Nichols. Nichols is given an edge thanks to his huge lead in innings, which is partially a function of his era, the late 1800s, where he regularly threw 400+ inning seasons. His twelve seasons as a Boston Brave generated 104.1 bWAR (and 87 fWAR) across 4549 innings. Like most players from that time, Nichols didn’t wear a uniform number, but that hasn’t stopped other teams. Should the Braves decide to do something like that, Nichols is the obvious first choice. I’m just not sure that there’s much of a movement to honor him, seeing as his career took place over a century ago, nearly 1000 miles away from Atlanta.

Vic Willis is more of the same. He follows Nichols, Spahn, Niekro, Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine, which isn’t great-an abundance of clearly better pitchers hurts his chances. On top of that, he had a short career back at the turn of the century (only 1898 to 1910, with the first eight of those as a Brave) before numbers were worn. Even if he is a Hall of Famer with decent numbers as a Brave (43.5 bWAR, 43 fWAR), I would think all of the negatives keep him from being a realistic candidate.

The next three candidates are much better. John Clarkson (40.7 bWAR, 31 fWAR), Tommy Bond (39.5 bWAR, 29 fWAR), and Jim Whitney (31.4 bWAR, 38 fWAR) all pitched primarily in the 1800s. Only Clarkson made the Hall-the rest have been mostly forgotten. Like the mass of hitters from the early Boston days, I can’t imagine these three having much of a chance.

So, with their history exhausted, that leaves only the present to examine. Among players on the current roster, Brian McCann is actually already making decent inroads. He’s going into his age-29 season and his numbers, 19.8 bWAR and 29 fWAR, don’t look too bad for a catcher. His struggles last season are worrisome though, plus he’ll be a free agent after this season. If he remains in Atlanta beyond then, he’ll be able to get a retired number with much lower numbers (although getting back to 2011-and-earlier form would help). If he leaves, he’ll probably need to keep up on his earlier-established Hall of Fame pace to hope for it. Either way, 2013 will be crucial.

Speaking of players off to historic starts, Jason Heyward is doing a bang-up job for himself. A 23-year old three-year veteran, he already has 14.2 bWAR and 14 fWAR. You could very easily argue that he’s already well-down the path to Cooperstown. Locking him up long-term would help his odds, but even then, Atlanta still gets him for at least three more years. This one will probably depend more heavily on contracts than anything else.

The only other batter that may be a realistic option in the future is Freddie Freeman. He’s as young as Heyward, but hasn’t quite jumped out to a Hall of Fame start like the right fielder. As such, his fate is a lot harder to read. He’s worth bringing up though, in the interest of completeness.

There are plenty of similar young pitchers. Young pitchers are much harder to predict than hitters, with the extra risk of injury and all. So again, just to touch all the bases, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Craig Kimbrel, and Kris Medlen have all come with high acclaim and varying levels of success in the majors. Maybe one of them will have success. Individually, I probably wouldn’t bet on any one of them. Betting on one of them from the group, though, would be a different story. It’s still unlikely any of them will be historically great, but at least they have uniform numbers and actually play in Atlanta, unlike some of the other players that I’ve covered. All of that can only help.

Also among pitchers, Tim Hudson could be an option. As of 2012, he now has more innings as a Brave than an Athletic. I found this kind of surprising; he seems like he’s been in Atlanta forever, and yet, I still think of him as an A first. He was better in Oakland (only 21.7 of his 51.1 bWAR and 22 of his 52 fWAR has been in a Braves uniform). But he is a local star, and his career numbers have been consistently solid, to the point where he may be a Hall of Famer one day (the Hall of Stats points out that you can make a good case for him already, and he probably has a few seasons left). There are a lot of variables in play here; in the end, I think he’ll need to make the Hall to earn a retired number in Atlanta, but his numbers are borderline/closer to a Veterans Committee pick than a normal ballot inductee, so any honor probably won’t come for a while.

As a late addition (as I had this article done before the trade), Justin Upton may add his name to the list of candidates someday. He’s one year removed from a fourth-place MVP finish and only 25. He’s only under contract for three more seasons, so he’d need an extension to become a serious threat. But right now, he’s got potential at least.


So, In Closing...
As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Atlanta Braves in the future are, in order:

Chipper Jones-10
Andruw Jones-25
Jason Heyward-22
Joe Torre-15
Darrell Evans-11
Brian McCann-16
Tim Hudson-15
Justin Upton-Well, he wore 10, but that’s likely over
Fred McGriff-27
Freddie Freeman-5
Javy Lopez-8
David Justice-23
Craig Kimbrel-46
Brandon Beachy-37
Kris Medlen-54
Mike Minor-36
Kid Nichols
Rabbit Maranville-1
Vic Willis
Hugh Duffy

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