No. 38: Lonnie Smith

Lonnie Smith.gifRighthanded Hitting, Righthanded Throwing Outfielder
Seasons With Braves: 1988-1992
Stats With Braves: .291/.380/.456, 46 HR 207 RBI 256 RS

Alas, poor Lonnie. He had his best years with the Braves right before they got good, then got a lot of mostly undeserved blame for the World Series loss in 1991.

Though they were completely different types of hitters, Smith had a lot in common with Jeff Burroughs. Both were very high draft picks (Lonnie third overall in 1974 by the Phillies), both played well early in their Braves tenure, then faded, and both were really bad outfielders. One of Bill James’ best bits — I won’t reproduce it here, but look it up if you can — is his description of how Lonnie’s defense didn’t really hurt the team that much, because he made mistakes so often that he always knew how to deal with them.

Lonnie was a terrific hitter in the minor leagues, as you’d expect from a high draft pick, hitting over .300 with lots of walks for an OBP over .400. But his defense was so bad that the Phillies wouldn’t use him. He finally got a chance to play in 1980 and duplicated his minor league totals, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year balloting, only to get benched and limited to 60 games the next year.

The Cardinals liberated him in 1982 and he finished second in the MVP balloting though he didn’t play any better than he had as a rookie. After a couple of more good seasons he started having drug problems (or the drug problem he already had started being a problem on the field) and he faded as a hitter and started to put on weight. He also got sucked into the Pittsburgh drug trial, and was initially suspended for the 1986 season though that was later overturned. He never could take the weight off, but he rebounded with the Royals in 1986 before struggling again in 1987, and hit bottom by winding up with the Braves.

Lonnie actually spent most of the 1988 season in Richmond, where he played well, but didn’t do much with the “big” club. In 1989, however, he exploded. By this time, he was a completely different hitter. While the drugs apparently were in the past, he was distinctly portly and had lost a lot of his speed. At the same time, he’d added a bit of power to his already strong plate judgment, and when he was hitting well he was a complete player. He hit .315/.415/.533 in 1989 with a career high 21 HR — actually, it was the only time in his career he hit double digits in homers. The .415 OBP was a league high.

He didn’t play as well in 1990, but he was still good, .305/.384/.459. He had even improved defensively — his fielding percentages were still low but his range factors were quite good. With Ron Gant and David Justice, Smith looked like part of a strong outfield to come.

But in 1991, as the Braves made their leap, they left him behind. While he played in 122 games that season, he had only 353 AB. His power had largely vanished and he hit .275/.377/.394. Otis Nixon started taking his playing time in left field. He got a reprieve when Justice was out and Otis played right, and another when Otis was suspended, but was still getting pinch-run for and replaced for defense. (The other primary left fielders the Braves used that year were Deion Sanders and Keith Mitchell. You know you’re in trouble when Deion starts looking like the sane, solid citizen.) By this time, Lonnie was slow enough that Fat Brian Hunter pinch-ran for him in postseason. Unfortunately, he wasn’t pinch run for that one time.

Lonnie found a bit of his power in 1992 but didn’t hit for average, winding up at .247/.324/.437. When Otis came back, Gant was shifted to left and Lonnie became a somewhat surly pinch-hitter. He had a nice renaissance in 1993 with the Pirates but was traded late in the season to the Orioles. He didn’t hit then or the next year and his career came to an end.

To be honest, I don’t know that he would have scored if he’d kept running.

Lonnie Smith Statistics – Baseball-Reference.com

72 thoughts on “No. 38: Lonnie Smith”

  1. Ok, we need at least one more person in our fantasy basketball league…anyone is more than welcome….

    League ID: 74680
    Password: 102529

    The draft is going to be on Thursday…2:00 pm Central….if you can’t make it for the draft, then pre-rank your players.

  2. Hey, Mac, what would you say about setting up a separate section for fantasy league discussions? There have been a lot of these posts lately. If there were a separate page, the same thing wouldn’t have to be continually reposted in every thread.

  3. Good job Mac. Lonnie Smith brings back memories. In retrospect he wasn’t the reason we lost to the Twins but for a long time I blamed him. A while back the AJC did a good job of rehabillitating his image. He did a good job for the Braves. He deserves to be on this list.

  4. We desparately need a sub-par middle reliever and a second baseman who can’t really play another position well. Let’s make offers to both.

  5. Lonnie was Comeback Player of the Year in 1989, I think. He was about the only good thing that team had.

    Those early-80s Cards teams had some hitters. Keith Hernandez, George Hendrick, Tommy Herr, Lonnie, Willie McGee, Ken Oberkfell (when he could actually hit)…

  6. Apparently the Cards have no more offense. When this was first posted I thought it referred to Noah’s Cardinals, but in fact it refers to Matt Leinart’s Cardinals. My mistake.

  7. A good idea for the Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters.” — Would Lonnie have been safe if he had run home? They could bust out some protracters, high-speed cameras, and stock footage to try and answer the age old question.

  8. couldnt find where to post this and forgot to copy the link. For anyone that cares, Wesley Snipes, is looking at facing up to 16 years in prison for tax fraud. He didnt file from 1999 to 2004 and he owes over $12 mill. The link is at fox news

  9. I’m thinking about opening the floor up for you guys to do writeups of some of the people who didn’t make the list (44 is more than enough for me). Some of the most interesting players only played one or two years in Atlanta. And there are guys like Belliard, who can’t reasonably make the list but is certainly part of the team’s history. Otis and Deion don’t make it either but they’re certainly worth talking about.

  10. I couldn’t believe the Wesley Snipes news when I heard it. Along with Humphrey Bogart, he’s my all-time favorite actor. The honeymoon’s over, and now I have to figure out a way to move on, or at least rationalize the hell out of it.

    On the good side, at least he’s not a manipulative psychotic freak, like Tom Cruise, or an anti-Semitic bastard, like Mel Gibson, or a hollowed-out coked-up tweaker like Whitney Houston or Bobby Brown. No, all my favorite celebrity did was to cheat on millions of dollars, and really, what’s wrong with playing hard to get with the government every now and then? Sometimes Uncle Sam might even enjoy a little coquettishness from its taxpayers, just to liven things up a bit.

    Say it ain’t so, Wesley! Say it ain’t so!

  11. AAR, you can’t be serious about Snipes as your second-favorite actor. Can you? If so, it must have nothing to do with his acting.

    So, the Phils are the favorites to land Sheffield? I guess they just swapped RFs with the Yankees and saved some money. Not bad.

  12. hit bottom by winding up with the Braves.

    I’m sure you have wisely loaded this phrase into Auto Text for writing this series.

    I’ve always liked Wesley too (remember his villian in the criminally underrated ‘Demolition Man’?, great work) but it seems he’s become a bit eccentric over the years and is kind of a dick to work with. Unfortunately it also looks like he was taking tax advice from Ronald Isley. Still, he’ll always be Willie Mays Hays to me, Omar Epps be damned.

    Oh, and Lonnie! One of my all time favorite players. I was concerned whether he was going to make the list to the point that I tabulated the Win Shares for the last few guys to see if Lonnie was up to snuff:

    Gary Matthews – 75
    Jeff Burroughs – 68
    Lonnie Smith – 65

    Totals for only their Braves years. So, I was concerned but here he is.

  13. But Ken Rosenthal says Glavine wants to win #300 in a Mets’ uniform:

    Latest Mets Buzz

    I spoke to my Mets source recently, so here’s the latest buzz around the team.

    As has been reported in several places, Tom Glavine plans on returning to the Braves. I’m told a “handshake agreement” is in place. If the playoff excitement can’t change his mind, the Mets will take a look at Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. Orlando Hernandez may be re-signed and of course Steve Trachsel is a goner. Beyond that, the Mets have many in-house starting pitching options.

    http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2006/10/latest_mets_buz.html#comments

  14. I’d like to have Glavine back. The Mets can have Horacio if they’d like, we won’t ask for much.

    Robert, I’ve used Win Shares periodically as a source, but these are my own personal rankings, which I repeat are completely arbitrary. And while I normally fall on the side of career value, I’m using a lot of peak value for these short-term Braves. You’ll notice that I ranked the three in opposite order. That’s largely because I think Lonnie’s 1989 is the best year any of the three had, followed closely by Burroughs’ big year (WS ranks them both with 27), while Matthews was never quite as good (25 WS in 1979) but was better on average. Also, I gave Lonnie extra credit for playing on a playoff team in 1991 (nothing for 1992, when he was basically just hanging around).

    On the other hand, there are several guys ahead of them who were never as good as Smith in 1989, Burroughs in 1978, or Matthews in 1979, but played a lot more for the team. The next four hitters on the list are all guys who played for the team in at least seven seasons.

  15. Sansho, that baseball card is absolutely priceless.

    By the way, Robert, I couldn’t agree more about Demolition Man–even though it was directed by an Italian guy who was totally clueless (believe me, I know, I sat through the director’s commentary)–it was one of the best movies of the ’90s.

    Wesley is an underrated actor generally: just witness his work with Spike Lee. (Most actors give the best performances of their career under Spike, though. Just one of those things.) But as an action star, he’s peerless. He has a black belt, so he’s realistic when he does martial arts; he has a good sense of humor, as he shows in Major League; and he has those incredible eyes, focused intensity that just incinerates the screen.

    Him and Bogart, man. No lie.

  16. I like the idea of opening up the floor for players who don’t make the list. It’s funny how I can remember players from when I was a kid in the 70’s (and the Brave stunk) better than some of the players of the last 10-15 years. Maybe the baseball cards from that era help me remember some of those guys. I hope that Ralph Garr is in the top 10! My all-time favorite name for a Braves player has gotta be a shortstop from those terrible years: Larvelle “Sugar Bear” Blanks. If I remember right, he made Rafael Belliard look like Pete Rose as a hitter.

  17. I wonder how much of getting Glavine back you could attribute to having a great mentor for Chuck James…what’s the base amount we’d have to pay Glavine, considering his salary this season?

  18. Btw – If Glavine wants to come back to Atlanta, let’s bring him back!! As I’ve said before, Davies needs more time to develop and HoRam is too injury prone to count on him for a full year. Hampton’s health also concerns me, so without another starter, our pitching could be back where it was last year. I would still be very surprised to see Glavine back.

  19. That would be insane if we got the big 3 back….Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux. Who cares if they are almost or over 40, still better than what we have.

  20. If you check Davies’ stats in the minor, there is really no point to have him pitching more in Richmond. Remember Avery had a terrible first year as well. Kyle essentially just finished his first season considering he was hurt in the last two seasons. I still believe in Kyle Davies.

    I would love to have Tommy back, but I know the Mets will not let Tommy leaves considering they will not have Pedro for half of next season.

    There is nothing better than seeing the Mets getting eliminated.

  21. CHICO RUIZ- On a Monday game Howard Cosell was kidding Don Drysdale about playing with Chico in LA. Keith Jackson dead quietly said that Chico is dead, this is someone else.

  22. CHICO RUIZ- On a Monday game Howard Cosell was kidding Don Drysdale about playing with Chico in LA. Keith Jackson quietly said that Chico is dead, this is someone else.

  23. Don’t count those chickens just yet, kc. *grin* I sure hope it happens, but it hasn’t happened yet.

    How tough is it for everyone to see Adam Wainwright closing out these games? Sure makes that J.D. Drew trade look dumb.

  24. Saw the graphic at the end of the game- the last Game 6 in Shea Stadium ended with the ball rolling through Bill Buckner’s legs.

    As for “Not the Top 44 Players”, I still have a soft spot for Joe Boever the Saver and the Ghastly Boys bullpen. This does not, of course, mean I was happy to see the incredible simulation this year’s bullpen gave us.

  25. urlhix, I can see your concern with those “chickens”, but I am trying to be as optimistic as I can.

    Seeing Wainwright closing for the Cardinals is extremely tough. On the other hand, there is little doubt in my mind that the Braves would not win in 2004 without JD Drew (not that he did anything in the playoff, I guess there is a Sheffield curse on the Braves rightfielders. Surely hope Frenchy will be get affected!!!)

  26. I have been a Kyle Davies fan for a number of year and I still believe that Davies can become a good starter–but I also think that he is really no more than a prospect at this stage. In 1990 Avery was 20; in 2006; Davies recently turned 23. If you compare their ERAs Davies is also noticeably higher(though the league average is now higher as well). I fear that between the injuries and the bouncing between Atlanta and Richmond, he might have lost a bit of confidence. I think it might be wise to have him start at Richmond to regain his confidence.

  27. Stephen, I can see your point about Kyle. However, he was dominating at Richmond when he was rehabbing just back in August. Personally, I think sending him back to Richmond next season will do him no good in his development. He is already too good for Richmond. So, the next step is either he can pitch consistently well in the big league or be a AAAA pitcher forever.

  28. I’m with Stephen here. Davies is still just 23, pitched OK in April (2-2, 4.70 ERA, 1.11 WHIP), and should get at least one more chance to get his head together. Tom Glavine was putrid in his first season. Greg Maddux struggled mightily for the Cubs in his first two seasons (partial 1986, full ’87).

    And it’s not like he’ll be blocking anyone coming up from Mississippi.

  29. ajc.com reports:

    “Blauser loses job with Class AA team

    Former Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser lasted just one season as manager of Atlanta’s Class AA team at Mississippi.”

    Oops, what happened?

  30. Thanks Timo for this surpising info. At least we have the news before Blauser appears in the top 44….

  31. from MLB daily rumors…

    As has been reported in several places, Tom Glavine plans on returning to the Braves. I’m told a “handshake agreement” is in place. If the playoff excitement can’t change his mind, the Mets will take a look at Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. Orlando Hernandez may be re-signed and of course Steve Trachsel is a goner. Beyond that, the Mets have many in-house starting pitching options

  32. Also in that article…

    There have also been a number of recent changes within the organization’s development department. Last week, highly respected pitching coach Bill Fischer left the organization to join the Royals.

    Fischer served as the Braves’ pitching coordinator, which allowed him to oversee all of the club’s Minor League hurlers. He’ll now do something similar while working with former Braves assistant general manager and current Royals general manager Dayton Moore.

    Tyrone Brooks, who had served as the Braves’ director of player administration, opted to leave the club two weeks ago. He was recently hired by the Indians to serve as one of their Major League scouts.

    We are doing a complete overhaul in our system, that cant be good!

  33. Poor Lonnie got blamed for something that wasn’t his fault. With no outs and the middle of the order up, it would have been insane for Lonnie to take a chance at getting thrown out at the plate (although recent Braves third base coaches don’t seem to worry about that). As I understand, he couldn’t pick up the ball in the weirdness that is the Metrodome. Under the circumstances, I think he did the right thing. It’s not his fault th eother hitters couldn’t even get a fly ball to get him in. And Lonnie hit a grand slam in the ’92 series to at least get the Series back to Atlanta. As for his being a bad fielder, that’s why they have left field; when is the last time that bad left field defense really cost a team?

  34. AAR, that’s ridiculous. Bonds couldn’t throw, but he was a great left fielder at the time and won the third of his eight (five straight) gold gloves that season.

  35. The right-field curse is a natural extension of the left-field curse that existed over in Fulton-County after the Brett Butler trade.

    We went through Brad Kominsk, Terry Harper, Dion James, and Ken Griffey before we got to Lonnie Smith.

    Harper at least did give us a good season in ’86 when he hit 17 home runs.

    Someone mentioned the JD Drew trade, the two trades I wish the Braves could have back were the Butler/Jacoby/Behenna for Len Barker trade and the JD Drew for Jason Marquis, Ray King and Adam Wainwright.

    The Cubs gave up their version of Brad Kominsk (Joe Carter) and a proven commodity in Mel Hall to get Sutcliffe. We could have traded Kominsk and Gerald Perry or maybe Albert Hall along with Behenna (who, as I recall, was a good prospect before blowing out his elbow) for Sutcliffe.

    That rotation should have been enough to win the division in 1983. In 1984, move Horner over to first, bring up Brook Jacoby to play third and Sutcliffe and Perez and Rick Mahler should have been enough to beat the mediocre Padres in 1984.

    Instead, we had a hole in left, a hole at third once Horner got hurt again and we had a rotation with an ineffective Craig McMurtury (what happened to him?) and we were stuck throwing Rick Camp out there as our third starter.

    To be fair, Len Barker actually wasn’t awful in 1984. He was a competent fourth or fifth starter. You just shouldn’t give up two all-stars for that.

  36. I am all for the “Left Behind” series on guys you cut. I think you may have an unconscious bias in favor of Player A, who had 3-4 good seasons for the Braves and several better seasons elsewhere, versus Player B, who had 7-9 so-so seasons for the Braves, a couple of above average seasons, and did little elsewhere.

    Most of this is fun because of nostalgia, and nostalgia beats statheadism every time.

  37. Actually, there are several guys who fit the Player B description coming up.

    I was not doing this consciously, but last night I looked at a printout I did for research and nearly all the hitters I chose (the exceptions being a cluster of players I’ll talk about hopefully within a week) met the following criteria:

    Played four or more seasons for the Braves;
    Were above-average (using a Runs Created standard) offensive players for the sum of their Braves careers.

    In fact, every player who met those two criteria is on the list except for Claudell Washington, who probably should be included except that he was Claudell Washington. No player who didn’t is except for the cluster (three players, if you think about it you might figure out who).

  38. There is a big-year bias in the rankings within the 44, though. If I had to choose a player from this group of three, it would probably be Matthews, but his big year wasn’t quite as big as Smith’s and Burroughs’. The other bias is towards contributors to playoff teams. I might not have included Lonnie if he hadn’t played in 1991, or Jarvis if he hadn’t pitched in 1969, even though neither had his best year.

  39. Mac,

    I gotta agree with AAR. I know Bonds was a great fielding LF, but even in his best years, he threw like Johnny Damon and Juan Pierre. Just terrible. The average LF nails Bream at the plate in that game. Bonds’ defense has always been overrated, I think, because he always threw so pathetically.

  40. The value of outfielders’ throwing arms is generally overrated. There’s no way that Bonds’ range on fly balls and line drives didn’t more than make up for the arm, especially since most of the time the run scores from second anyway. Who says that another left fielder makes the play on the ground ball as quickly or as cleanly?

  41. Not when the runner is Sid Bream and the ball is hit as sharply as it was. Yes, someone else might have misplayed the ball on the hop…but isn’t it more often the case that it is fielded cleanly?

  42. @53

    csg, I would take Sheffield back in a heartbeat for a two year contract. I am aware I am pretty alone on this one here but I am certain that he will get back in shape in the offseason now that he’s fully recovered. I’s take him over our current corner outfielders any time.

  43. Here’s another thing to consider about the Bonds’ throw (and I’m not sure if this is common knowledge or not, but it was mentioned in Game of Shadows): supposedly when Cabrera came to the plate Van Slyke whistled to Bonds and signaled him to either play more shallow or shade to the left or right (I can’t remember which and I don’t have the book with me). Bonds stubornly ignored Van Slyke and stayed where he was. According to the Game of Shadows authors, the ball was hit right where Van Slyke was shading him. Perhaps apocryphal, but interesting nonetheless.

  44. I’m glad that many Braves fans have taken Lonnie off the hook for the baserunning gaff in the 91 Series. I always loved Lonnie, I remember how he started off Game 7 by shaking the Twins catchers hand–classy Brave.

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