#22: Steve Avery

See the 44 Greatest Atlanta Braves here.

Lefthanded Pitcher
Seasons With Braves: 1990-1996
Stats With Braves: 72-62, 3.83 ERA

Since 1980, only four pitchers have thrown more than 800 innings (counting postseason) before their Age 24 season: Doc Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela, Bret Saberhagen, and Steve Avery. All developed arm problems. The first three were able to overcome them to some degree, though they never were able to achieve the heights of their early careers. Avery really wasn’t in their class, and was not able to pitch well at a reduced state.

I don’t blame Bobby for using him hard — the Braves were in pennant races in both 1991 and 1993, and Avery was the second-best pitcher on the staff each year. He could have eased up on the throttle a bit in 1992 when Steve wasn’t pitching as well and the team had a comfortable lead. Avery’s career with the Braves basically comes down to those three seasons. He was outstanding in 1991 and 1993, and pretty good in 1992 (but only finished 11-11 because nobody hit for him).

Steve was the third pick in the 1988 draft out of a Michigan high school. He was far too good for rookie ball that year and for Durham (then the high-A team) in 1989, earning a promotion to Greenville, where he was merely better than everyone else. He started 1990 in Richmond, where he was good, not great, but the Braves called him up in June and allowed him to get his head handed to him for 20 starts. I guess it worked out okay, but it seemed odd at the time and still does. It’s not like they had anything to play for.

He blossomed in 1991 and won 18 games with a 3.38 ERA. He was still the third-youngest player in the league. In the NLCS, he was named the MVP for a dominating performance, winning two games and throwing 16 1/3 innings without allowing a run. He started the Leibrandt Game in the World Series, leaving it tied in the seventh. He fell back a little in 1992 but had his best year in 1993, winning 18 games again and finishing fifth in the league with a 2.94 ERA.

But that was pretty much it. Steve actually had the best strikeout rate of his career in 1994 but at the cost of doubling his walks. He’d already thrown 151 innings when the strike hit, and though he was 8-3 his ERA was 4.04. In 1995 he was worse than average, 7-15 with a 4.67 ERA. However, he pitched well in the postseason, winning Game Four of the World Series in Cleveland to give the Braves a 3-1 lead. He was actually better in 1996, close to the league average, but went 7-10 and fell out of the rotation when Neagle came to Atlanta. His last appearance in a Braves uniform was a catastrophic relief appearance in the 1996 World Series, getting the first two men only to allow a walk, a single, and two more walks to lose the final game.

Avery moved on to Boston, where he pitched badly in 1997, then had basically replacement-level years there in 1998 and in Cincinnati in 1999. He tried a comeback with the Tigers in 2003 but failed miserably. I don’t know where Steve belongs on this list. He could go a lot lower, but his two best years were really good and so is his postseason record.

Steve Avery Statistics – Baseball-Reference.com

22 thoughts on “#22: Steve Avery”

  1. I recall from Tomahawked that Steve felt he deserved a huge raise after his success in the 1991 NLCS, a raise bigger than he got, but that’s understandable.

    Shame he bombed when he did. I remember being quite flummoxed at his inability to be good in 1995, but then again, I was 12 years old and didn’t think that deeply about baseball.

  2. Glavine Watch:

    LHP Tom Glavine is expected to talk about his future sometime next week with Mets VP Jeff Wilpon and GM Omar Minaya. The Mets want him back, but Glavine’s family wants him to finish his career at home in Atlanta. Glavine said the Mets and Braves are the only teams he’s considering. “I considering. “I know what I have here,” Glavine said. “I don’t need anyone to sell me on it.”

    http://mets.scout.com/2/582027.html

  3. Mac, you mentioned 800 innings and the four blown up arms (before year 24). Wonder what that ratio is of arms blown and 800 innings to pitchers before year 25? I ask because that’s where Dontrelle Willis is at (he’s 24 and has now pitched 817+ innings)…

  4. Twelve pitchers threw more than 800 innings before their Age 25 season between 1980 and 2005:

    CAREER
    1980-2005

    AGE < 25 INNINGS PITCHED IP 1 Dwight Gooden 1291 2 Fernando Valenzuela 1285.1 3 Bret Saberhagen 1066.2 4 C.C. Sabathia 972.2 5 Mike Witt 959.1 6 Steve Avery 918 7 Greg Maddux 911 8 Alex Fernandez 884.2 9 Storm Davis 855 10 Jim Abbott 847 11 Ismael Valdes 821.2 12 Dan Petry 818

    So it works, if you’re Greg Maddux and throw 12 pitches an inning. Otherwise, bad idea. The next group, 700-799, is a bit more mixed:

    13 Mark Gubicza 788.2
    14 Jon Garland 788
    15 Bill Gullickson 777.1
    16 Rich Dotson 775.2
    17 Javier Vazquez 768.1
    18 Roger Clemens 767.1
    19 Carlos Zambrano 763
    20 Mark Buehrle 742
    21 Ramon Martinez 739.2
    22 Britt Burns 737.2
    23 John Smoltz 733
    24 Dave Stieb 714.2
    25 Andy Benes 713.1
    26 Sidney Ponson 705.1

  5. Back from Hamsterjam.

    I loved Avery & it felt like he was going to be in the rotation forever. He really won some memorable big games. In winning that Game 4 of the ’95 WS, he won one of the biggest games in Braves history. That was the one that Wohlers began to blow in the 9th & Pedro Borbon had to nail it down.

    Of course, the ’91 NLCS was amazing—that 1-0 Game 6 was a helluva nailbiter. And he was tremendous in those games vs. San Francisco down the stretch in 1993.

    That ’93 rotation was just ridiculous. You had the power guys in Smoltz & Avery and the guile guys in Glavine & Maddux. Wotta combo. In some ways, that was the most balance Braves team ever—lineup, bench, relief, starters.

    Having a hard time determining who to root for in the WS this year. In one sense, I wanna root for the NL, but every time I see LaRussa I change my mind.

  6. I’d say that such a list might temper my interest in Willis (who has been fabulous to this point in his career) since Willis is not quite as efficient as Mad dog…

  7. That 1993 rotation was not only impressive for its content, but also for having extremely low turnover. The Braves only used 13 pitchers all year in 1993, and one of them only threw 1+ inning (another, marvin Freeman, threw only 20 innings). Only 6 guys made starts that year. Compare these numbers to 2006, when 26 guys apeared in games, 12 of them getting starts.

    The only postseason game I ever attended was Avery’s start vs. Cincinnati to clinch the NLCS in 1995. Never felt such electricity in the air as I felt in that stadium that night.

    It’s easy to draw the conclusion that the 800 innings was the obvious cause of his crash, but a few other factors might have been involved. In 1994 his son was born prematurely and he shuttled back and forth between Atlanta and Detroit all the time. Probably destroyed his throwing regimen, and I imagine conditioning took a backseat. Also, between 1993 and 1994 Leo had him work on a slide-step to try to hold runners better. I was always suspicious that that messed up his mechanics.

    Avery did, however, recapture his form down the stretch in 1995. After struggling much of the year he was dominant in his last three starts. There had speculation he wouldn’t be in the postseason rotation, and that stretch earned him his starts. What was interesting is that the three strong starts came after a long talk between him and Don Sutton. Overall, though, for his last three regular season plus two postseason starts he posted an ERA of 1.09 (1.35 if you include a relief appearance in the NLDS).

    Anyway, that’s how I like to remember Avery, that last flash of dominance in 1995, when i got to see him in person helping clinch the NLCS.

  8. Fernando Valenzuela was pushing 30 when he got to the majors.

    His supposed age was the result of a “guesstimate” formed by the same guy who did analyzed Furcal. And/or he got a fake ID before or after crossing the border.

  9. I’m for the Cards — though I hate them — just so that Bill Simmons will have to write an article about how wrong he’s been.

    As for Avery, he’s one of my all-time faves. My lasting memory is of him in the dugout with his jacket pulled up just below his eyes; just a nervous little boy pitching huge games for us in the playoffs.

  10. I thought that Avery was going to be something special. That we’d have a big 4 for as long as we could keep them from leaving. Until now I never knew that he pitched so many innings so young. He should be on this list somewhere though for when he was good he was very very good and his contribution to the rise of the franchise cannot be discounted.

  11. Just to nitpick, Avery’s horrid relief appearance in the ’96 series was in the Leyritz game (game 4) not the final game.

  12. In 1991, I was convinced Avery was the best of all of the young pitchers. He looked like Koufax with a little slower fastball and a spectacular curve.

    Avery had already lost velocity late in 1992 and was well below 1991 levels in the 1993 pennant race. I also remember the start he made against the Giants in San Fran in late July or early August that was (I believe) the second game of a three game sweep that sent the Braves from about 8 games down to 5 down in three days.

  13. I seem to recall he had one start in Candlestick park, maybe in 1993, where an umpire blew a call when Avery hit a home run. The ump thought it stayed in the park.

    One more point on Avery’s 1994 – I want to think Avery was much more of a fly ball pitcher than, say, Glavine and Maddux. in 1994 the Braves sported a pretty ugly defensive outfield; Justice in RF was fine, but they had the rookie Klesko in LF (platooning with Dave Gallagher) and guys like then Roberto Kelly, who replaced Deion in CF. Other than the otherworldly Maddux, every body took a hit to their stats that year, including Smoltz and Glavine along with Avery.

  14. A real shame what happened to Avery. He looked like he was going to be a great pitcher. I don’t think he ever got enough credit for Game 4 in the ’95 WS. That really put the nail in the coffin and it’s one reason why I have always felt it’s an advantage to use four pitchers in the playoffs–having Avery pitching on regular rest was a big advantage, I think. Of course, you need to have four good pitchers to do that. What a rotation that was–you might see that once every two or three decades. I remember Roger Craig, when managed the Giants talking about the Braves’ “unreal” pitching. It’s all too real these days.

  15. anyone care about the Pine Tar on KR’s hand last night? A local station in Birmingham had Todd Jones on the radio last week. He also admitted to using it when its real cold. He said the umpires would rather you have pine tar on your hands, when its cold, than to loose control and hit every batter. Any thoughts?

  16. On Avery — I saw a doubleheader in Durham in 1989 to start the Bulls’ season. Dennis Burlingame opened things with a perfect game. Steve Avery threw a one-hitter in the nightcap. Amazing performance.

    Burlingame had far better stats than Avery to start the year, but developed elbow problems that ended up costing him his career. I think he was on that incredible 1992 Greenville Braves squad with Borbon and Mike Kelley and Klesko and Lopez…

    On Kenny Rogers — Jim Leyland, KR and the umpire crew all told different stories after the game last night. That pretty much tells you what you need to know.

  17. I’ve heard pitching experts say that Avery’s mechanics are (or at least became) some of the ugliest you’ve ever seen. He held his arm straight when reaching back rather than bending his elbow; this put a lot more stress on it than otherwise would have been the case.

  18. Avery also arched his back backwards, as you can see in that photo. I have a book on pitching mechanics, illustrated with diagrams. I saw a diagram of a pitcher leaning way back when delivering a pitch, and I immediately thought, “Hey, that looks exactly like Steve Avery.” Then I saw the caption, which read something like, “Here’s Steve Avery delivering a pitch…,” and was highly critical of his mechanics.

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