With the benefit of hindsight, we can view the 2002 season as something in a broader narrative — the good old days, of course, but also the first of four straight years that the Braves lost in the NLDS, the last year of Greg Maddux‘s contract, the terrific rookie season of Tim Spooneybarger, which allowed us to trade him for Mike Hampton, who inspired Mac to do this and this and this and this and this and this — or we could see it simply as a series of wonderful moments back when Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz had all their marbles and the Braves won their division by 19 games, as the good Lord intended.
My memory always bookends the 2002 and 2003 seasons. the Braves won 101 games both years, and they lost in the fifth game of the Division Series both years, but they were very different teams: the 2002 Braves yielded and scored about 200 fewer runs than they did the following summer.
The 2002 Braves were the second-lowest-scoring team, and the second-best run-preventing team, of the 1991-2005 classic period, and the 2003 Braves were the highest-scoring club in franchise history, on a per-game basis, since the beginning of the 20th century — until Marcell’s marauders thundered through their opposition this past year.
He casts a short shadow now, but one of the most important players on that team was Doc Gooden’s nephew. In what was probably one of Schuerholz’s more underappreciated moves, the Braves benefited from Sheffield’s public disaffection in LA to snag him for what proved a very reasonable price: Brian Jordan, a fine but clearly inferior player, plus Odalis Perez, who had been a top pitching prospect but who missed the 2000 season due to Tommy John surgery and was still rebuilding his prospect capital.
Sheffield, one of the most thunderously consistent power hitters of his generation, immediately took his place at the heart of the lineup, which was a good thing because the Braves basically only had three hitters in the lineup: Sheffield and the Joneses. Javy Lopez and Rafael Furcal both had poor years, Vinny Castilla put up a .616 OPS at third base in the heart of the Steroid Era, and the less said about Keith Lockhart‘s 331 plate appearances, the better.
Lineups like that don’t typically win 100 games. But the Braves had what they always had: pitching. In particular, they had the best bullpen in the major leagues, and indeed it is regularly ranked as one of the best pens of all time.
As JonathanF explained a few months back: @3: So I used BRef to get the best bullpens (ranked by ERA+) since 1950. https://stathead.com/tiny/CY42h
UPDATE: As noted below in the comments, JonathanF looked closer at the data and found out that the ERA+ data was misleading, so I’ve deleted the above note.
The 2002 Atlanta bullpen was best in history at the time, and is now 5th. What I really found interesting, though, was that of the top 12 on this list, 4 were Braves teams (2002, 1997, 1998, 1993), with two more in the top 26 (1996 and 2001) This is quite a tribute to Bobby, Leo and whomever else was responsible for bullpens in this period. I’m particularly inclined to credit Mazzone here, because when he left, the outstanding bullpens appear to have gone away as well. Other than the Leo years, the only Atlanta bullpens in the top 100 are 1974 and 2013. (Also in the top 100: 1999, 1995, 1994 and 1992.) Part of this of course is that when your starting pitching is sufficiently outstanding, the pressure on your bullpen is lower. But you’re still shuttling players in and out from year to year and knowing when to pitch guys. I’m not sure Leo’s bullpen management has been discussed that much… certainly not relative to these results.
And the Hall of Fame closer from Detroit wasn’t the half of it.
It may have been the most devastating collection of 36-year-olds in baseball history: Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux leading the staff, and Chris Hammond, Mike Remlinger, and Darren Holmes as setup men. As it happened, Smoltzie was actually something of a spring chicken, as he wouldn’t turn 36 until the following summer.
Younger pitchers did well, too: Kerry Ligtenberg and his memorable sideburns, 31 years young, sparkled across 66 2/3 innings, setting himself up for a million-dollar payday in free agency.
(And even rookie Kevin Gryboski had what in the pre-Moneyball era passed for a good season, with a 3.48 ERA. It was smoke and mirrors: he walked more men than he struck out, and got away with it via a .280 BABIP and 86.1% strand rate. Of course, it was unsustainable, as in future years a “Grybo” became Braves Journal slang for an inherited run scoring. Sadly, the team suffered his regression to the mean for several more years before the skipper actually realized that.)
In 2002, the division was pretty competitive for the first couple of months. The Braves actually didn’t take a solo lead in the division till May 28, but once they did, they never relinquished it. Here’s how it looked before that happened:
|As of May 27||W||L||W-L%||GB|
And then the Braves opened up a can of whoop-ass.
|Rest of year||W||L||W-L%||GB|
The Best Years of Their Careers
At the time, the big story was Chris Hammond’s 0.95 ERA, as it was the first time since Eckersley in 1990 that a reliever had posted an ERA under 1.00. In retrospect, we can see that what made that team most amazing was its excellence from top to bottom.
Darren Holmes was very similar to Hammond, a reclamation project who had missed the previous year due to injury, and who hadn’t pitched effectively in three years; he had the best year of his career. Mike Remlinger had been good since arriving in Atlanta, but 2002 was his only All-Star campaign; it may have been his best year, too.
It was certainly Tim Spooneybarger’s best year. The 22-year old was traded to Florida in exchange for Mike Hampton’s massive contract in the offseason, and he was abused, throwing 42 innings and appearing in literally half of the team’s first 66 games, on on pace to toss more than 100 innings before his elbow gave up the ghost. He went on the DL in mid-June, and after a confidence-inspiring Sun-Sentinel headline — “SPOONEY’S INJURY ISN’T SERIOUS” — he never pitched in the majors again.
It was also the best year of rookie starter Damian Moss’s career. He was sort of a starting pitcher version of Gryboski, yielding too many walks and not really doing anything well, but somehow stumbled into a 3.42 ERA and a fifth-place finish in the Rookie of the Year vote.
Schuerholz immediately traded him for Russ Ortiz, and while Ortiz wasn’t brilliant, he was a perfectly good innings eater for the next two years, which is more than Moss ever became. Moss lasted just a few months in San Francisco, as they traded him at the 2003 trade deadline in a deal that brought back Sir Sidney Ponson. Moss was dreadful the rest of the way, and after he went to Tampa in the offseason and yielded 15 runs in his first eight innings of the 2004 year, his major league career was over.
The 2002 season was Greg Maddux’s last great year as a Brave, which unfortunately also made it Kevin Millwood’s last year as a Brave. When Maddux surprised the Braves by choosing to accept their arbitration offer, Schuerholz claimed to be on an inflexible budget that required him to trade Kevin Millwood, obtaining minor-league catcher Johnny Estrada. Estrada was quite good in 2004, but it never did and never will feel fair.
The Braves of the classic era were always tearing down and building back; retooling, not rebuilding. Their ability to continue to field extraordinarily successful teams was pretty simple to explain in retrospect: they had six Hall of Famers, from the Big Three and Chipper Jones to Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz, and that kind of firepower gave them enough margin to endure their share of Lockhart ABs and Millwood trades.
That, plus they played in the same division as the Mets.
How It Ended
Well, they got away with it for just about as long as they always did. When October rolled around, they faced Barry and his peerless Jints in the Division Series, and the music stopped. Russ Ortiz won Games 1 and 5, inspiring Schuerholz to trade for him two months later, and Tom Glavine gave up 13 earned in fewer than eight total innings across two starts. On the other hand, Barry Bonds only hit .294/.409/.824, which actually counted as successful containment, since his regular-season line was .370/.582/.799.
And that was that. At just after midnight on Tuesday, October 8, the Braves bid farewell to the 2002 season. It had been good. Very good. And yet not quite enough.