10 for ’00’s – The 2002 Atlanta Braves Season

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.

The Offense

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.

The Bullpen

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

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.

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.

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.)

The Race

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 27WLW-L%GB
NYM27240.529
ATL27240.529
FLA26250.511
MON25250.51.5
PHI20300.46.5

And then the Braves opened up a can of whoop-ass.

Rest of yearWLW-L%GB
ATL74350.679
MON58540.51819
PHI60510.54121.5
FLA53580.47723
NYM48620.43626.5

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.

37 thoughts on “10 for ’00’s – The 2002 Atlanta Braves Season”

  1. So here I was trying to whistle past the graveyard of old erroneous posts and you had to bring this one up. That page is, unfortunately, not what I wanted it to be, and Stathead is not at all clear about it. While the statistics on that page are indeed the statistics of relievers, the ERA+ number is not… It’s the ERA+ of the entire staff, which just shows why teams with great starting staffs measured well here. It wasn’t an indirect effect… it was a direct effect. If I want to calculate the ERA+ of bullpens alone, I’m unfortunately going to have to do it myself. Leo was pretty great, though, wasn’t he?

  2. @1

    Stathead
    for those of us who are brain dead
    much resembles a medieval pile
    monks only please, greet your critics with a smile.

  3. I love the Hall of Fame as a concept, but obviously, it’s miserably frustrating in its actuality. I appreciate that the writers sort of hate the voting process and would rather give up their vote — and maybe they should give up their vote for the MVP, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and other awards, too.

    Ultimately, I believe Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame, next to all the other cheaters who have already been enshrined. (And I love Don Sutton, but he’s one of ’em.) Others very much disagree, including Ububba, and I’m okay with that, too.

    It’s possible that the Hall of Fame vote is another casualty of the increasing polarization of everything on the internet, where battle lines are seemingly drawn every time an opinion is expressed, and the only exception is a place like this — a self-contained community, where we don’t have constant floods of trolls dropping in to express their opinion and leave. Here, we actually know each other because we’ve been here together for a while.

    I don’t know what the solution is. I feel for Ken Rosenthal and Jeff Passan and all the other national writers who no longer feel they can cast a vote in good conscience when the institution feels compromised. I think that organized baseball, generally, is a pretty reactionary institution — it’s been a very profitable business for 150 years, and it learned to circle the wagons very early on. The steroid fight is part of a larger question: what does baseball mean in 2021, compared to what it meant in 1921? What is important in baseball, given how many things have changed in the society around it? What do we value and how do we express those values publicly, in ways that matter, with money spent? And if we aren’t willing to express those values by spending money, do we really mean them?

  4. @3 I’ll say this… I was wrong, uninformed, and immature on this topic several years ago. I’ve since done a one-eighty on the subject of PEDs in baseball. At the time, I was basing my judgment of PEDs solely on how I felt about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. I still do view these players as two of the most selfish and greedy competitors to ever play. And I think these guys got out of MLB just in time to really avoid the heat for what they did. Still, I know that the controversy of PEDs, for most, goes well beyond just who did it and that it’s more about the so-called sanctity of the sport. Some will prefer a clean sport, I understand that.

    I’m ready to vote into the Hall all the PED users who had Hall-worthy careers. PEDs had been a part of baseball for a very long time.

    And yeah, I’m ready for baseball to embrace health science and performance enhancers. I’m tired of so many players going down to minor injuries for weeks at a time.

  5. I’ve now talked to Stathead. While I can’t do ERA+, I can do ERA, or WHIP. https://stathead.com/tiny/gvqYm gives the ERA-sorted bullpens. The 2002 Braves are the second-best Braves bullpen (after 2013) but they’re in 36th place overall. I’m way less enamored of using a measure that doesn’t adjust for scoring era, but there you are. If you switch to WHIP they aren’t even in the top 100, and are behind a bunch of the Fredi/Roger teams. (2011-13).

  6. It would take more digging, but you CAN split ERA- for teams by relief pitchers only on Fangraphs, but you have to rerun the query every year as there isn’t a nice Stathead way to gather team-seasons on the same query results page.

    Here’s 2020, when Braves were third (77 ERA-): https://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=rel&lg=all&qual=0&type=1&season=2020&month=0&season1=2020&ind=0&team=0,ts&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&startdate=2020-01-01&enddate=2020-12-31&sort=13,a

    And here’s 2002, when the Braves were first (64 ERA-): https://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=rel&lg=all&qual=0&type=1&season=2002&month=0&season1=2002&ind=0&team=0,ts&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&startdate=2002-01-01&enddate=2002-12-31&sort=13,a

  7. Hello folks! Longtime visitor, first time commenter here. I’ve been meaning to break out of my lurker status for some time now, and figured a shout out to the team that got me hooked on Braves baseball was as good an opportunity as any.

    I appreciate this particular series a lot, since the tail end of the run is and probably always will be a little overlooked in Braves history, yet for me these are the teams that will likely be the most etched in my memory. There was a lot of good and fun baseball to watch on those summer nights, though little did I know what I’d be putting myself through in Octobers to come.

    Cheers to the 2002 Braves, Phil, Don and Henry, and to Braves Journal and all those who keep it surviving and thriving!

  8. Good to hear from you, Colin! Keep on coming back.

    Hammers tees are flying off the shelf and I’m making a new order. New design will also be done by the end of the week. If you want to get in the queue for a shirt, whether it be the new design or original design, let me know in an email: cothrjr at gmail dot com.

    No finances need to be exchanged, just an email showing your interest.

  9. HoF
    There was a time when I cared a great deal about the baseball Hall of Fame, but I have a hard time with it now. The PED guys (and those who allowed it) threw everything askew; then, the induction of guys like Jack Morris and, worse, Harold Baines, kinda salted it for me. In my mind, it’s not about the elite/cream of the crop anymore – it’s the Hall of Very Good. And I’ll admit, I generally was a hard marker.

    And for the record, I see difference between what Don Sutton & Gaylord Perry occasionally did and what the human science projects that Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa & Roger Clemens became — and what they did to the game. In my mind, the notion of proportion is in order here.

    Bonds has his tainted records* — in my view, he can be happy with that.

    *It’s Still 755

    2002
    At the time, I really thought that 2002 team was ready to do some post-season damage. No matter where it sits in history, its bullpen was completely amazing. And Chris Hammond’s bugs-bunny change-up really was something to see.

    The Sheffield deal was terrific. He was a regular-season destroyer in ’02 & ’03. It’s too bad that he went 3 for 30 in his 10 post-season games with ATL. David Ortiz, he was not.

    Saw Sheffield hit a GSHR at Shea Stadium that year — just a laser beam over the LCF wall. But what I most remember from that game was the mega-blast that Mo Vaughn hit off Kevin Gryboski:

  10. Small Hall guy here but also let the PED guys in guy.

    Mentioned above but a huge no on Jack Morris and Harold Baines. A no on Curt Schilling, a no on Andruw Jones, no on Dale Murphy, and also no Scott Rolens, etc.

    Didn’t see it mentioned but the Orioles fired Gary Thorne as announcer yesterday. He’s good.

  11. #17
    What’s crazy is that if those 2 guys (Clemens & Bonds) both got hit by the same truck in 1997 or so (before they found the medicine cabinet), they would be Hall of Famers now.

    Second-Guessing Dept.
    Another thought on the 2002 NLDS… I remember thinking: They should let Damian Moss (yikes!) pitch Game 4 instead of Glavine on three days’ rest, then possibly pitching Millwood in Game 5 on three days’ rest as well. Turns out Millwood pitched OK, while Glavine got bombed — and we lost both.

    The ending was especially rough. In Game 5, we had guys on base all night (12 LOB). But down 3-1 bottom 9th we had a real chance to do something special. We had runners on first & third with no outs against Robb Nen with Sheffield & Chipper due…

    Sheffield, K… Chipper, GIDP. Woof.

  12. @18 I haven’t seen exact details but it’s my impression that the O’s and Nat’s fired about everyone.

    Agree that Thorne is good but I hope FP Santangelo goes the way of the dodo bird. Ben McDonald too.

  13. So, inspired by Alex’s good work above, I compiled a new list of the top MLB bullpens. For reasons that I’m going to explore in a future post at some point, the best aggregate measure of a bullpen surely isn’t ERA of any sort, but some sort of Win Probability Added (WPA) measure. Briefly stated, these measures adjust for Grybos and leverage more or less automatically, and those are the two problems that make almost every other measure problematic.

    Anyway, I’m a BRef guy, not a Fangraphs guy, but Alex’s links above got me to dip a toe in. You can get WPA (and its two components +WPA and -WPA, about which more in the future) for every year since 1974. Since then, the top bullpens have been:
    2012 Orioles 13.52
    2015 Pirates 13.21
    2003 Dodgers 12.65
    2002 Braves 12.57

    The other Braves bullpens in the top 100 are:
    1999 37th 8.58
    2011 43rd 8.31
    2013 48th 8.11
    2012 66th 7.36

    On the other end, the second-to-worst bullpen is the last place 1990 team: -10.25

    There’s a lot more I can do with this data, and I hope to do so soon. In particular, what fraction of total WPA comes from the closer?

  14. @26: The hilarious part is that my original statement, based on completely bogus data, was “The 2002 Atlanta bullpen was best in history at the time, and is now 5th.” Now using the correct data, we get the correct statement: “The 2002 Atlanta bullpen was best in the abbreviated WPA history at the time, and is now 4th.”

    Maybe blazon is right and data is overrated. Actually, what it shows is when you get a result that comports with your priors, your zeal in checking can be muted. But your priors might not be all that wrong!

    (Of course the really interesting part about the overall quality of Leo’s bullpens was crap.)

  15. As Mac used to say, Bobby used his bullpen to protect his pitchers. So he’d absolutely abuse the pen because they’re fungible and a whole lot cheaper than your three Hall of Famers. It kinda makes sense — they kept plugging in anonymous guys and some were good and some were not.

  16. “On the other end, the second-to-worst bullpen is the last place 1990 team”

    That’d be the Ghastly Boys! Never were they ghastlier than in this game I had the misfortune of attending:

    https://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1990/B06080ATL1990.htm

    The boxscore doesn’t show that Oddibe McDowell was warming up in the Braves bullpen in the top of the ninth, or that the line drive DP hit into by Will Clark to end the inning might have been the hardest hit ball all night. We were convinced that Oddibe was coming in had Clark reached, and believe me at that point we were rooting for it….

  17. One of the interesting things about a game like that from the WPA perspective — that wasn’t that terrible a game for the bullpen! The starter, Derek Lilliquist did most of the damage and almost all of the rest was done by Marty Clary. (OK… Dwayne Henry didn’t help any.) Joe Boever’s and Charlie Kerfeld’s horrendous outings were irrelevant.

    Pitching IP H ER WPA
    Derek Lilliquist L (2-8) 3.1 7 5 -0.473
    Marty Clary 1 5 2 -0.173
    Tony Castillo 0.2 0 0 0.011
    Dwayne Henry 0.2 6 6 -0.118
    Joe Hesketh 0.1 1 1 -0.011
    Joe Boever 2 3 3 0.000
    Charlie Kerfeld 1 5 4 0.000
    Team Totals 9 27 21 -0.764

    Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original TableGenerated 1/27/2021.

  18. Blind item: you’ll never guess which team’s owner is caught up in the latest exotic finance house of cards….

  19. @33

    Steven Cohen
    when will this all end, where is it going?
    another financial shenanigin
    and yet you expect me to become a fanagin?

  20. The Mets upgraded from a guy in the Madoff scandal to a guy in the Gamestop scandal. They’re moving in the right direction!

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