10 for 00’s — The 2003 Atlanta Braves Season

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If you’re just catching up to the series, here are the first 3:

After a brutal exit in the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants in 2002, the Atlanta Braves wasted no time trying to make another run at a championship. Just a couple weeks after the dust settled on the 2002 season, general manager John Schuerholz traded Tim Spooneybarger and prospect Tim Baker to the Marlins for Mike Hampton. The newest Atlanta Brave struggled a lot in two seasons with the Colorado Rockies, but Schuerholz took a gamble that getting him out of the pitcher’s graveyard that is Coors Field would give a jolt to Atlanta’s starting rotation.

One month later Schuerholz upgraded the starting rotation again, striking a deal with the Giants to acquire Russ Ortiz. The Braves were already very familiar with Ortiz; he won two out of the three games for San Francisco against Atlanta in the 2002 NLDS, including the series-clincher in game five.

The ageless wonder Julio Franco and franchise legend Greg Maddux were both re-signed, and just like that the Braves were ready to go in search of their 12th consecutive division title.

The team got off to a slightly slow start with a 4-8 mark in the first dozen games, but it was only a matter of time before this squad got the wheels spinning. The Braves didn’t lose consecutive games for over five weeks, ripping off an incredible 27-5 stretch to vault into first place.

One of the keys to the spurt was long-time starter turned closer John Smoltz. He led baseball in saves in 2002 with 55, and he picked up right where he left off by setting the all-time record for saves before the All Star Break with 34. That number included 16 of the wins during the 27-5 stretch in April and May. By the time the break rolled around the Braves had an 8.5 game lead in the NL East, and sent seven players to the Midsummer Classic in Chicago.

In addition to Smoltz and Ortiz, the Braves were also represented by the double play duo of Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal, outfielders Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield and catcher Javy Lopez.

Sheffield in particular had a stellar season, knocking in 132 runs and hitting .330. Sheffield finished third in NL MVP voting, and was joined in the top five by Javy Lopez. Lopez slugged 43 home runs and drove in 109 runs, both career highs. His .328 batting average was also his career high-water mark among seasons where he qualified with enough at-bats. Andruw Jones also finished with MVP votes checking in at 13th after he hit .277 with 36 home runs and 116 RBIs. Chipper Jones was his steady self with a .305 average and 106 RBIs, and all of it led to a 907-run outburst, the highest-scoring lineup in the National League.

The strength of the team was definitely its lineup, but the rotation was steady enough to support it. Maddux, Ortiz and Hampton all finished with an ERA at 4.00 or lower, leading the Braves to a 4.10 team ERA. Smoltz finished the year with a microscopic 1.12 ERA, and the Braves rounded it out with a 101-61 record that topped the Senior Circuit.

And of course, the highlight of the season did not come through the bats or the pitching but on defense. With the Braves and Cardinals tied 1-1 in St. Louis in the 5th inning of their game on August 10th, St. Louis pitcher Woody Williams hit a line drive to shortstop with runners on second and first and nobody out. But Furcal snared the liner, stepped on second base to double off Mike Matheney and tagged out Orlando Palmeiro for just the 12th unassisted triple play in baseball history.

Unfortunately, the highlight of the year came in a regular season game for a reason. The offense that averaged 5.6 runs per game during the season only managed to push 15 runs across in five NLDS games against the Chicago Cubs, dropping the series in five games. In all three games the Braves lost, they failed to even pick up more than five hits.

A year of slugging an offensive dominance helped put another blue banner on the Turner Field wall, but a poorly-timed slump in early October prevented it from turning into a red one.

37 thoughts on “10 for 00’s — The 2003 Atlanta Braves Season”

  1. I’m a small hall kinda guy, but I had NO idea Gary Sheffield’s career numbers were that good. Frankly, I could be swayed that he should get in. 81 oWAR for a career is strong. Counting stats are there. 140+ Career OPS+. .393 career OBP.

    He was an ass but who cares. Building is filled with them.

  2. His oWAR shouldn’t be his only criteria. He was a huge liability in the field, so his total career WAR (62.1) is much less HoF-worthy. And coupled with the steroid stuff, I can see why voters won’t let him in. He’s right on the bubble, IMO. The guy could mash.

    I would think that these guys who were hitters only could have been better defensive players had they put in the effort. It’s not like he wasn’t athletic enough. So if they didn’t care enough to play good enough defense to get into the Hall, why should we?

  3. Thanks Alan. The 2003 team put up video game numbers. It’s fun to just look at the lineup regulars all at once:

    https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/ATL/2003.shtml

    Could you imagine if, at any point in the late 90’s, they had drafted and developed a half-way decent first baseman? Or, of course, if they kept Klesko and just plugged him in in perpetuity? He wouldn’t have been making that much money. When you look back on it, it was JS’ bad trade after bad trade that ended this run.

  4. Triple post: It’s interested that in 2003, Atlanta only used 17 pitchers for the entire year. Seriously? They had 35-year old league minimum-earning Shane Reynolds with a 5 1/2 ERA making 30 starts? There really wasn’t anyone out there you could have continued to mix-and-match with? By comparison, we used 48 pitchers in a 60-game season in 2020. It really just seems that towards the end of the run, JS and even Bobby as roster manager seemed to have been on autopilot a little.

    Between the Hampton, Millwood, and the Klesko/Boone trades, that basically just killed the inertia of the run.

  5. Schuerholz still made some trades that turned out well, like the Russ Ortiz deal. But he was stubborn in his refusal to “overpay” and the market started to pass him by. In general, it’s often better not to make a bad deal (that’s how his fellow Hall of Famer “Stand Pat” Gillick got his nickname) but Schuerholz’s stubbornness probably got in his own way towards the end of the run.

    But the poor drafting is clearly, obviously, overwhelmingly the biggest weakness. It’s astonishing they stayed as good as they did while drafting as poorly as they did in the late ’90s.

  6. Andrelton, O Andrelton
    we first heard that you were going
    ‘cos your pop up flies were showing
    there were tears from everyone
    for our dear Andrelton

    Andrelton, O Andrelton,
    free agency was fun
    we had bid ten million one
    but our money men demurred
    pop flies they said they heard
    our hearts lie broke for Andrelton.

    still a very great song…Vietnam redux.

  7. @4 How quickly we tend to forget about Jermaine Dye being traded for Tucker and, the true centerpiece of the deal, Lockhart. While it wasn’t a terrible trade, especially in the first couple of years, it never sat well with me that Dye went on to be a big masher while Lockhart became the curse that just wouldn’t go away.

  8. @5 I’d like to see a better analysis of the so-called poor drafting. Atlanta had a reputation of selling prospects, so it’s easy to be convinced that their drafting wasn’t that bad. Then again, they obviously began to take advantage of international signings for talents like Andruw Jones and Randall Simon, so it becomes difficult to discern draft from international signings — should we differentiate?

  9. @4 that’s what jumped out looking at your link. Only three(!) games started by anyone but the original 5-man starting rotation. I wonder if that’s a modern record of amount of GS.

    And thanks, Alan, what a (regular) season.

    This is a fun series.

    Hard to believe that Jung Bong is only 40 years old. Other than Smoltzy, this was not an awesome bullpen.

  10. FWIW I don’t recall Sheffield as being a terrible outfielder. Not good either, but certainly not historically bad. IMO the real issues, as I have said many times, are the fielding criteria that comprise defensive OF WAR, and the weight it is given in the overall WAR tabulation. Someone said it here at least once, and it is now my standard approach — cut that number in half.

  11. Braves drafting was really really bad for a long while. If you’ll allow me to plagiarize myself (this comment is from 2014 so the numbers may be slightly out of date for the then-active players):

    The Braves drafted Kevin Millwood and Jermaine Dye in 1993, and Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman in 2007. In between there were a lot of rough patches. Here’s how I’d break it down, just looking at players with at least 5 WAR:

    1994: Nobody.
    1995: Nobody.
    1996: M. Giles, DeRosa, Marquis: A starter with a brief career, a longtime utilityman who became a starter late in his career, and a longtime mid- and back-of-the-rotation starter.
    1997: Nobody.
    1998: Matt Belisle, a middle reliever.
    1999: Nobody.
    2000: Wainwright, K. Johnson, and Adam LaRoche. Wainwright’s a star and while LaRoche and Johnson have been up and down, they’ve been big league starters for a decade.
    2001: Nobody.
    2002: McCann and Francouer. A star and a platoon outfielder who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
    2003: Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. A lefty with a couple of good years and a pretty good starting catcher. (Jonny Venters narrowly missed the cut; he’s at 4.7 rWAR right now.)
    2004: Nobody.
    2005: Yunel Escobar and Tommy Hanson. Yunel’s production and inconsistency are very similar to Kelly Johnson, but he’s had quite a good few seasons. Hanson had two and a half very good seasons and then fell apart.
    2006: Medlen.

    The Braves had a lot of luck elsewhere, getting Julio Franco as an international free agent and Brandon Beachy as an undrafted free agent. They used the draft-and-follow system with great success before it was abolished and used that to secure players in low rounds like Tommy Hanson and Marcus Giles. They got lucky with Medlen, a mid-round pick who blossomed into a sensational starter after the Braves converted him into a starter in the minor leagues.

    Their success with international free agent teenagers shows a similar decade-long gap between a run of quality in the mid-’90s, like Bruce Chen (1993), Odalis Perez (1994), and Rafael Furcal and Wilson Betemit (1996) — and the next run of quality in the mid-2000s, like Neftali Feliz and Luis Avilan and Elvis Andrus (2005), and Julio Teheran (2007). The middle period is more memorable for the busts whom the Braves managed to trade before they lost all value, like Jose Capellan and Andy Marte and Damian Moss, than it is for any successes.

    In other words: 1994 to 1999 was a pretty unmitigated disaster and 2000-2006 was spotty but decent.

  12. @12 That’s excellent. I enjoyed reading it. I’m left with a few questions. I wonder how these results stack up league-wide for those years that were a disaster. I looked back through the drafts at baseball-almanac, and the Braves could have hit on some key players but mostly it just looks like a lot of drafted players who never make it to the big leagues. Some of the bad years for Atlanta included draftees such as Kevin McGlinchy, Micah Bowie, and Rob Bell. McGlinchy was a phenom whose arm just happened to be made of glass… the rest were traded and rightly so.

    I don’t know why those years were particularly bad, but it’s easy to see that in the good years the Braves had some more notable front office people to oversee the farm and scouting.

  13. Obviously you’re not going to hit every year, but you’d like to get someone with star potential every few years — someone like Millwood or Dye, a 3-4 WAR guy who spikes into an All-Star season or two and retires with 20 WAR.

    Basically, other than McCann, the Braves went like a decade and a half between homegrown drafted stars. That’s not as bad as some, of course (cough… the Pirates) but it was a serious missed opportunity. The successes from draft-and-follows and international free agents and left-field signings like Julio Franco and Brandon Beachy helped to mask the fact that their first- and second-round picks were generally awful.

  14. First, losing draft and follow was a big hit because it was one of the Braves’ efficiencies.

    Second, Scheurholz was on some MLB Committee (Competition? ha, ha, if correct) that tried to influence teams NOT to pay bonuses over certain numbers. Schuerholz seemed to stick on “practicing what he preached.” The biggest offenders in that run were the Red Sox and they had lots of times where they draft in the 20’s of the first round and got an almost first round pick in round 2 or 3 by putting extra money on the table.

    Third is a semi educated opinion. The Braves had also had an efficiency in taking what should have been number 6 or 7 starters and turning them into decent 3’s. This was the “Sain-Mazzone” pitching system. Questec obliterated the “low and away” strike and fashion (and concern which may have been unjustified about arm injuries) took away the extra long toss (which Mazzone and Cox both thought was crucial to long term arm health.) So, guys like Minor (and the guy after him, even more so) would have been better picks in the earlier era.

  15. And some of the “where the hell did that come from” signings in the 90’s and 2000’s were attributable to special assistant Jim Fregosi. Specifically I know of Jaret Wright and Julio Franco being Fregosi’s call.

  16. Cliff, superb points and you’re right, Fregosi was an absolute superscout for the Braves. But it is also remarkably striking that the Braves got a lot worse in the draft shortly after Henry Aaron retired.

  17. That 2003 Braves lineup really was a wrecking crew.

    Just look at the OF (which included Chipper) – 102 HRs, 354 RBI. That’s your basic 34 HR/118 RBI average per outfielder. Led by DeRosa & Franco, a pretty decent bench, too. And Marcus Giles & Javy Lopez certainly ate their spinach that year.

    Yup, the bullpen (save the unhittable Smoltz) was lacking. But sadly, our undoing was essentially 2 ultra-talented Cubs righthanders (Wood & Prior) whom we caught at their absolute career peaks. Those 2 guys won the 3 NLDS games they started & were never quite the same after that year.

    Pity, helluva good team, that ’03 bunch.

    I went to the clinching Game 6 of the WS that year & remember thinking how lousy it was to see the Wild Card Marlins win another title after ATL did another 1st round face-plant. (Of Note: The final out of that series was weird — as Beckett tagged Posada up the first-base line, Yankee Stadium got so silent you could actually hear from the upper deck the Marlins celebrating on the field.) But if you look back at the ’03 Marlins roster… in retrospect, it was pretty loaded.

  18. I liked that Sheffield addressed his manager as Mr. Cox. After I found that out, I was forever a Gary Sheffield fan.

    Ububba writes good words.

  19. Exhibit 653(a)[4] in “The Playoffs Are A Crapshoot.” But seriously: could a team with Robert Fick at 1B ever be a WS champion?

  20. Thank you Alan! It’s amazing the ’03 team had 7 All Stars and not a one was Glavine, Maddux, or Chipper!
    I hadn’t thought about that great stretch from Smoltz in the context of such a short period. 89 saves has got to rank really high on the list for the most in the period from the start of one season until the ASB of the next. Or any stretch of the same number of games.

  21. This is the lineup that I will always have memorized long after I’ve forgotten anything useful.

    And MAN was Sheff fun to watch this year! One of my enduring memories from this season was a game up at that depressing Montreal stadium, in which Sheffield became demonstrably unhappy with the ump’s strike zone, which inevitably brought Bobby out to get tossed, but not before he had one of his longer tirades that I remember.

    As I recall, Sheff then promptly hit a bases clearing triple, and still seemed pissed as he handed over his batting gloves to the third base coach (which was Fredi by that point? Pretty sure).

    I think it may have been this game, in which case it must of been a double rather than a triple:

    https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MON/MON200307270.shtml

    Either way, it was a wonderful example of what made Bobby great, roster autopiloting notwithstanding. Who knows if that umpire’s strike zone was really that bad, but Bobby was always more than willing to be thrown out before one of his players could get tossed, even for supposed malcontents like Sheffield.

  22. So, lots of one-year deals handed out this offseason. Which c-word can we blame for this: Covid or collusion? What are you guys’ read on the free agent market overall?

  23. Honestly, I think more covid than overt collusion, as the last couple of offseasons have seen a major shift away from long-term contracts. I would buy some form of “soft collusion” — it’s very clear that major league teams have very little desire to hand out long-term deals right now, which is mutually beneficial as it serves to depress the market as long as all of the teams continue to hold the line. They wouldn’t need to actually coordinate unless someone broke ranks, but the occasional J.T. Realmuto extension really isn’t enough to require that.

    Keith Law just published his top 100 prospects. Four Braves in the top 100, which really isn’t bad:

    3. Cristian Pache, OF, Atlanta, Age: 22
    Pache is an 80 defender in center who draws comparisons to Andruw Jones, and not just because of the Atlanta connection. He’s a plus runner with plus raw power who didn’t homer at all until his third year in pro ball, seeing his power increase in the last two seasons toward an ultimate projection of 20-25 homers a year. His reads and range are at the top end of the scale, and he has a huge arm to go along with the glove. All that remains for Pache beyond further physical maturation is working on his approach at the plate, where he’s been very aggressive, making plenty of contact but limiting his OBP and not always waiting for a pitch he can drive. That defense alone will give him a very long career in the majors, but a 25-homer/25-steal center fielder with top-of-the-line defense and even a .330 OBP is a star.

    15. Ian Anderson, RHP, Atlanta, Age: 23
    Anderson has long been a top prospect, as the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft and the No. 27 prospect in baseball last winter, but he was better than anyone expected when he saw the majors last year, thanks to a changeup that big-league hitters could not figure out. Anderson’s fastball velocity is above average, but the pitch doesn’t have great spin, so he uses the changeup heavily as a swing-and-miss pitch (hitters whiffed on 20 percent of the changeups he threw) and to keep hitters off the fastball. His curveball is above average despite a low spin rate because that increases its deception, giving him one of the larger deviations between the spin-based movement and the observed movement on the pitch of any curveball in the majors. Even with a fastball that plays below its velocity, he has two real offspeed weapons in his quiver, pitches aggressively, and is built to eat innings, the way you’d want a No. 2 or better starter to do.

    64. Braden Shewmake, SS, Atlanta, Age: 23
    When Shewmake came out of Texas A&M in 2019, scouts’ expectations were that he’d have to move to another position, either third base or possibly center field, where he’d looked very good during BP and infield/outfield. Now he’s almost a lock to stay at shortstop after a strong showing there in Low A after he was drafted, and he worked at the alternate site with Atlanta in 2020, with a bat that could make him a quiet star over there. Shewmake has good bat-to-ball skills with loose hands at the plate, but his swing is handsy and doesn’t make much use of his lower half, so even as he fills out – and he has a lot of room to do so – he may not automatically add power without some mechanical changes to make him less linear and more rotational. As is, he might hit .300 thanks to his high contact rates, and he’s an above-average runner who’ll add some value on the bases. All that with reliable, solid-average defense at short points to a regular, and a great pick for Atlanta with their second first-round selection in the 2019 draft.

    70. William Contreras, C, Atlanta, Age: 23
    Contreras got a cup of coffee in 2020, going 4 for 10 in four games, despite having just 60 games above A ball coming into the season. He’s an exceptional athlete with good strength, moving better than you might expect from his stocky build. He’s got a great, easy swing with good follow-through that generates hard contact, and despite being young for his levels he’s posted low strikeout rates. Atlanta has had him work with catching instructor Sal Fasano, and Contreras has come a long way in his defensive skills, where he might end up an above-average defender there. The bat is the part that’s special, where he might become a star, and he’ll probably go to Triple A now at age 23, so he’ll be around the right age for his level for the first time and we should see more of that hard contact turn into doubles and home run power.

    He’s not a believer in Drew Waters, I think due to the hole in Waters’s swing. Basically, Waters is one of many, many guys who is going to have a lot to prove this year when they get back to having actual games. Law notes that this list was flawed due to no ability to watch these prospects play minor league games, so things could certainly change a lot with in-game play this year. But the players will have to really do the work.

  24. I’m a little surprised to see Shewmake ranked so highly. Has anyone seen him play in person? Will he stick as a shortstop?

  25. Law really likes prospects who can stick at shortstop. I’m sure Shewmake wouldn’t be ranked anywhere near that highly if he were likely to have to move off the position. Reliable defense with good contact and okay power makes him sound like Dansby 2.0.

  26. I’m a big fan of being this far into our “competitive window” and still having 4 top 100 prospects. As Alex highlighted, once the Braves started winning in the 90’s, the farm system emptied. And we have 4 top 100 prospects with international sanctions gutting half the marketplace for us. And now that we’re starting to pick towards the back of the draft, we can sign IFAs again, so I hope we can continue to have a decent system.

  27. Yes, exactly. The farm system emptied due to our own poor drafts. If we had drafted from ’94 to ’99 as well as we drafted from ’00 to ’06, we probably would have kept finishing first. Jury’s out, but our last few drafts have looked okay, and they’ve certainly borne fruit in some of the trades we’ve been able to make.

  28. @29
    And 4 is the lowest as most outlets have Braves with 7.

    On Shewmake, many people that had some level of access to data and/or video from the alt site had great things to say about Shewmake, even to the point that he could be up early this year.

  29. If you’re like Shewmake and you had less than 1 or 2 years of pro ball under your belt, I would have to think we’re at a disadvantage in understanding where they are developmentally because of the lost season. I would think that with early 20’s athletes, being close to the org’s home base, playing less games, working out more might have a big impact on their development.

    Gosh, I just want this season to get here already. We’ve watched only 75 games since October 2019.

  30. @32, amen and @34, amen!

    Btw I don’t really know what it means but is “seam-shifted wake” pretty much what Greg Maddux did better than anyone else ever?

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