Baseball

MLB History: Lonnie Smith in 1989

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Lonnie Smith is no stranger to MLB history. For 17 seasons spent in six different cities, Smith was pretty good.

However, for one 134-game stretch in 1989, Smith was the best position player in the sport.

68 position players have combined for 162 seasons with a bWAR of 8.8 or better. The usual suspects populate the list. Babe Ruth did it 10 times. Willie Mays and Rogers Hornsby did it nine times apiece. Mike Trout has five seasons to his name, and Mookie Betts owns a pair.

Perhaps the most unlikely name on the list is Lonnie Smith.

Welcome to MLB History

By the time Smith stepped foot in Atlanta, he was an established commodity in Major League Baseball. Across 10 seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, and Kansas City Royals, Smith was a career 112 OPS+. He was a speed demon, tallying 308 stolen bases including a mammoth 68 in his 1982 season. For his work, Smith finished second in MVP voting behind future Braves teammate Dale Murphy.

Smith got the last laugh in 1982, however. Smith and the Cardinals knocked off Murphy’s Braves in an NLCS sweep before triumphing over the Milwaukee Brewers in a seven-game World Series.

Smith was the best player on a World Series-winning team? Impressive. Smith led the team in OPS+ and bWAR, pacing the NL in runs scored.

It was Smith’s second ring of three for his career as he won rings in his first full season with the Phillies (1980), and he got revenge on the Cardinals after they dealt him to the Royals in 1985.

After his third World Series, Smith began to decline. He had a solid 1986 season, but 1987 and 1988 represent the nadir of Smith’s career. Over those seasons, one with Kansas City and the other with the Atlanta Braves, Smith limped to an 86 OPS+ and a 0.4 WAR.

1989 in Braves History

Smith entered his age-33 season with low expectations. Smith would be the everyday left fielder, but the Braves were in the midst of a six-year run of finishing fifth or worst in the NL West; starting for the team was far from an accomplishment.

Smith tore the cover off the ball in April. Across 24 games, Smith slashed .326/.451/.500. After having quiet series against the New York Mets and Phillies to begin May, Smith put together a 12-game stretch for the ages. Leading the Braves to a 7-5 record before missing time with an injury, Smith posted a 1.288 OPS. Nine of his 14 hits went for extra bases, and he added 12 walks.

He joined a shortlist of players to walk three times in three consecutive games, a list headlined by Ruth (four games in a row in 1930), Mickey Mantle (1957), and Reggie Jackson (1969). Barry Bonds is the last player to accomplish this feat, doing it in 2002, 2003, and 2006 to bring the list to 11 players for 13 total occurrences.

After missing nearly a month with injury, Smith picked up where he left off. Over the next 54 games. (June 13 to August 11), he slashed .330/.411/.589 to finish with a perfectly round OPS of 1.000.

Smith was not quite the same for the last quarter of the season, but his .811 OPS was two points shy of Tony Gwynn‘s season and 34 points better than Bonds’ season.

When the season wrapped up, Smith finished third in batting average, fifth in slugging percentage, third in OPS, and fourth in OPS+. He led the NL with a .415 on-base percentage.

In terms of value, Smith accumulated the fourth-most batting runs and third-most fielding runs. He finished sixth in oWAR and seventh in dWAR. All told, Smith’s 8.8 bWAR paced the National League and all position players in 1989.

Oh, and it only took 134 games. Smith was the only player in the top 12 of the NL in bWAR to play in fewer than 148 games.

The Best Seasons in Braves History

Smith’s 8.8 bWAR is the fifth-highest in Braves history. Murphy maxed out at 7.7 in 1987. Chipper Jones‘ best season was a 7.6 in 2007. Andrew Jones racked up 8.2 in 2000. Only Henry Aaron (twice), Darrell Evans, and Rogers Hornsby exceeded Smith’s masterful season. Naturally, Smith is in another stratosphere in terms of pace as he would have beaten all four seasons had he kept his pace for just 12 more games. It is fair to call Smith’s season one of the best in Braves history, and it may be the flat-out best in the 145-year Braves history.

With WAR being an accumulation stat, playing in more games lends itself to better results. Take the last three players to reach the 8.8-WAR mark: Marcus Semien, Cody Bellinger, and Alex Bregman. They played 162, 156, and 156 games respectively.

Smith did the equivalent of speed-running an 8.8 WAR season. Only George Brett (1980: 9.4 WAR in 117 games), Bonds (2003: 9.2 WAR in 130 games), Ruth (1919: 9.1 WAR in 130 games), and Ted Williams (1957: 9.7 WAR in 132 games) played fewer games and matched Smith’s WAR. Across a full slate of 162 games, Smith would have paced for a massive 10.6 WAR tally.

Smith finished 11th in NL MVP voting in 1989. He did not make the All-Star roster. Gwynn, Eric Davis, and NL MVP Kevin Mitchell edged him out for Silver Slugger nods. Davis, Gwynn, and Andy Van Slyke won the NL Gold Gloves for the outfield.

Had voting taken place in the modern era, Davis and Gwynn are likely nowhere near the ballot, let alone winning Gold Gloves. In terms of total zone runs, Davis finished with -21, placing him 256th in the NL (in just 125 games). Gwynn tried for 257th with -23, the lowest mark in the NL. On the other end of the spectrum, Smith ranked tied for third behind Bonds and Ozzie Smith. In a logical Gold Glove vote, Bonds and Smith join Van Slyke (+13 TZ in 125 games).

As for the Silver Slugger, Mitchell deserves the first spot no matter if the voters use a traditional stat lens (47 home runs, 125 RBI, .291 average) or a slightly more advanced lens (leader in slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+ by wide margins). The Davis selection is also fine. He slashed .281/.367/.541 to finish with an OPS of .908 and OPS+ of 153. Was it as good as Smith? No, but it is a solid third place.

Gwynn and Smith’s battle for the third slot turns into a rout in favor of Smith. While Gwynn hit for an impressive .336 average and totaled 203 hits (both leading the league), Smith finished third with a .315 average. Smith beats Gwynn by 24 points in on-base percentage, 109 points in slugging percentage, and 36 points in OPS+.

Prefer Fangraphs? Gwynn’s wOBA of .360 and wRC+ of 132, while solid, fall well short of Smith’s .420 and 167 respectively.

Had the Braves been competitive (they were 10.5 games out of the division by June 9), maybe Smith would have gotten the appreciation he deserved at the moment. He had a strong argument for MVP, only to finish 11th. Statistically, he deserved a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove; he got neither. If Smith had been a household name like Gwynn or had been on a 92-win Giants team (like Mitchell and runner-up Will Clark) or 89-win Padres team (like Gwynn), he likely sweeps the award.

Smith’s closest contemporary is 2019, Mike Trout. Trout played 134 games for a 72-win Angels team. He racked up 8.2 WAR. Trout had a better hitting season (OPS+ of 182), but he was a below-average fielder (-2 fielding runs). Trout won the MVP, his third, despite steep competition. Smith finished 11th despite a comparatively weaker MVP race.


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Ryan Potts is an avid football and baseball fan. He covers the NFL and Major League Baseball, focusing on the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Braves.