To kick off the Atlanta Braves season, we are going to take a look at the five greatest Braves of all time in Atlanta Braves History. Before you light the pitchforks and torches, let me go ahead and say the all-time great Brave, Hank Aaron, played twelve seasons in Milwaukee and nine seasons in Atlanta, and for that reason, he is in the honorable mentions. If you want to read more about the statistical anomaly and overall top-notch human being that was Hammerin’ Hank, check out my article about him here.
My next disclaimer is that the way I ranked these players is purely by statistical performance during their time in Atlanta. By overall career performance, these rankings would probably look different, but for the purpose of this article, we are just looking at performance while as a member of the Atlanta Braves.
With that said, let’s go!
Atlanta Braves History: Best of the Best
5. Andruw Jones
Andruw Jones was brought up to the Atlanta Braves in August of the 1996 season. He played in 31 games during the regular season, mostly in right field since left and center were manned by Marquis Grissom.
Jones struggled a little during the regular season of 1996 but burst onto the scene during the 1996 postseason. Given the national spotlight, Jones would play in 14 games during the 1996 postseason and promptly make himself a household name. His 6.2% walk rate jumped to 18.9% in the postseason, and his strikeout rate dropped from 25.7% to 21.6%. His batting average jumped .128 points and his slugging jumped .247 points to give him a cool postseason OPS of 1.176.
What people remember most from that postseason is Jones becoming the youngest player in history at 19 years old to homer in a World Series game, doing so in his first at-bat. But that wasn’t enough for Jones, who homered again in his second at-bat, becoming only the second player in history to homer in their first two at-bats of a world series.
Andruw Jones would go on to be a staple in Atlanta as the everyday centerfielder for the next eleven seasons, becoming a five-time All-Star, winning ten consecutive Gold Gloves from 1998-2007. Jones would have 6 seasons in Atlanta where he posted an fWAR of at least 6.0, and in 2005 he finished second in all of MLB with an fWAR of 7.9, wedged between AL MVP Alex Rodriguez in first and NL MVP Albert Pujols in third. That same season, Jones led the Majors in home runs with 51 and led the NL in RBIs with 128. He would be awarded the NL Hank Aaron Award that same year.
4. Phil Niekro
Phil “Knucksie” Niekro was probably the most famous Atlanta Braves pitcher for years until the famous three-headed monster of the 90s came around, and for good reason. In a 24 year career, Niekro played 20 of those seasons for the Braves, 18 being in Atlanta. His first three seasons came with ups and downs, but in 1967 Phil found who he was and became the model of consistency on the mound for the Atlanta ball club.
Part of the reason Niekro was able to stay around for so long was the pitch that gave him his nickname, the knuckleball. Niekro’s father, Phil Niekro Sr., was an amateur pitcher for a coal-mining team in eastern Ohio, and he learned the knuckleball pitch from another coal miner after hurting his arm and subsequently taught it to his sons.
Phil’s first season of success came in a role where he was both a starter and a reliever. He appeared in 46 games, starting 20 of them, and collected nine saves with a 1.87 ERA over 207 innings. While that was his best season in terms of ERA, he would go on over the next years to be far more valuable by pitching an amount of innings that, by today’s standards, is incredible. From 1968-1980 he only pitched less than 250 innings twice, never pitched less than 225, and four times he pitched over 300 innings.
During his time in Atlanta, Niekro has four seasons where he accumulated more than 6 fWAR, and only accumulated less than 3 fWAR three times. In 1978 he amassed the most fWAR in the NL with an elite 8.6, second in the Majors to AL Cy Young winner Ron Guidry.
Niekro however did not win the NL Cy Young despite being 2.2 fWAR better than the next best NL pitcher, and 2.7 fWAR better than winner Gaylord Perry. This is largely due to the fact that Niekro went 19-18 while Perry went 21-6, but it’s worth noting the 1978 Braves offense had an MLB worst 81 wRC+ and were tied for fourth-fewest runs, so Knucksie winning 19 games over 334 ⅓ innings with a 2.88 ERA was nothing short of him putting the team on his back and carrying the load.
Overall, Phil Niekro entrenched himself in knuckleball lore with a fantastic career spent predominantly in Atlanta. In the ATL he pitched a total of 4,533 innings (1,125 more than second-place Tom Glavine), recorded the second-most strikeouts for the club with 2,855 K’s, and also leads the club in career wins with 266. He also gave Atlanta their first-ever no-hitter in August of 1973 With a final career ERA of 3.20, he amassed 71.9 fWAR for the third most in Atlanta Braves history.
Unfortunately, Phil passed away in December of 2020, but if you want to read more about his fascinating career, you can find that here.
3. Greg Maddux
Greg Maddux is truly a player that needs no introduction since in his career he cemented himself as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Maddux is fourth all-time in pitching WAR in the entire history of MLB, just behind Walter Johnson, Cy Young himself, and Roger Clemens. The peak of Maddux’s domination was played predominantly in Atlanta as the Braves ace of the staff from 1993-2003.
Maddux was a free agent signing by the Braves after starting his career as a member of the Chicago Cubs. During Maddux’s time in Atlanta, he had six consecutive years of posting an fWAR above 7.0 and an ERA below 3.00, maybe the two most dominant seasons coming in ‘94 and ‘95 when he threw over 200 innings with ERAs of 1.56 and 1.63, respectively. And the lows of Maddux’s time in Atlanta were not lows at all. In his ten years, he never once posted an ERA above 4.00, helping him to club-best career ERA of 2.63.
Greg Maddux has maybe one of the most decorated trophy rooms in baseball, with the majority of them being won in Atlanta. After leading MLB in wins for the Cubs and winning the Cy Young award in 1992, Maddux would go on to win three more consecutive Cy Young awards in his first three years in Atlanta. He also was the MLB leader in wins leader in ‘94 and ‘95 and the MLB ERA leader from ‘93-’95 and ‘98.
Maddux may not have stuck around as long as an Atlanta Brave than the others on this list, but it is clear his impact in his time in Atlanta will be remembered by fans and the organization forever. A key piece of the 1995 World Series team, the only title to be won in Atlanta, and a dominant stretch the likes of which we may never see again, makes Maddux a clear all-time great in an Atlanta uniform.
2. John Smoltz
The flamethrower and professional golfer known as John Smoltz may not get the love today as a member of the Atlanta Three-Headed Monster he deserves because 1. Greg Maddux was so dominant during his time in ATL and 2. Glavine is remembered as the lefty and ‘95 World Series MVP, but Smoltz spent 20 seasons pitching in Atlanta as both a starter and closer and holds the claim for most fWAR accumulated by any Atlanta Braves pitcher in history with 78.2.
Smoltz dipped his toes in the Majors in 1988, but his first full season at age 22 in 1989 is when Smoltz burst onto the scene. In his first full season Smoltz started 29 games over 208 innings, with a 2.94 ERA, 168 Ks, and a HR/9 of just 0.65. In a sort of Phil Niekro-like damnation, Smoltz only went 12-11 due to the fact that in ‘89 the Braves posted a MLB worst 78 wRC+ and scored the second-fewest runs.
Smoltz would continue to dominate along with staff mate Tom Glavine into the 90s, a decade the Braves would take by storm. But as previously mentioned, Maddux coming to Atlanta in ‘93 and his dominance as the ace overshadowed Smoltz, along with injury issues keeping Smoltz off the field at times. But in 1996, Smoltz decided it was his turn to be recognized as the bonafide, frontline pitcher he was.
Remember when Maddux won four consecutive Cy Young awards from ‘92-’95, three of them being in Atlanta? Well, the award didn’t leave Atlanta in 1996, it was just simply given to John Smoltz this go around. In ‘96 Smotlz went 24-8 over 35 starts and 253 ⅔ innings pitched with an ERA of 2.94. ‘96 was by far a career-best in terms of total production for Smoltz, accumulating 8.4 fWAR, 0.6 more than second-place teammate Maddux, along with a career-high 276 strikeouts. And the domination didn’t stop in the regular season, that same postseason where Andruw Jones put his name on the map, Smoltz went 4-1 over 38 innings with a 0.95 ERA.
Smoltz started facing real injury concerns at the turn of the millennium, causing him to miss the entire 2000 season. Rather than hang it up or stubbornly want to be a starter or nothing, Smoltz reinvented himself as a reliever to limit the stress on his arm. His conversion to a bullpen piece at his age 34 season in 2002 probably could not have gone better. Smoltz recorded a MLB best 55 saves and was awarded the NL Rolaids Relief Man Award. In 2003 Smoltz recorded 45 saves in 62 games with an ERA of 1.12, and in 2004 he recorded 44 saves with a 2.76 ERA.
In 2005 Smoltz would convert back to being a starter, and picked up right where he left off posting an fWAR above 5 for the first time since 1999. In 2006 Smotlz went 16-9 to tie for most wins in the NL, and from 2005-2007 at the ages of 38, 39, and 40 made more than 30 starts, pitched over 200 innings, and recorded an fWAR above 5.0 each season.
2008 finally brought an end to the Atlanta days of Smoltz, pitching 28 innings both as a starter and reliever until he had season-ending surgery. But the mark Smoltz left on the game and the city of Atlanta will last more than a lifetime. As a member of the 3,000 strikeout club, Smoltz sits 17th in strikeouts all-time and 21st in all-time pitching fWAR, just behind Curt Schilling and just ahead of the iconic Tommy John.
As far as postseason accolades go, Smoltz is second all-time in postseason wins with 15, third in postseason innings pitched with 209, and third in postseason strikeouts with 199. The Braves probably didn’t win as much in the postseason as they should have in the ‘90s and early 2000s, but Smoltz certainly did his part on a year-to-year basis to give them every opportunity a man on the mound could give them. For that reason, he is the second all-time greatest Atlanta Braves player and THE greatest Atlanta Braves pitcher of all time.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for with baited breath, number one on this list is obviously none other than Larry Wayne “Chipper” Jones Jr.
Chipper Jones started his career at 18 years old as the number one overall pick in the 1990 June Amateur Draft. He had a cup of coffee in the Big Leagues in ‘93 and spent the strike-shortened ‘94 on the injured list with an ACL tear that occurred in Spring Training, so the real “welcome to the Big Leagues” moment came for Chipper in 1995 at the age of 23, where he played 140 games and hit 23 home runs with .265 batting average and a .803 OPS. His rookie year would end with a World Series title in a postseason that saw Chipper hit three homers across 14 games and post an OPS 1.064 for a 171 wRC+.
Chipper would go on to play 17 more seasons after his rookie year and establish himself as a franchise cornerstone and fan favorite. Of his 18 seasons in Atlanta, he would go on to post an fWAR greater than or equal to 6.0 seven times and an fWAR greater than 3.0 thirteen times. His career-high in fWAR in a single season was 7.3 in 1999, the same year he hit his career-high in home runs with 45, stole 25 bases, walked 18% of plate appearances while only striking out 13.4% of the time, and slashed .319/.441/.633 for a 1.074 OPS. That ‘99 performance would earn Chipper the NL MVP.
I would be remiss if I didn’t really hammer home just how consistent Chipper was at hitting. He had eight seasons with a wRC+ above 150 and twelve seasons above 125. His career average wRC+ is 141, which is tied for 59th all-time among all of MLB history, tied for 9th all-time among third basemen, and 4th among third basemen who are in the Hall of Fame.
After all in Chipper’s career was said and done, the Hall of Fame third basemen was an eight-time All-Star, NL MVP, two-time Silver Slugger Award winner, 2008 batting champion with a .364 average, and a World Series winner. Jones was an integral part of the Franchise winning 14 division titles in a row, the latter eleven starting in Jones’s rookie year of 1995, meaning the first eleven years of his career were spent winning the division.
Jones would finish his career in the Atlanta Braves stat books with the most career home runs at 468, the most RBIs with 1623, the most hits with 2,726, and the most career fWAR with 84.6. Now, 26 years after his rookie year, Chipper Jones has joined the Atlanta Braves for the 2021 season as a major-league hitting consultant, still looking to make an impact for the Atlanta ball club all these years later.
Tom Glavine- 54.7 fWAR
Glavine pitched for the Braves from 1987 to 2002 as a part of the three-headed monster that was Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine. He won the NL Cy Young in both 1991 as part of the “Worst to First” team and again in 1998. He was also an eight-time all-star as a Brave, led the NL in wins five times from 1991 to 2000, and won four silver slugger awards.
Hank Aaron- 52.8 fWAR
Hammerin’ Hank is truly a man that needs no introduction but didn’t make the top as mentioned before because a good portion of his career was spent as a Milwaukee Brave. In Atlanta, Hank Aaron was a ten-time all-star, two-time NL home run leader, and set the all-time home run record in 1974 while playing at the Braves’ home field of Fulton Co. Stadium.
Dale Murphy– 44.3 fWAR
Murph spent the majority of his career playing for an Atlanta team that wasn’t very good and was traded the year before the team went “Worst to First” in 1991, but because of the team being subpar, Murphy’s production for Atlanta stuck out like a sore thumb. He was a seven-time all-star, five-time Gold Glove winner, four-time Silver Slugger winner, two-time NL home run leader, two-time NL RBI leader, and a two-time NL MVP. The problem was that Murphy’s peak was only for six seasons and year-to-year inconsistency caused his production to fluctuate. Still, a two-time MVP is nothing to scoff at, and I would have been ashamed to not make mention of Murph on this list.
Brian McCann– 43.6 fWAR
Brian McCann is remembered as the franchise catcher that replaced fan favorite Javy Lopez, and with big shoes to fill he did not disappoint. McCann played for the Braves from 2005-2013, in that time he was a five time Silver Slugger, went to six consecutive All-Star games from 2006-2011, and in 2008 he finished the season with 8.6 fWAR, just 0.1 behind 2008 NL MVP Albert Pujols.
Freddie Freeman– 37.7 fWAR
Freddie Freeman, your 2020 NL MVP, is only an honorable mention because his career is far from over. Entering 2021 at 31 years old, his approach and hitting ability seems to only get better every year. He is already sixth all-time in Atlanta Braves fWAR and shows no signs of slowing down, only time will tell if Freddie can give Chipper a run for his money as the Atlanta Hitting King.
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