By 1991, the Atlanta Braves were largely irrelevant for 20 years. They’d made a playoff or two and lost quickly, and Hank Aaron had hit his 715th homer while in Braves uniform, but that was about it. Their owner, Ted Turner, may have been more well-known than the Braves. That changed in 1991, when they, like the Twins went from last place to a pennant.
Manager Bobby Cox was over from a stint as manager and general manager at Toronto (and he’s never really gotten proper credit for that). He led a team that went 92-70 and beat Pittsburgh for the National League pennant. They were second in the NL in runs, doubles, average, and OBP. They were third or fourth in slugging, OPS, hits, and homers. The staff was third in ERA, saves, and runs given up while being first in hits allowed (meaning they gave up the fewest hits in the league).
The staff was, in some ways, the heart of the team, although it was not yet the staff that dominated most of the 1990s (Greg Maddux wasn’t there). Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, and Charlie Leibrandt were all lefties and accounted for three-quarters of the main staff. Glavine had 20 wins, Avery 18, and Leibrandt had 15. Glavine’s ERA was 2.55 and easily led the starters. John Smoltz was the right-hander. He went 14-13 and had a starter high 3.80 ERA. Between them they started 141 games. Glavine led the team with 192 strikeouts and Avery’s ERA+ of 116 led the starters. Galvine, Avery, and Smoltz all produced WAR above 5 with Glavine leading the team at 9.3. All that got Glavine his first Cy Young Award. Juan Berenguer had a 2.24 ERA and 17 saves while Mike Stanton appeared in 74 games with an ERA of 2.88. By late in the season Dodgers reliever Alejandro Pena had taken over the closer role racking up 11 saves in 14 appearances with an ERA of 1.40.
Greg Olson did most of the catching. He was 30, hit .241 with no power, and allowed stolen bases at a rate above the league average. Mike Heath was his backup. He was 36, hit even worse, and wasn’t any better behind the plate. Playoff hero Francisco Cabrera got into 31 games, only a handful as catcher.
Six men shared outfield duty. David Justice, former Rookie of the Year, was in right field. He was third on the team with 21 home runs, hit .275, had 87 RBIs (good for second on the team) and managed all of 1.6 WAR. Otis Nixon and Ron Gant shared time in center. Nixon was fast, leading the team with 72 stolen bases and walked more than he struck out. Gant provided the power. He led the team with 32 home runs and 105 RBIs. His WAR was 1.4 while Nixon checked in at 2.2, Left field saw Lonnie Smith and Brian Hunter split duty. Smith wasn’t much of an outfielder (the called him “Skates” for a reason), but he could still hit going .275 for the season. Hunter was new. He played a lot at first and was another player in the lineup primarily for his bat. His 12 home runs were fourth on the team. Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders got into 54 games for Atlanta, primarily in the outfield. He hit .191 and had 11 stolen bases.
The infield was stable at the corners and in flux up the middle. MVP Terry Pendleton, over from St. Louis, hit .319 with 22 home runs, 86 RBIs, and a 6.1 WAR, tops among non-pitchers. Sid Bream was across the diamond at first. He was notoriously slow (which is part of what makes his “dash” in the playoffs so famous), but could hit and fielded his position well. He had 11 home runs in 91 games (Hunter did most of the first base work in Bream’s absence.). Jeff Treadway, Rafael Belliard, Jeff Blauser, and Mark Lemke worked the middle of the diamond. Treadway hit .320, Blauser popped 11 home runs, neither Belliard nor Lemke hit .250, but both were good defensemen.
The Braves, like the Twins, were surprise winners. They had a nice mix of veterans and fairly new guys and a pitching staff that was rounding into form. With Glavine winning the Cy Young and Pendleton the MVP they were capable of winning the whole thing.
Tags: 1991 Atlanta Braves, Alejandro Pena, Bobby Cox, Brian Hunter, Charlie Leibrandt, David Justice, Deion Sanders, Francisco Cabrera, Greg Olson, Jeff Blauser, Jeff Treadway, John Smoltz, Juan Berenguer, Lonnie Smith, Mark Lemke, Mike Heath, Mike Stanton, Otis Nixon, Rafael Belliard, Ron Gant, Sid Bream, Steve Avery, Terry Pendleton, Tom Glavine