The Atlanta Braves All-time Starting Rotation
Imagine it was your responsibility to choose a starting rotation for a fantasy team which was to then compete against all other all-time teams. The rules are that you may select any pitcher on the Braves all-time roster with 1000 or more innings with the Braves team.
We will, for the sake of inclusion, choose a five-man rotation, some back up spot-starters for the day night double headers, and look to see if there are any exceptional relievers to include for the team.
How will your team stack up against the other all-time competition? How does the team history coincide with its best pitchers?
An initial glance at the all-time pitching roster for the Braves reveals some obvious choices for the all-time team. In fact, making a cut off for the spot starters may ruffle a few feathers.
The real mystery here is gaining an understanding of how this franchise changed and developed throughout history.
They have not always been the Atlanta Braves. Those of us with a few years under our belts may be aware that they moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee. Yes, I knew of the Milwaukee Braves with Eddie Matthews and Hank Aaron. They went to two World Series, in ‘57 and ’58, winning in ’57.
History reports that the team moved to Milwaukee from Boston. This happened in ’53. The team had won the pennant in ’48, facing the Indians in the World Series. It’s before this that my knowledge of the team drew a blank—a black hole—before the 40s.
The team’s history in the National League goes all the way back to the league’s foundation. However, the team wasn’t always known as the Braves. Here comes the tricky part.
Without going into the political reasons behind the name changes, here is a thumbnail view of the names the team went under in Boston before the 1940s:
1871-1876 — The Red Stockings
1876-1882 — The Red Caps
1883-1906 — The Beaneaters
1907-1910 — The Doves
1911 — The Rustlers
1912-1935 — The Braves
1936-1940 — Bees
1941-Today — The Braves
The Braves had one pennant to their name before ’48. In 1914 they had what is referred to as the “miracle” season. The year before they had managed fifth place in the eight team National League. But the four years before that they had been cellar dwellers. The 1914 Braves surprised and shocked the baseball world, and then swept the World Series.
From the advent of the Modern Era in 1901, the team was a second-division ball club right up to post-WWII. No wonder I didn’t know much about them.
Before 1901 the Boston history was a different story. From the beginning of the NL until the modern era, 1876-1901, the Red Caps/Beaneaters won eight pennants. They were major players in the pre-modern times, and had the pitchers to back it up.
Some pitchers who graced the team with their presence, but don’t figure here for the all-time staff, are Cy Young (80 innings), and Charles Radbourn—Era+99. Burleigh Grimes joined the team (1930) briefly before he hung up his spikes. Rube Marquard posted a lovely ERA of 4.44 in his four years with the team, ’22-’25. The Braves hired HOF closer Bruce Sutter to close their games a bit after his peak, as he put up a not so impressive ERA+89 from ’85-’88.
The early years starting rotation –
From 1876-1883 the team won three pennants behind the capable pitching of Tommy Bond, Jim Whitney and Charles Buffinton.
The team won five more pennants in the 1890s. The Beaneaters followed the lead of Kid Nichols for these championships. He rose to be one of the most important pitchers of the pre-modern era, winning 329 games for the Beaneaters.
Other HOF pitchers making major contributions to the team in the early years were Vic Willis and John Clarkson.Clarkson was one of the five greats from the period, and pitched for the Beaneaters from 1888-1892.
An early years starting rotation, (of course they used only 2 pitchers on a team to start games back then), might look like this: Kid Nichols, John Clarkson, Vic Willis, Jim Whitney, and Tommy Bond. This is a nice collection of pre-modern era pitchers; an era when the Beaneaters were a dominant team.
Our early years back up, or spot starters will be Dick Rudolph, a reasonably good pitcher from the teens and 20s, Johnny Sain who had a nice if short career in the 40s, and Charlie Buffinton.
However, you may notice there are no pitchers on the list from 1910, when Vic Willis retired to the days of Johnny Sain.
The post-1950 Braves starting rotation –
Looming over any conversation of an all-time Braves pitching rotation must be Warren Spahn. The ace of the Braves staff won 20 games 13 times, led the team to World Series appearances in ’48, ’57 and ’58, and won 356 games for the team along the way.
Spahn prided himself on out-thinking the hitter. He said there were only two pitches that mattered—the one the batter is expecting, and the one I’m going to throw to him. Spahn’s epic career spanned the entire era of the Golden years. When he retired, he was third all-time in strikeouts.
Rising up after Spahn retired was a pitcher destined to establish another epic career of over 5000 IP. He baffled hundreds of batters with his knuckleball, probably using the pitch more prolifically than anyone else in history.
Phil Niekro won over 300 games, collected over 3000 Ks, and posted 45 shutouts. He pitched for many losing teams, and actually led the league in losses four times. But the overall effect of his career was very positive. He became beloved of the fans for remaining so loyal to the teams through periods of losing.
Greg Maddux, “the professor”, joined the Braves during the peak of his career in 1993. He followed up his Cy Young award with the Cubs from the previous year with three more consecutive awards. Maddux was known for studying his opponents, and coming up with the most efficient ways to get them out.
It wasn’t unusual for Maddux to be throwing late into games without actually having thrown many pitches. He established an ERA+163 during his Braves’ years. Although not a strikeout pitcher, Maddux totaled over 3300 for his career.
Tom Glavine was the poster boy for the ‘90s Braves teams. He was smart, with a smooth fluent delivery. He nibbled at corners and corners of corners, often getting umpires to let their strike zone drift to his favor. He rarely gave in to batters, and has 1500 BBs to prove it.
Tom Glavine is a lefty 300 game winner – a valuable commodity for an all-time staff.
The third member of this famous trio of aces on the 1990s Braves teams is John Smoltz. Smoltz was the hardest thrower of the three. He featured a devastating slider, and a fastball he easily kept in the mid 90s.
John was one of the toughest competitors in baseball. If you had an important game to win, he would be on the short list of all-time pitchers you’d want to take the ball. His 14 post-season wins were the most on record until passed by Andy Pettitte in 2009.
The spot starter is easy to ‘spot’ on the Braves’ all-time roster. Lew Burdette put in many fine seasons in the 50s and 60s for the team. He and Spahn formed one of the great duos in baseball history. From ’53-’62 he won 15 or more games all but one year, and all were winning seasons.
The Braves best closer by far is John Smoltz. He spent three years filling the role for the team, 2002-2004. Gene Garber and Mark Wohlers also saved over 100 games .
One of the great set up relievers, (at least when he was on the Braves), was Mike Remlinger, who pitched 327 games for the Braves, all in relief, and established an ERA+161.
The all-time staff/rotation would look like this:
1- Greg Maddux
2- Warren Spahn
3- Kid Nichols
4- Tom Glavine
5- John Smoltz
6- Phil Niekro
There is some flexibility here for using Smoltz as a closer.
All-time spot starters – John Clarkson, Vic Willis, Lew Burdette
The Braves probably have one of the strongest all-time starting rotations among all teams. Considering the vast stretches of futility on their record, they were blessed with some amazing pitchers with outstanding endurance.