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4 Best Pitchers in Atlanta Braves History

By Edited Jan 22, 2015 1 1

I was lucky enough to see the Atlanta Braves go on their unprecedented run of 14 straight Division Titles from 1991 to 2005. If you do the math, that is a span of 15 years so what’s up?

There was a Major League Baseball strike in 1994 in August and they ended up cancelling the rest of the season. It is a good thing for the Braves’ streak of division titles too because they were behind the Montreal Expos at that time by about nine games. So through that quirk in history, the streak continued until the 2005 season.

During the run of 14 Division titles, the Braves appeared in the World Series 5 times, but only winning one title at Turner Field.

The key to their success during this stretch was above average starting pitching. In fact, two of the three are already in the Baseball Hall of Fame with the third eligible for the 2015 Ballot for the first time.

During this stretch, their great starting pitchers combined for a total of eight Cy Young winners on the Atlanta Braves roster. Two of the three would eventually become 300 game winners, something that is virtually impossible to do in the modern game.

In fact, over the last three decades, the Braves have had three 300 game winners on their squad, although one never played on the great teams of the 90s. But that makes his accomplishment even more impressive because he was on so many bad Braves teams during the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

So who were the best pitchers in Atlanta Braves History?

Phil Niekro

4 Best Pitchers in Atlanta Braves History
Credit: Jim Accordino via WikiCommons

Niekro spent a total of 24 years in the Major Leagues and compiled a record of 318 wins and 274 losses. However, the losses should not detract from his remarkable career because he was on some very bad Braves teams and simply did not get a lot of run support. To give you an example of this, in 1979, he won 21 games but also lost 20 games.  He actually lost 20 games in a season twice in his career. That is something you never see in the modern game. There is a stigma attached to losing that many games now and many managers will not put pitchers out on the mound late in the season if they are closing in on that threshold because they do not want to destroy their confidence.

Niekro’s bread and butter pitch was the knuckle ball. In fact, that is all he threw because his fast ball topped out at about 80 mph, not nearly enough to blow away major league hitters. Over his career, he struck out an amazing 3342 batters.

The Braves only played in one playoff series during his career. In 1982 after getting off to a 13 – 0 start, they won the division only to be swept by the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.

Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Phil Niekro Doing His Thing

John Smotlz

4 Best Pitchers in Atlanta Braves History
John Smoltz was originally in the Detroit Tigers organization in the minor leagues and if not for a twist of fate, he would have gone on to have a remarkable career with the Tigers.

However, in 1987, Detroit was involved in a pennant race and needed starting pitching. They wanted a Braves pitcher named Doyle Alexander. The Braves were having another losing season, so in July of that year, they traded Alexander for a young John Smoltz. Alexander went on the win 10 games that year for the Tigers so in the short term, it was a successful trade for them, However, given the career Smoltz went on the have, they had to be kicking themselves 5 years later.

Smoltz begin pitching for the Braves in the middle of the 88 season and went a very unimpressive 2 – 7.  His bread and butter pitch was a fast ball in the mid-90s and a devastating slider.

In 1989 he was 12 games. The next year, 14 games but the Braves still finished in last place…. Again.

But it was in the 1991 worst-to-first season that Smoltz started to become the dominate pitcher he would be for the next 2 decades.

His best year as a starting pitcher was in 1996 when he won 24 games and only lost 8.

He was an All-Star 8 different seasons. In 2000, he injured his arm and had to undergo Tommy John surgery so he did not play that entire year. When he returned, the Braves wanted to use him sparingly so they converted him to their closer In 2002, he saved 55 games, a major league record.

He would go on to become the only pitcher in major league baseball history to win 200 games and save 150. He raked up the 16th most strike outs in major league history during that time.

Smoltz Pitches the Braves to the World Series in 1991

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Tom Glavine

Tom Glavine
Credit: 2 on a Whim Creations via Wikimedia Commons

Glavine came through the Braves’ organization and begin to hit his stride right about the time that Smoltz began to come on. He won 20 games in their worst-to-first 1991 season. In the next two years, he won 20 and 22 games, collecting two Cy Young Awards during that time.

His bread and butter pitch was a devastating change-up pitch that tailed away from right-hand hitters.

Glavine pitched the 6th game of the World Series holding the Indians scoreless for 8 innings before the Braves’ closer Mark Wohlers came on in the 9th to close out the 1995 World Series. I remember it well because I was at that game.

Glavine won at least 20 games five times over his career, something that is very rare in this modern age of pitching.

He went into the Hall of Fame on his first eligible ballot in January 2014 along Greg Maddux.

Tom Glavine Pitches the Braves to a World Series

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If you want to know why the Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series in a century, the story of Greg Maddux is the perfect example.

Maddux started his career with the Cubs and pitched his first seven seasons there winning a Cy Young award for them his last year there. He was clearly their best player but when it came time for free agency at the end of 1992, they let him walk. There were several teams that were

Greg Maddux
offering to pay him what he wanted, but he took a little less money because he wanted to come and pitch with Glavine and Smoltz.

Maddux did not have overpowering stuff and his fast ball topped out around 90 mph, but he had great pitching mechanics. However, like Glavine, he had a devastating change-up and he could put the ball anywhere he wanted around the plate. It was often said by hitters that Maddux was not throwing baseballs, he was throwing darts because of all of the movement he got on his pitches.

Maddux won the Cy Young award for the Braves in 1993, 1994 and 1995. His most impressive year was in 1995 where in went 19 – 2. For several years in a row, he was at the top of everyone's fantasy baseball wish list. He spent 23 years in the Major Leagues and stuck out 3371 batters during that span.

Maddux in Game 2 of the World Series with the Yankees in 1996

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Comments

Aug 1, 2014 5:00pm
RLoftis4
Terrific article for Braves fans such as myself. I bet a lot of people haven't heard of Phil Niekro until now.
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