Next on the agenda are the Atlanta Braves, a team with a peripatetic history. Given a start in Boston and moves to Milwaukee and Atlanta, a long-time Braves fan presumably sits down to watch the game with baked beans, brats, and a Coke.
THE ORIGINS: BOSTON
The Boston version of the Braves was even more nomadic nickname-wise than the team later became geographically. They started in 1876 as the Red Stockings, then became the Beaneaters, Rustlers, Braves, Bees, and finally Braves again.
The Boston version was generally pretty good in the 19th Century, pretty bad in the 20th. They did win two pennants in the modern era, sweeping the Philadelphia A’s in the 1914 World Series and losing to Cleveland in 1948, but they had 11 seasons of 100 or more losses (in 154-game seasons, mind you). That included the second-worst season in modern MLB history, a 115-loss bummer in 1935 (yes, even with The Babe) that left them 61 1/2 games behind That Other Team in Town.
Attendance in Boston was generally, though not always, poor and dropped way down in 1951 and ’52, sinking to 281,000, a third of the MLB average. So, naturally, it was time Go West, Young Team.
HEADING WEST: MILWAUKEE
Apparently cheese curds are big boons to athleticism, because the Braves never had a losing season during their 1953-65 tenure in Milwaukee. They won the World Series in 1957, and lost it in 1958.
Of course, having a team that included Hall-of-Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn may have helped the cheese curds along. Matthews had been a rookie Brave in Boston in 1952, Aaron came in 1954, and Spahn tossed for them from 1945 (actually a brief appearance in 1942 before heading off to WWII) to 1964, winning 356 games, including 13 seasons of 20 or more wins.
The “Spahn and Sain and a day of rain” didn’t apply in Milwaukee, since Johnny Sain had gone to the Yankees in 1951, but they got along very well with “Spahn and (Lou) Burdette and a day of wet.” And having future Hall-of-Famer Red Schoendienst join Aaron and Matthews on the hitting side for a few years didn’t hurt.
Despite the good results, attendance dropped precipitously in Milwaukee after 1960, and the team was sold to a Chicago group in 1962. Being Chicagoans, they naturally didn’t give a damn about the fans and started shopping around for the highest bidder. Voila — time to head south.
HEADING SOUTH: ATLANTA
Atlanta had built an $18 million stadium to try to lure a pro team, but couldn’t lure the now-Kansas City A’s. The Braves’ Chicago owners waved their hands as happy to have a gift from the taxpayers, and after a court-delayed, one-year wait during which Milwaukee Braves attendance fell to barely half a million, down south they came. Whether the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act made such a move more acceptable is hard to say, but since Lester Maddox was still wielding his pickax handle in Atlanta, it’s was probably just a matter of greed.
The move led to an immediate tripling of attendance, a boon that faded away quickly and didn’t return until 1982. The 1982 Braves were the second division-winning season in Atlanta (1969 the other), as the team couldn’t maintain its Milwaukee dominance.
The next big change was off the field. Media magnate Ted Turner bought the team in 1976, and, in those early days of cable TV, put all the games on his WTBS superstation. Another Voila! America’s Team was born.
Despite its vaunted (and self-created) name, America’s Team was mostly bad until 1991. But then, wow!
It helped to have a rotation that included three Hall-of-Famers. Tom Glavine was a Braves draftee. John Smoltz came in a trade from the Detroit Tigers in 1989, and Greg Maddux was granted free agency by That Other Team in Town in 1992. Armed with those arms, the Braves took their division every year from 1991 to 2005, except for a second place in the 1994 strike year. They only won one of their World Series appearances in those years, but that seems forgivable.
Things slowed down a little after that, but they only had two losing seasons before 2014. That year, they were 79-83, so naturally, it was rebuilding time.
TIME OUT FOR A LITTLE BUSINESS ABOUT BUSINESS
Eventually Turner sold everything to Time Warner, and in 2007 Time Warner spun off the Braves to Liberty Media, which in turn has done a lot of spinning, including turning the Braves into their own publicly-held company, the Liberty Braves Group. It’s the only MLB team in which you can directly buy stock these days (you can do so indirectly with the Toronto Blue Jays through their parent company, Rogers Communications, and you once could buy a chunk of the Indians, as some of us did and lived to be very happy about.)
At its current price, Liberty Braves market value comes to about $1.4 billion, despite negative earnings. Forbes’ 2019 list has the team worth $1.7 billion, which makes sense because there’s usually a premium to get a controlling interest.
Forbes has the 2019 value of the White Sox at $1.6 billion. Not that Jerry Reinsdorf will ever part with any of that. The Braves have a reputation for tightness. Spotrac has their payroll at $136 million, the White Sox at $91 million. So, what word is snugger than tightness?
ON TO REBUILDING
While some teams may wait through numerous losing years before deciding to try to do something about it (not that I can think of any), the Braves wasted no time at all. After five straight wining years, 79-83 in 2014? Badly-rated farm system? Tear that baby down.
Like most teams that are serious about trying to rebuild, Atlanta went out to find some expert help, luring John Hart, who had great success with Cleveland earlier, away from the Texas Rangers. (Can anyone think of an exception to this no-brainer idea?)
Come the 2014 postseason, the Braves gave most of the roster free agency (including Gavin Floyd). They had no future Hall-of-Famers to put on the trade block, so the biggest name they traded that winter was Justin Upton, who had a year before free agency, in a multiplayer deal that brought them lefty Max Fried, who’s 14-4 this year. A year later, they sent Andrelton Simmons and his wheelbarrow of Gold Gloves to the Angels for, frankly, not much. They also made the really big mistake of trading a young pitcher named Craig Kimbrel to the San Diego Padres.
In the process, payrolls dropped from $116 mil to $96, and Atlanta’s record dropped even further south: 61-101 in 2015, 67-94 in 2016, 72-90 in 2017. Then, suddenly, in 2018 it all turned around in a hurry: 92-70 and an NL East championship.
Little of that team was left from 2014 — mainly Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis, and Julio Teheran. The critical players came through many means — Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr. as an international free agent, second baseman Ozzie Albies ditto, catcher Kurt Suzuki as a free agent, etc. (Yes, they still have Tyler Flowers, who has reverted to the guy who made White Sox fans cringe every time he came to bat.)
The 2018 payroll jumped to $131 million ($136 this year), so either the Braves aren’t as tightfisted as believed, or someone we know very well is so wallowing in greed as to be unmentionable. Not content to win the NL East just once, Atlanta re-signed free agent Markakis and added Brian McCann and Josh Donaldson. Donaldson has proven well worth his $23,000,000 by producing 4.4 WAR already, with a .900 OPS and his usual stellar defense.
You may have noticed that a 2014-15 rebuild start puts the Braves two years ahead of the White Sox. You may have also noticed that according to Atlanta’s schedule, the Sox should be division champs next year. And you have also noticed that Rick Hahn is stretching any such potential achievement further into the future every time he talks, now going for some time after the polar ice caps have melted completely. And you may have gotten a good laugh out of the thought of Jerry Reinsdorf (whoops, I mentioned him — my bad) allowing a jump of payroll to over $130 million.
AS FOR 2019, WITH TIME OUT FOR A BRIEF QUIZ
The Braves are playing long ball. Acuna and Freeman have 36 homers each, Donaldson has 32. The team has 215, second in the NL. They like to run on occasion, with 74 stolen bases, led by Acuna’s 31. The pitching is good, but not great, an ERA 4.25, fifth in the NL.
The Braves are playing without Markakis and McCann these days, but still won nine of their last 11. Overall they’re 81-54, second only to the Dodgers in the NL. Not shabby at all.
The quiz on the Braves and White Sox:
On August 18, an outfielder on one of these teams, last year’s Rookie of the Year and an MVP candidate this year with his 5.1 bWAR so far , stood at the plate admiring what he thought would be a home run, but fell short. He was pulled from the game one inning later.
On the same day, an outfielder on the other team, who could at best be considered a prospect at this point, with his -0.3 bWAR, stood at the plate admiring what he thought was a home run, but wasn’t, albeit getting more bases because of fortunate bounces. He played on. Nothing done about it.
Quiz question: Guess which team is leading its division (but not by an insurmountable margin, so taking a star out of a game could cost them), and which hasn’t played a meaningful game in its last 1,000 or so.
Friday: Iván Nova vs. Max Fried
Nova is on a tear, not giving up more than two runs since July 17. He doesn’t strike out many, but, critical when facing a team like Atlanta, he keeps the ball in the park, not giving up more than one homer in his last eight starts.
Fried is a statistical anomaly. The southpaw’s 14-4 record comes despite giving up 150 hits in 136 innings, for a .280 BAA. He strikes out more than one an inning, and only walks 2.7 per nine, but he has thrown 11 wild pitches.
Saturday: Reynaldo Lopez vs. Dallas Keuchel
ReyLo still has an ERA of more than five, but he’s had mostly very good starts since the All-Star break, including tossing five innings of no-hit ball against the Rangers last time out. Presumably he won’t have a repeat of the flu systems that knocked him out of that game.
Lefty Keuchel is still getting into the groove after a strange offseason that left him unsigned until the Braves picked him up June 7. He got battered by the Miami Marlins, of all teams, on August 8, but has only allowed one run in 19 innings since then. Keuchel may not be back to Cy Young level yet — righties are hitting ,276 against him (lefties .154) — but he’s not far from All-Star level now.
Sunday: Lucas Giolito vs. TBD
Cool Hand Lucas has been solid-to-spectacular since being bombed by the Twins on July 25, giving up just 10 runs in 40 innings while striking out an amazing 62. He can be susceptible to the long ball, which the Braves will no doubt be trying to exploit.
The Sox often struggle against TBD. There don’t seem to be any stats on that, but it seems like they have a fear of the unknown. Julio Teheran normally follows Keuchel in the rotation, and there’s no indication he’s hurt, so maybe TBD is “Teheran to Be Determined.” The Colombian righty is 8-8 with a 3.39 ERA. He didn’t make it through two innings against the New York Mets on August 15, but has pitched 13 scoreless innings since then.
Friday and Saturday’s games are set to start at 6:20 CDT, Sunday’s at 4:10.