• Terry Pendleton

    AS EASY AS M-V-FREE! Braves First Baseman Caps Brilliant Season with Atlanta’s First MVP Honor Since 1999

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Many things come to mind when you mention the names Dale Murphy, Terry Pendleton and Chipper Jones. My first thought is how each was emblematic of the Atlanta Braves while wearing the uniform.

    Murphy, the kid from Oregon with the All-American boyish looks who became a star as the Braves won fans from coast-to-coast on the Superstation en route to the 1982 NL West title. Pendleton, the fiery sparkplug from Los Angeles who helped whip the youthful Braves into winners during the magical 1991 worst-to-first season. Jones, the boy from Florida possessing equal parts Southern cockiness and charm who anchored the franchise among baseball’s elite for most of two decades.

    A trio of Atlanta Braves, each a NL MVP award winner. Their exclusive club grew by one Thursday evening, and how fitting that they were joined by one who also is a symbol of the franchise.

    Freddie Freeman becomes the fourth Brave to win the honor since the franchise moved to Atlanta, the first since Jones in 1999 and joining Pendleton (1991) and Murphy (1982-83). His 2020 goes far beyond just the sparkly numbers compiled across the truncated 60-game regular season – the 1.102 OPS, the .341/.462/.640 slash line, the first two grand slams of his career.

    It transcends his postseason performance – the 13th-inning walkoff single against the Reds in Game 1 of the wild card series, the two homers against the Dodgers in the NLCS (a third robbed by MVP finalist Mookie Betts in Game 7 may have kept the Braves from reaching the World Series), the .903 OPS.

    It’s a season that wasn’t guaranteed given Freeman’s COVID-19 diagnosis, the news breaking on the Fourth of July as summer camp began at Truist Park. We all know the story of Freeman running a 104.5 degree fever, a husband and a father of a 3-year-old with twins on the way pondering his fate far beyond the diamond. And yet, 20 days later, there Freeman was, taking his hacks against his buddy Jacob deGrom on opening day at Citi Field.

    That’s the Freeman way. He’s always there. He was there as a rookie in 2010, belting his first big-league homer off Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in Hall of Famer Bobby Cox’s final days as manager. He was there in 2011, squatting behind the first-base bag after grounding into a season-ending double-play in the 13th inning of Game 162. He was there in 2012, homering against the Marlins to send Atlanta to the playoffs, Jones standing famously on third base with his right arm raised in triumph.

    Ten days later, the Braves season and Jones career ended.

    It’s been Freeman’s team ever since. Partly because of his brilliance – four top-10 finishes in MVP voting from 2012-19, five seasons hitting above .300, four All-Star appearances. Partly because he was the only position player to survive the Braves rebuild – as the franchise stripped it down to the studs, Freeman remained, a pillar around which Atlanta now has built a World Series championship contender.

    Now he joins that aforementioned trio of Braves royalty, linked not just by the MVP trophy, but by time. Murphy, traded to Philadelphia mere months before Pendleton signed as a free agent. Pendleton, who consoled Jones the night the rookie blew out his knee in spring training in 1994. Jones, sliding into the sunset after 2012 as Freeman began his ascension toward baseball stardom.

    That rise now includes the MVP trophy, and membership in an exclusive club of Braves legends.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Waiting on a Familiar Foe as NLCS Approaches

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – A gray T-shirt caught my eye in the pile of laundry sitting by the washing machine Friday afternoon, one I hadn’t noticed in a while, one my kid wore this week.

    On it is emblazoned the logo of the final season at Turner Field, with the caption, “final game Oct. 2, 2016.” As I loaded the washer, I thought about Freddie Freeman’s words the day before, moments after the Atlanta Braves clinched its first berth in the NL Championship Series in 19 years. Freeman talked about how different things were now, the three-time NL East champion moving on to play for the pennant in its deepest October penetration since 2001.

    It’s been quite the ride the past few years. Indeed, Freddie, how far we’ve come.

    Five wins down and eight to go in this crazy, expanded postseason, capping a season that started with the real worry that we wouldn’t reach the finish line. But here it is, an October where the Braves are playing into the middle of the month, four little wins from the World Series.

    Those four little wins won’t come easy, of course. Make no mistake, the Dodgers are quite the jump in competition from the Reds or Marlins. That’s not to diminish either squad Atlanta vanquished, because they found a way to make the playoffs in this upside-down season.

    All 30 teams played in this environment; 16 of them got at least a taste of playoff baseball (more than I prefer under normal circumstances, but we can discuss this winter). Whichever teams wins this World Series title will have earned it in a way that no champion has before, and we hope with everything we have that no champion ever has to again. I’d say that if the Braves had cleaned out their lockers on Sept. 28. I’ll say that if the Dodgers, Rays or (puke) Astros lift what Rob Manfred affectionally calls, “a piece of metal.”

    The pandemic robbed my hometown of hosting the Final Four this spring, but baseball’s Final Four is set. A few random items to opine about as I watch Georgia pull away from Tennessee on this fine Saturday evening, some 48 hours or so before the Braves and Dodgers meet in Game 1 of the NLCS.

    Ah, The Dreaded Blue Menace: So we meet again, the first team I learned to loathe. In the words of Sophia from the Golden Girls TV show (Google it, kids), “picture it. Atlanta. 1982.” A 13-0 start under new manager Joe Torre. A 2-19 stretch in late summer to tighten the old NL West between the upstart Braves and the defending world champions from L.A.

    The race ended on the final day of the season, the Braves losing in San Diego before Joe Morgan’s homer lifted the Giants over the Dodgers at Candlestick Park. That whole season was captured in a great documentary by TBS called, “It’s a Long Way to October,” which I watched during the early weeks of the lockdown. It’s worth your time, especially if early 80s baseball is before your time.

    Party Like It’s 1982: A clip from “It’s a Long Way to October,” from the final day of the 1982 regular season.

    Nine years later, the Braves trailed the Dodgers by 9 ½ games at the All-Star break before catching fire. You know the rest of the story: the Miracle Braves going from worst to first, beating out the Dodgers for the West crown before knocking out Pittsburgh in the NLCS to clinch their first World Series berth since coming to Atlanta. The division race ended with the Braves beating Houston on the final Saturday of the season, then famously gathering on the infield and watching on the big screen at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as the Giants (again!) knocked out the Dodgers to clinch the division title.

    The 1991 team is my favorite sports team of all time. I covered a week of spring training in 2006 for The Brunswick (Ga.) News, and I wrote a story on the 15-year anniversary of the 1991 team. Talking to Terry Pendleton, Mark Lemke, John Smoltz and Bobby Cox took me back to being an 18-year-old kid who watched every pitch of that pennant race. Of all the stories I wrote during my newspaper career, that’s one of my absolute favorites.

    The Miracle Season: The Atlanta Braves stunned the world by winning the NL pennant and reaching the World Series in 1991.

    Under Pressure: The Braves won their World Series title in 1995, four years after the 1991 team stunned the world. It snapped a 38-year drought for the franchise, or six years longer than the Dodgers current streak without a world title. Every time I see the replay of Kirk Gibson’s famous homer in Game 1 of the 1988 Series, my first thought is, “how have the Dodgers went this long without winning it all?”

    If there’s pressure based on expectations in the NLCS, it’s solely on Los Angeles. The Braves did what they needed to do: they made amends for last fall’s disaster against the Cardinals and won the NLDS, they snapped the playoff series losing streak, they’ve made it as far as they have in nearly two decades.

    The Dodgers? Not so much. World Series losses in 2017 and 2018, followed by a stunning NLDS upset by Washington a year ago. Pandemic and short season notwithstanding, the Dodgers are expected to win the pennant and the world championship. Just something to watch if the Braves win one or two of the first three games (which, not to give away too much, is absolutely critical to Atlanta’s pennant hopes).

    The Right Moves: There are times where Brian Snitker’s tactical decisions drive me crazy – the Patrick Weigel debut followed by Charlie Culberson on the mound this season is one example. With that said, I am a huge fan of the way he handles the clubhouse. There’s no denying his love for the organization, and him getting to manage in the World Series after 4 1/2 decades with the Braves would be amazing.

    There have been plenty of Braves who have enjoyed a fantastic postseason. Snitker’s name belongs right at the top of the list. He’s been aggressive with his bullpen and stuck with a lineup that’s done enough to get Atlanta through two rounds. I’d say if the Braves win the World Series he would retire, but I honestly think Snit enjoys this bunch so much, he’d come back even if he and his team win a ring.

    That Ring, It’s the Thing: Look how that previous sentence ended.

    Win a ring.

    That’s why teams play, to win the World Series. These Braves are eight wins away, the closest they’ve been since 2001.

    Can you believe it? Absolutely.

    Can they take the next step? Stay tuned.

    Coming Sunday: Five keys to the Braves/Dodgers series, who wins and why.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Braves off to Red Hot Start … and It’s Been Fun

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – High-fives in the middle of the diamond, a happy mid-afternoon crowd cheering into the cool Georgia air and another game that feels like something not seen often in these parts recently.

    The Atlanta Braves opening homestand of the season is complete, and it goes in the books as a resounding success. The team currently leads all of Major League Baseball in runs scored with 48, and team batting average, .297. The pitching, on balance, hasn’t been bad either. Braves pitchers boast a 3.86 ERA through 6 games.

    The result: Four victories in six games, a fifth victory just sliding away thanks to a bad slide at home plate. Good crowds, thirsty for signs of spring and perhaps a little more edgy for some winning baseball. Two series victories against NL East rivals, one that dominated Atlanta like Sherman last season, the other who occupies the division’s penthouse suite.

    And yet, as I made my way from the chilly confines of SunTrust Park after the Braves 7-1 thrashing of Washington on Wednesday, I kept thinking about one thing:

    It’s been one week.

    Four words made famous in song by the Bare Naked Ladies 20 years ago, but four words that fit here.

    Braves 3B Ryan Flaherty after a diving stop in Tuesday's 13-6 win over the Nationals.

    Braves 3B Ryan Flaherty after a diving stop in Tuesday’s 13-6 win over the Washington Nationals.

    What to make of these Braves, who sit 4-2 on the season and head out for the Frozen Tundra Trip – let’s face it, who doesn’t yearn for an early-April trip to Denver, Washington and Chicago – looking far more entertaining than the squads that combined to win a total of one game across the opening six contests the past two years?

    For any team to overachieve, there must be surprises. And while it’s been one week, it’s been one week a few guys wearing the tomahawk likely won’t forget.

    Or repeat. Consider:

    Charlie Culberson: Born in Rome – home of Atlanta’s Low-A affiliate – Culberson showed brief flashes of being able to produce offensively to go with his outstanding defensive abilities. He hit .293 in 99 at-bats for Colorado in 2013 and batted .299 three seasons later in 67 at-bats with the Dodgers. A 5-for-11 showing with three extra-base hits in the NLCS last season helped lift Los Angeles to the pennant, but those moments have been few and far between.

    The 28-year-old only has six at-bats in three games, but has made the most of them with two hits and two runs scored. Culberson has matched last season’s hit total (2-for-13 in 15 games). Any offensive production at all is a bonus from a guy who took his one season of regular playing time in Colorado (233 plate appearances in 2014) and promptly slashed .195/.253/.290.

    Ryan Flaherty: I bashed this signing endlessly on Twitter. The Braves already had a guy on the roster, Culberson, who plays great infield defense but can’t hit. Flaherty brought his career .215 batting average in 1,270 career plate appearances to town, and promptly raised that career average by five points in six games.

    How? By going 10-for-23 with four doubles and six runs scored. He became the third Atlanta third baseman to score four times and collect four hits in one game, joining a couple of fellas you may have heard of (Terry Pendleton, and some dude named Chipper). His on-base percentage, which was .284 in six seasons with Baltimore, sits at .500.

    Braves OF Preston Tucker achieves missile lock before launching a Max Scherzer breaking ball into the Braves' bullpen Wednesday

    Braves OF Preston Tucker achieves missile lock before launching a Max Scherzer breaking ball into the Braves’ bullpen Wednesday

    Preston Tucker: He made the team out of spring training as the DDTFIUAT (Dude Designated To Fill In Until Acuna Time). The 27-year-old has flashed promising power – 13 homers in 300 at-bats with Houston in 2015, and 100 career minor-league homers in 535 games – but strikes out in bunches. Like 40 strikeouts in 140 plate appearances in 2016 with Houston bunches, and 102 whiffs in 128 games in Triple-A last season.

    Now? Tucker has struck out four times in 21 at-bats, but when he hasn’t whiffed, he’s produced. Two homers, four runs scored and eight RBIs. Not bad for a guy who drove in 41 runs in his first 146 games before this season. His first-inning homer Tuesday into the Chop House flipped the script after the Nationals built a 3-0 lead, and his three-run opening-frame blast after a Washington error off the impenetrable Max Scherzer Wednesday launched Atlanta ahead for keeps.

    Shane Carle: Admit it, you had no clue who this dude was two weeks ago. Acquired in a quiet offseason deal with the Pirates for the ever-famous “player to be named later or cash considerations,” Carle earned a roster spot by not allowing a run in five of his final seven spring-training appearances.

    He took the loss Friday against Philadelphia by allowing one run in a two-inning stint, but he absolutely saved Julio Teheran and the Braves in Tuesday’s slugfest. Summoned in the third inning, Carle threw 26 of his 37 pitches for strikes and allowed only one hit in 3 1/3 steady innings of relief as the Braves bludgeoned the Nationals.

    The catchers? Nobody could see this coming.

    The Braves acquired catcher Carlos Perez from the LA Angels on Sunday in exchange for INF Ryan Schimpf.

    The Braves acquired catcher Carlos Perez from the LA Angels on Sunday in exchange for INF Ryan Schimpf.

    Atlanta already has started four guys in six games, as Tyler Flowers is on the disabled list and Kurt Suzuki is lucky he didn’t land there. Chris Stewart came on to replace both after injuries in the first two games, made three starts – complete with a two-hit, two-RBI performance Saturday – then was designated for assignment.

    Wednesday’s starting catcher? Carlos Perez. He was in the Angels organization Saturday.

    It’s been one week. An interesting one, for sure. And yet, a successful one for the Braves, who found themselves 1-5 after six games last season and 0-6 en route to a 4-17 start in 2016.

    Surely, there will be regression back toward the mean for these guys. Right?

    Here’s what we do know. Freddie Freeman may be putting the opening brushstrokes on a MVP-caliber season. Dansby Swanson looks confident at the plate. Ozzie Albies, albeit hitting just .172, is putting together solid at-bats. Nick Markakis, whose ninth-inning homer on opening day capped a furious late-inning comeback, owns a .934 OPS.

    And reinforcements are coming. Suzuki should be back early on the road trip. Third baseman Johan Camargo, provided all goes well in his injury rehab, could join the team in Denver. And there’s that Acuna kid, who we presume is a little more than a week away from making his much-ballyhooed debut.

    By then, it will have been more than one week. At this juncture, it’s been one week.

    And it’s been fun to watch.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Andrelton Simmons vs Rafael Furcal

    Heyward lifts Simmons

    Andrelton Simmons was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2010 amateur draft and made his big league debut in 2012.

    With the exciting, though not altogether surprising, announcement that Andrelton Simmons has been awarded a Rawlings Gold Glove as well as named by ESPN 2013’s best defender, we wondered how Simmons stacks up against a former Braves shortstop to which he’s often been compared: Rafael Furcal.

    Simmons became the first Braves infielder to win a Gold Glove since Terry Pendleton did it in 1992 and immediately surpassed Furcal who shockingly never won the award with Atlanta, Los Angeles or St. Louis.

    Let’s start by taking a look at the defensive numbers for Simmons and Furcal in their first full seasons. For Furcal, the numbers listed are an average of his time at shortstop and second base (where he played 31 games during his rookie season):

    Age Position PO A E DP Fld%
    Andrelton Simmons 23 SS 240 499 14 94 .981
    Rafael Furcal 22 SS/2B 192 362 24 72 .971

    Take a minute to consider where Simmon’s fielding percentage in 2013 ranks against some of the best shortstops to play the game. Troy Tulowitzki has the highest career fielding percentage at shortstop at .985%. He is followed by the gifted Omar Vizquel who, with 24 seasons to his big league career, finished with a .984%. You get to sixth on the list, Rey Sanchez, where you’ll find the .981% that Simmons put up this season. Sure, he has only put in a season and a half in the big leagues, but even with minimal playing time in his young career this is rarefied air that Simmons shares. You have to scroll clear down to 185 on the list to find where Rafael Furcal’s 13 seasons rank for shortstops (at .965).

    Furcal

    Rafael Furcal was signed as an 18-year-old free agent by the Atlanta Braves in 1996. He made a made a splash in 2000, his rookie season.

    Furcal’s first full season was not rewarded with a gold glove, but due to it being his first season of substantial play and his impressive offensive numbers, Furcal was rewarded for his effort with the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Of course, Simmons was not eligible for the RoY due to the injury-shortened 49-game 2012 season that qualified as his rookie year. Otherwise, there’s no question that he would be int he RoY conversation.

    Offensively, there are clear differences between Furcal and Simmons.

    While Simmons has been superior defensively, Furcal put together better numbers at the plate. While Simmons hit more home runs, drove in more runs and had more total hits than Furcal, there is no disputing the brilliance Furcal displayed his rookie year on the base paths. Before we discuss the latter point, let’s take a look at how Simmons and Furcal’s first full seasons in Major League Baseball compare offensively:

    G PA AB R H HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG
    Andrelton Simmons 157 658 606 76 150 17 59 6 40 55 .248 .296 .396
    Rafael Furcal 131 542 455 87 134 4 37 40 73 80 .295 .394 .382

    Simmons’ strikeout total stands out immediately, given Atlanta’s strikeout-happy lineup. The runs are less, the hits more for Simmons. Furcal displayed less pop in his rookie season, but hit for a high average.  The clearest contrast, however, is Furcal’s sizable edge on the base paths.  Furcal reached base safely far more often than Simmons and once there, he made opposing pitchers pay for putting him there.

    With clearly better-than-average speed, it’s peculiar that Simmons isn’t more of a base stealing threat.  He played his first full season for a team far better equipped to wait for the 3-run homer than to run opposing pitchers ragged. Certainly, that’s a factor.  And while he doesn’t have Furcal’s blinding speed, he has proven himself to be a smart, heads-up base runner.

    Furcal was always a lead-off hitter. It was quite apparently the role he was born to play. That’s just not Andrelton Simmons. He will never be the quintessential lead-off guy. However, if Simmons can develop better plate discipline and find his way on base more consistently, it would seem a waste not to put his speed to better use.

    When Simmons appeared on Atlanta’s radar, some speculated that he might be the next Rafael Furcal. It now appears that “Simba” is even more impressive with the leather than Furcal, which is saying something. Whether Andrelton can become the offensive force that Furcal was when at his best remains to be seen. He’ll never steal 40 bases, but he may eventually provide a similar spark to the lineup in other ways. Simmons’ potential appears to be as a run-producer, rather than a table-setter.

    We can only hope the young shortstop proves to be more durable than Furcal, about whom every conversation begins with the words “if he’s healthy”. Because if Andrelton Simmons is able to remain on the field, largely unencumbered by the ailments that have derailed far too many promising careers, we could be watching a shortstop for the ages.

    Update (11.8.13): Andrelton Simmons was voted by the fans, with the help of pre-established input from the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), the winner of the 2013 National League Rawlings’ Platinum Glove Award. Simmons edged out Cardinals’ catcher Yadier Molina by 1% of the total vote.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.