I grew up in New York. I grew up a Yankees fan. I watched them win more World Series Championships than most Major League Baseball teams have in the history of their franchise. From 1990 to 1999, the Yanks won three World Series titles; 1996, 1998 and 1999. They also won three division titles and made the playoffs five times at varying success.
But that isn’t the team I’m talking about.
I also witnessed another organization win division titles 14 out of 15 years (in 1994 they were in 2nd place before the strike). A team that dominated not only their division, but the National League for the better part of a decade and appeared in the World Series five times. In the face of all that, they managed to win just one.
The team I’m talking about is the Atlanta Braves.
It’s easy to pin the Yankees as the team of that decade. They had MLB in their hands for the second half of that era. They won the most championships. They had a bunch of celebrated players, both heroes and villains.
But, the Braves had plenty of stars as well and arguably the best starting rotation during the majority of that time frame; perhaps in the history of MLB.
Yes, of course championships matter. A lot. But, the Braves sustained success despite falling short of just over a dozen titles. You can be considered a great team without going all the way. Sometimes time, or perhaps fate, just aren’t on your side. You do all the hard work to get there but for one reason or another, just can’t close the deal.
Some of the weakest teams to make the post-season have ended up winning the championship. All it takes is a little momentum and, as hard as it is for me to quote the incorrigable Mr. ‘Hawk’ Harrelson, the ‘will to win’. Things break your way once or twice and the whole series is flipped on its head (see the 2011 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals).
Although this analogy isn’t the greatest, you could be the valedictorian of your high school while falling short on a final exam or two during your tenure. Does that discredit what you’ve accomplished throughout your HS education?
In discussing the team of that decade, you could also mention the Toronto Blue Jays who won two WS titles back to back, three straight AL East Crowns. Or the Cleveland Indians with their two WS appearances. Perhaps even the Pittsburgh Pirates and their 3 straight NL East titles. However, those organizations had up and down years throughout the 90s. Heck, even the Houston Astros belong in the discussion. They lead all teams in offensive WAR from 1990-99.
Have a look at collective team offense from 1990-1999
*Total Zone, or TZ, is an overall team defensive metric.
As mentioned, the Astros led in oWAR, though not by much. The Indians are the best in three categories yet those don’t necessarily translate into success; they hit great and regularly had runners on base which created plenty of scoring opportunities.
Team winning percentage does have the correlation to success and the Braves, along with the Yankees, are tops by a decent margin.
So who would I pick for an offensive team of the 1990’s?
Infield- Ivan Rodriquez, Mike Piazza, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken, Barry Larkin, Robin Ventura
Outfield- Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr, Larry Walker, Ray Lankford, Kenny Lofton
No Braves, no Yankees. I did not purposefully leave anyone off the list to prove a point, you could make arguments for either team to have reps in this group, it’s an example of how you don’t always need several elite players to be successful. There’s that ‘ole ‘will to win’ again.
Now a look at joint team pitching in the 90’s. If you watched baseball in that era, nothing in the below chart should surprise you.
*E/F Diff is the variation between ERA and FIP.
Not even close. The Braves, without any argument, had the best staff of the 90’s. Maybe the best of all time.
I’d pick the following group for my 90’s pitching staff.
Starters- Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, David Cone
Long Relief– Kevin Brown, Curt Schilling
Middle Relief– Roberto Hernandez, John Wetteland, Dennis Eckersley
Setup/Closers– Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman
Two Braves make the starting rotation. Lets not forget they also had Tom Glavine (2x Cy Young Award winner) and Steve Avery. In total, Braves pitching produced Cy Young Award winners in six of the ten years; Glavine twice, Maddox four times (all in consecutive seasons), and Smoltz once.
Now, lets sum it up with the top 10 in total WAR along with team winning percentage.
Again, the Braves are way ahead with the Yankees a bit behind them; a decent margin ahead of the Baltimore Orioles.
Here is the breakdown of how both the Yanks and Braves finished each season. Note that up until the realignment in 1994, Atlanta played in the NL West before being moved to the NL East.
First, the Yankees:
As noted, three championship seasons but several years of mediocrity or fringe performance.
On to the Braves:
One world title in 1995 and a 1-5 overall World Series appearance record. They are often called the Buffalo Bills of baseball. Except Buffalo has yet to win a Super Bowl, so that’s just a silly comparison.
Looking at the head to head record (not including the World Series) during the 1990’s, the teams played 10 games, both winning five each. The Braves were outscored by just four runs (46-42) overall.
Not to be ignored is the manager for the Braves, Bobby Cox. He spent that entire run with Atlanta and deserves just as much credit as anyone keeping the team in top form and relevant for nearly 20 years. Give Yankee skipper Joe Torre some credit, too.
When it’s all said and done, it’ll be too easy to point to the Yankees’ three rings when taking part in this debate; they did beat the Braves two out of the three World Series they played (8-2 record). Yet Atlanta had a sustained run of success for much longer.
Despite being somewhat snakebitten, the Braves were the best of 90’s baseball and its not even close.
As we approach the 2018 season, the future is ripe for both the Braves and Yankees to renew their World Series rivalry. The Braves need redemption. Time will tell if they get it.