Tuesday, July 23, 2024
AnalysisAtlanta BravesMLBNational LeagueNL East

Atlanta Braves–Who’s the real MVP?

In what turned out to be one of the most unprecedented and unpredictable Major League Baseball seasons on record, longtime Atlanta Braves star Freddie Freeman provided a sense of normalcy in 2020 with another consistently strong showing that resulted in the first baseman claiming his first Most Valuable Player award.

After pacing the majors in runs (51) and doubles (23) in the 60 game shortened season, voters bestowed the honors upon Freeman as Atlanta won their third consecutive National League East division crown.  Freeman remained the anchor of a relentless lineup that finished at, or near, the top of the league in almost every major offensive category.  

Atlanta was nearly able to ride their explosive offense to the franchise’s first World Series appearance since 1999, falling only to the eventual world champion Los Angeles Dodgers in a back and forth seven game National League championship series.

While Freeman’s 2020 season was certainly one of the more impressive campaigns in Braves franchise history, it was hardly the organization’s first experience of running out an MVP in the middle of their lineup.  

Freeman joins an exclusive club of MVP award winning Braves which also includes Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Chipper Jones, and franchise icons Dale Murphy and Terry Pendleton.  Moving forward, Freeman will look to join Murphy as the only other player in franchise history to collect a second most valuable player award.

Here, we are going to look into each individual MVP award season the Braves franchise has seen and attempt to rank them in order of value, starting with the most recent.

2020: Freddie Freeman

Slash Line: .341/.462/.640 (1.102 OPS) 186 OPS+

13 HR, 53 RBI, 51 RBI, 2 SB

rWAR 2.9, -0.3 dWAR

Freeman’s shortened 2020 season saw him post career highs in a handful of offensive categories, including batting average (.341), on base percentage (.462), slugging percentage (.640), OPS (1.102), and OPS+ (186).  In what shaped up to be a magical season for the longtime Brave, one might be disappointed only to wonder what other career bests Freeman might have posted had the season not been shortened to just 60 games due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The narrative behind Freeman’s 2020 performance can make his gaudy offensive numbers seem even more impressive, when it is taken into account that his season was very much in doubt due to a positive COVID-19 test that saw him heavily incapacitated as players around the league were preparing for the abbreviated season at Spring Training 2.0.  Despite only playing in a few scrimmages leading up to opening day, the Braves were able to pencil their franchise cornerstone into the lineup in all 60 games.

It will always be a difficult task to compare any player’s 2020 statline to that of a full season, and that will be no exception here trying to weigh Freeman’s MVP season with the others.  While his ratio statistics seemingly blow virtually all of the others out of the water, it can be said that the relatively small sample size played a significant role in those areas; furthermore, Freeman will obviously lack the counting stats that one would expect out of a typical league MVP.

1999: Chipper Jones

Slash Line: .319/.441/.633 (1.074 OPS) 169 OPS+

45 HR, 110 RBI, 116 R, 25 SB

rWAR 6.9, dWAR -0.3

The cornerstone of the Atlanta Braves franchise for nearly 20 years, first-ballot Hall of Famer Chipper Jones won his sole MVP award following his memorable 1999 season.  The third baseman led the Braves to their 8th consecutive division title, capped by a dramatic September run which saw him almost single-handedly fend off the New York Mets’ attempt to unseat Atlanta as the kings of the east.

Jones displayed a true five-tool skillset in ‘99 highlighted by career bests in home runs (45) and stolen bases (25).  He also posted a career best OPS+ of 169 and OPS of 1.074 behind 126 walks and 86 extra base hits–also, all career highs.

As the 1999 pennant race was winding down, the Braves saw their division lead narrow to just a single game over New York, with six of their final twelve games coming head to head with the Mets. 

 Jones seemingly cemented the division and the MVP award as voters around the league saw him abuse Mets pitchers–blasting four home runs in the first three game series alone– as the Braves won five of the six matchups, allowing them to run away with the eastern crown.

1991: Terry Pendleton

Slash Line: .319/.363/.517 (.880 OPS) 139 OPS+

22 HR, 86 RBI, 94 R. 10 SB

6.1 rWAR, 1.1 dWAR

Braves fans were recently delighted to see Marcell Ozuna depart the St. Louis Cardinals in order to sign with Atlanta via free agency and provide the lineup another legitimate threat.  Interestingly enough, Ozuna was not the first ex-Cardinal to post a strong debut season after signing a free agent deal with the Braves.

When Hall of Fame executive John Schuerholz started his long tenure as the Atlanta Braves general manager in 1990, signing a productive, veteran presence like Terry Pendleton was one of the first moves he intended to make.  Pendleton was just the kind of leader that Schuerholz thought the young, inexperienced core in Atlanta needed to prevent a fourth straight last place finish.

This proved to be an astute move, as the Braves roared to a historic worst-to-first finish with Pendleton leading the charge to capture the pennant–while winning NL MVP honors along the way. 

Pendleton led the NL in hits (187), batting average (.319), and total bases (303).  His high contact, line-drive oriented approach was typical for the era in which he played and he provided the Braves lineup with the steady production it had been lacking in years prior.

Pendleton’s 1991 numbers do not necessarily jump off the page compared to some of the other Atlanta MVP winners, but his role on the ‘91 club went far beyond the numbers on the back of his baseball card.  The third baseman was the engine responsible for driving the ‘91 club to the World Series and was a hand-picked piece by Schuerholz and Bobby Cox designed to lay the foundation for an organization poised to embark on a decade of dominance.

1982, 1983: Dale Murphy

(1983)–Slash Line: .302/.393/.540 (.933 OPS) 149 OPS+

36 HR, 121 RBI, 131 R, 30 SB

7.1 rWAR, 0.1 dWAR

(1982)–Slash Line: .281/.378/.507 (.885 OPS) 142 OPS+

36 HR, 109 RBI, 113 RBI, 23 SB

6.1 rWAR, 0.0 dWAR

Standing as the lone Brave to lay claim to multiple MVP awards, Dale Murphy was a bona fide superstar on some forgettable teams that Atlanta fielded during the 1980s.  Despite the fact that Atlanta missed the playoffs in ‘83, the Portland, Oregon native was able to win his second consecutive NL MVP award.  A year prior, the former catcher, turned outfielder, won his first most valuable player award while leading the Braves to the 1982 NLCS.

Along with the MVP, Murphy’s ‘82 and ‘83 seasons saw him take home both Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards, while primarily serving as the Braves’ center fielder.  Strangely enough, Murphy’s 1983 season was the last time a Braves player also represented the National League in the All Star game during the season in which he was voted MVP.

Murphy, at the time,  became the second Brave (Hank Aaron) in franchise history to join the 30/30 club in ‘83. “Murph” left the yard 36 times and swiped exactly 30 bags successfully.  A true electric, five-tool player, Murphy’s production was looked upon favorably by both analytics and traditional methods– to this day, he remains one of the more curious omissions from the Hall of Fame.

1957: Hank Aaron

Slash Line: .322/.378/.600 (.978 OPS) 166 OPS+

44 HR, 132 RBI, 118 R, 1 SB

8.0 rWAR, 0.1 dWAR

Unequivocally, the greatest Brave of all time–and one of the greatest players in baseball history–Hank Aaron collected his only MVP award as a member of the Milwaukee Braves in 1957.

The all-time RBI leader set his single season career high when he drove in 132 runs during the 1957 season.  Aaron, as a 23 year old, led the majors in many significant offensive categories including runs (118), home runs (44), runs batted in (132), and total bases (369).  Impressively, the slugger posted a strikeout to walk ratio of 58:57 for the year.

Aaron in 1957 was, by all means, dominant.  It can be easily argued, though, that his MVP year was not his own personal best season.  Aaron was seemingly snubbed for major awards on a consistent basis throughout his career; regardless, in 1957 he became the first player in Braves franchise history to be named the league’s most valuable player.

All things considered, these five players stand as franchise icons whose impacts go far beyond any singular season.  While they all provided significant value to their respective teams, here is how I would go about ranking the Braves’ individual MVP seasons.

  1. 1999–Chipper Jones

My analysis process was factored mainly on overall offensive production with general athleticism taken into consideration as a secondary factor.  I believed that Chipper Jones’ ‘99 season was the clear choice at number one, as he arguably posted the best aggregate offensive numbers while also providing significant value on the bases while playing relatively average defense on the infield.  His all-around offensive game featured high-end power, an elite hit tool, a strong walk rate, and an uncanny ability to deliver when it mattered most.

  1. 1957–Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron was a monstrous offensive force during his MVP award winning season.  While Aaron did not put up stolen base numbers in line with some of his other big seasons, his 8.0 rWAR reflects the all-around impact that he brought to the game through his strong baserunning and defense.  The complete set of skills that Aaron provided the Braves with in 1957 was instrumental in collecting the franchise’s first World Championship.

  1. 1983–Dale Murphy

Dale Murphy’s second MVP season was, undoubtedly, a step forward for the outfielder in the 1983 season.  Murphy saw moderate improvements to all areas of his triple slash line and joined the exclusive 30/30 club for the only time in his career.  While his advanced offensive statistics may lag slightly behind Jones, Aaron, and even Freeman, the significant impacts he made with both his defense and baserunning bumps his 1983 season up this list a bit more than I was expecting going in.

  1. 2020–Freddie Freeman

Given a full 2020 season, I believe Freddie Freeman would have landed much higher on this list.  Had he been able to continue at his torrid 60 game pace, he arguably could have found himself vying for the top spot along with his former teammate, Chipper Jones.  Freeman’s campaign is the lone season here that we have the luxury of diving into some advanced Statcast data, which backed up his offensive output with extremely high-end batted ball data.  Freeman has developed into a prototypical example of offensive excellence of this generation–he hits the ball extremely hard, more consistently in the air than he ever has before–and posts an elite walk and strikeout rate. It would not be entirely surprising if he has another addition to this list in the near future.

  1. 1982–Dale Murphy
  2. 1991–Terry Pendleton

Both Murphy’s 1982 and Terry Pendleton’s 1991 MVP seasons were considerably behind the rest of the pack when it came to offensive production–but that is not to say that they did not provide significant value in their given eras.  The narratives that drove their candidacies in those years were centered around more than just their production, the leadership they provided to winning clubs were factors that influenced their perceived value around the game by their peers and voters alike.