The Most Disappointing Season For…The Atlanta Braves
The 1975 Atlanta Braves
Record: 67-94 (5th NL West, 11th out of 12 in NL)
Pythagorean Record: 63-98
Runs Scored: 583 (11th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 739 (11th in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 88-74
Manager: Clyde King (58-76), Connie Ryan (9-18)
Hype: King energized the team in 1974 after taking over for Eddie Mathews, and even though Hank Aaron was traded (at his request) to finish his career in Milwaukee, there was plenty of talent to maintain a competitive club – much like they had done so since moving to Atlanta.
The Gory Details: Hank Aaron was gone – traded to the Brewers for Dave May. But there was great optimism in the Braves camp despite trading away the face of the franchise. May had an outstanding 1973 before slumping in 1974, and the old ‘change of scenery’ was supposed to help.
Atlanta also acquired Dick Allen, who wore out his welcome in Chicago by quitting on September 14th. With those pieces in place, and returnees like Darrell Evans, Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson and Ralph Garr, the Braves would be set on offense.
The pitching should have been strong as well – allegedly. Buzz Capra won the NL ERA title in 1974, and Phil Niekro and Carl Morton were solid starters as well, and vet Ron Reed was also tabbed for the rotation, bouncing back after an injury plagued 1973. Former Met Gary Gentry was also around, trying to come back from injury that derailed a promising career.
There was cause for optimism. That ended real quick.
Allen refused to report and retired, shocking no one but the Braves, and scuttling their plans for the offense and put them in scramble mode. Johnson was released early in the season, and he wound up going to Japan.
In mid-April the Braves re-acquired Earl Williams from the Orioles to solve their first base issue, which caused a cascading effect where former first baseman Mike Lum moved to center field and left youngster Rowland Office out of a job. May proved to be or was just used as platoon player – some return for Aaron.
The worst problem for the Braves at that point was attendance. Only 12,884 showed up on opening day, followed by ‘crowds’ averaging 5,420 for the next 10 games. Without Aaron, and with a team that were definitely going to be less than the sum of their parts, there was no reason to go to the games.
The Braves slipped through the standings quickly. Capra’s ERA was touching 4.00, not befitting an ERA champ. Gentry’s career ended after 20 lackluster innings. The rest of the staff wasn’t much better, as the Braves were giving up more runs than anyone in the league at the end of May.
To try to help the staff, Reed was shipped out and vets Ray Sadecki, Bruce Dal Canton and Blue Moon Odom were brought on. That only made it worse. Then Capra went on the DL – he had pitched in pain all season. Youngsters Jamie Easterly and Mike Thompson were tapped for duty. That speaks of the desperation and anguish the Braves had regarding their pitching.
A big problem was defense. Lum, who was a mediocre corner outfielder on his best days, had lost his job in center to Office, but Office was even a worse glove man even though he was fast and lean and looked like a center fielder. Larvell Blanks and Marty Perez were below average defenders in the middle, which made their woeful hitting even more of a drag on the team, and Earl Williams was a statue at first.
Only Baker was a plus defender, and he was slightly above average in right. The defense had a -8.4 defensive wins against replacement for the season. That’s…that’s bad.
At the end of July they were languishing in fifth, 8 ½ games out of second and way behind the Reds who were sprinting away with the division. What’s worse, they were lucky to be in fifth place anyway. Their Pythagorean winning percentage was .416, second worst in the NL. They had fallen to 10th in runs scored.
At 47-59, and with no one showing up for games things were grim. This was a team that won 88 games the year before. How were they so bad all of a sudden?
They got worse, believe it or not.
A four game series against the Cubs in August signified these Braves in a nutshell – they won the first game 1-0 behind Carl Morton, then lost 3-1, 8-2 and 9-1. They would seemingly win one game of a series and then lose the others in the set (their longest losing streak through all of this was just six games).
In 30 games in August they scored just 94 runs and gave up 151. If you’re going to be sub-par on defense, you need to score runs. Oops.
King was fired at the end of August. He probably was thankful that he was canned; it may have prolonged his life. Odom’s ERA was a jet. Thompson hadn’t won a game. Easterly walked more than he fanned.
Mike Beard was allowing half of his inherited runners to score. Adriane Devine and Frank LaCorte came up and struggled. Only Niekro and Morton were productive members of the rotation.
It was time to change things up – a little late, maybe (King LOVED set lineups). They tried Rob Bellior at short and moved Blanks to second. They tried Rod Gilbreath at second, too. Williams caught a few games. Nothing worked. The problem was they thought they didn’t trust their farm system position players, especially the young ones.
Junior Moore hit .300 at Richmond. Brian Assesltine had a .360 OBP there. Both were 22 – both stayed there with no September call-up while Cito Gaston and Ed Goodson played in the majors.
At the end, it was a mess. Atlanta went 20-35 in August and September. They finished fifth, saved from the cellar by the Astros’ horrible luck. Their first September home stand attracted 18,513 customers TOTAL in seven games, including a Monday against Houston where 737 saw them lose 9-6 in a contest where the starting pitchers were J. R. Richard and Phil Niekro.
Only 534,672 showed up all season, but they somehow beat the 80-81 Giants in attendance. (Baseball is dying NOW, amirite?)
Just Evans and Baker had OPS+ over 100 for the regulars. May had an OPS+ of 133, but only got 230 plate appearances as they gave him just 28 at bats against lefties all season.
Meanwhile, Lum had 112 at bats against lefties (he also batted lefty like May) and hit .152/.232/.17 against them. Hoisted by their own petard a bit there.
Morton won 17 games with a 3.50 ERA. Niekro won 15 with a 3.20 ERA. Both of them worked over 275 innings and started every fourth day, without fail. House, Beard and Dal Canton also had good ERAs in the pen, but they hardly pitched in any meaningful situations, thanks to the likes of Easterly (2-9, 4.98), Odom (1-7, 7.07) or Thompson (0-6, 4.70).
This smoldering ash heap of a team, with few assets and no fans, was bought soon after the season by Ted Turner. It would take four seasons to hit .500 again – and the only players left would be Niekro, Biff Pocoroba, and Preston Hanna (who had a 5 2/3 inning cameo late in the year).
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Phil Niekro (6.7 WAR) and Carl Morton (6.1 WAR) were the only players that had any exceptional value. The offensive players ‘contributed’ a -1.6 WAR in aggregate counting both offense and defense. The workload given to Morton during this era cut short his career – he pitched just one more year in the big leagues.
Honorable Mention Team: The 1985 Braves paralleled the 1975 team, plunging from 80-82 to 66-96 and forcing the team to rebuild from scratch again. This time, though, they got it right.
Bad Blast from the Past: The 1935 Boston Braves added Babe Ruth (or the decaying shell of said player), and went from 78-73 to 38-115. The next season they went 71-83. Go figure.