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Starting Nine: Hank Aaron, Lonnie Smith’s inexplicable 1989 and the best season in Braves history at each position

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The Hammer dominates, while John Smoltz edges out his Big Three brethren

MLB: San Diego Padres at Atlanta Braves
Chipper Jones authored one of the best seasons in Braves history at third base, while Hank Aaron earns three spots on this list.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

This was supposed to be Opening Day. It hurts that it’s not, from the end of missing the game that we all love and for the pain — physical, emotional, even financial — that the current environment we’re all operating in has created.

While there’s the uncertainty of when we’ll see real, live baseball again, what we have is a rich history to look back on, and in no sport does that carry more weight than this game, and no franchise can boast some of the icons and epic years the Braves can.

So, with history as our guide, this week’s Starting Nine is centered around pinpointing the greatest single seasons in franchise history at each position. Sometimes it’s a no-brainer and WAR tells us everything, and sometimes it’s not always so clear cut. You may agree; you may not, but that’s what the comment section is for, isn’t it?

1A. STARTING PITCHER: 1996 John Smoltz

If you’re looking at ERA, Greg Maddux has the top two seasons for any Braves starter with 1.56 in the strike-shortened 1994 and 1.63 a year after that, and in that 1995 campaign, the Hall of Famer also had the best FIP at 2.26 and a 7.9 fWAR. Maddux in ‘95 could easily be the pick but give me John Smoltz a year later in his Cy Young Award season. Since 1990, he has the top fWAR of any Braves starter at 8.4 and that includes the second-best K/9 at 9.79, and if you’re of the mind that wins matter, Smoltz is fifth in that category with 24 in 35 starts that season. Maddux had a more dominant career (116.7 fWAR) and he and Tom Glavine had more Cy Youngs, but when it comes to their best season in a Braves uniform, Smoltz beats out both of his Big Three brethren here.

1B. RELIEF PITCHER: 2012 Craig Kimbrel

We could go with Smoltz again, and deservedly so. He had a 2.9 fWAR and 45 saves in 2003, and the year before that he set a Braves record with 55 saves to go with a 2.5 fWAR. But this spot goes to Craig Kimbrel and his arm-hanging, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’-playing best. Just let the domination of the left-hander’s 2012 set in: 42 saves in 45 chances with a single-season franchise record of 16.6 strikeouts per nine and he stranded 92.8 percent of runners, and he had a 0.78 FIP to go with a 1.01 ERA. Kimbrel had more saves in the seasons before (46 in 2011) and after (50 in ‘13), but from a complete body of work standpoint, this was Kimbrel operating at another level.

2. CATCHER: 2003 Javy Lopez

He was no one-hit wonder, with back-to-back seasons of at least 3.7 fWAR in 1997 and ‘98, but Lopez was pedestrian in 1999-2002 before delivering the best offensive year for a Braves catcher in ‘03 when he smashed 43 HR — the only 40-homer season ever for the franchise at this spot — with a .687 slugging percentage, .442 wOBA and 170 wRC+. Brian McCann’s 2008 stands as the best fWAR at 8.6, and it was also his best year behind the plate with 47.1 Defensive Runs Above Average and he had eight defensive runs saved, but Lopez’s numbers were so head and shoulders above the rest that, no matter what you think of that power surge in an era when the numbers and the biceps were beyond belief, it was a monster year that gets the nod.

3. FIRST BASE: 1971 Hank Aaron

This was the first season in which Hank Aaron saw any considerable time at first base, and he produced what remains the best of any year by a Brave at the position. The Hammer hit what is still the most home runs (47) and a 7.1 fWAR that has yet to be surpassed, along with 191 wRC+ a .466 wOBA, .669 slugging, the best OBP in the expansion era (.410) and drove in 118 runs, while appearing in 71 games at first. Freddie Freeman’s 2016, in which he had a 6.1 fWAR, 34 homers, 152 wRC+ and 45.3 Offensive Runs Above Average, is the only real challenger here, but there’s no denying Aaron’s greatness in 1971.

4. SECOND BASE: 1973 Davey Johnson

The great Rogers Hornsby spent one season with the Braves after he was traded by the Giants following a lawsuit by a bookie that said Hornsby owed him $70,000 for unpaid horse-race bets. Following that year the Braves, saddled with debt, dealt him to the Cubs, but they got a NL batting title out of Hornsby (.387) and he posted a 9.0 fWAR, the best of any second baseman in the franchise’s history, along with a .506 wOBA. He was spectacular, but so was Davey Johnson, who in 1973 hit 43 home runs — still tops at the position, and amazingly was better than his three next-best seasons combined — was second to Hornsby in fWAR (5.3), second in wRC+ (147) and tops in slugging (.546).

5. THIRD BASE: 1999 Chipper Jones

From a power standpoint, Eddie Mathews went deep more than any Brave at this spot when he smacked 47 home runs in 1953 and a year later, he produced the top wOBA (.452), while hitting 40 HRs, and Darrell Evans (1973) has the top fWAR (9.7). But Chipper Jones’ MVP season of 1999 includes the top Offensive Runs Above Average (65.) that’s nearly four points higher than the best of Mathews and a staggering .633 slugging percentage that also tops any qualified hitter.

6. SHORTSTOP: 2005 Rafael Furcal

Offensively, Denis Menke set the standard in 1964, with what remains the best fWAR for any Braves shortstop at 6.1, 136 wRC+ and the most home runs at the position with 20. But defensively, that season ranks 30th with 1.6 dWAR, paling in comparison to what we saw from the heights of Andrelton Simmons in Atlanta in 2013 (4.3 dWAR) and ‘15 (4.1). So, at a position where glove work is paramount, balance is the winner, which turns our attention to Rafael Furcal. His 2005 included a 4.5 fWAR (sixth) and the fifth best dWAR (3.2) as he slashed .284/.348/.429 with 105 WRC+ and had 24 Defensive Runs Saved, a number surpassed by only Simmons’ 30 in those previously mentioned seasons.

7. LEFT FIELD: 1989 Lonnie Smith

Left field, we’ve so often heard, is where you can live with subpar defense for the promise of offense. From that end, you can make a strong case for Rico Carty’s 1970, which included 173 wRC+, 25 homers, 101 RBI, a 6.7 fWAR ... and minus-4.9 Defensive Runs Above Average. Not that there haven’t been strong defensive seasons out of Braves in left, topped by Kelly Johnson’s 7.4 DEF in the Baby Braves season of 2005, but if we’re seeking the complete package in this corner spot, the answer is Lonnie Smith’s 1989. He had an 8.1 fWAR — 10th best in Braves history at any position — and 166 wRC+ to go with 21 home runs and 25 steals, while slashing .315/.415/.533 and followed his 42.1 OFF with 17.2 DEF. In his next five seasons combined — an 8.5 fWAR from 1990-1994 — Smith would barely edge out all that he accomplished in that one magical season, but his inexplicable ‘89 has a place in Braves history.

8. CENTER FIELD: 1961 Hank Aaron

Andruw Jones’s epic 2005 — which saw the defensive wizard break out for a franchise-record 51 home runs and 134 wRC+ — ended with his being edged out by Albert Pujols in the 2005 NL MVP voting, falling 23 points behind the Cardinals slugger. As spectacular as Jones was that season, he’s also edged out here by the most prolific season of the best player in franchise history. Aaron saw 654 2/3 innings in 1961 in right field, but he saw more time (712 1/3) in center as he had a career-high 8.9 fWAR and 153 wRC+ behind 34 home runs and a .327/.381/.594 slash line and led the league in doubles (39) and total bases (358). This season coincidentally, was also the introduction of the bat that Aaron would use for the remainder of his career, the Louisville Slugger A99.

9. RIGHT FIELD: 1959 Hank Aaron

This spot could go to J.D. Drew and his 8.6 fWAR, 31 home runs and 162 wRC+ in 2004 or Gary Sheffield, who authored a 163 wRC+ and 7.3 fWAR in a 39-bomb 2003. But Aaron was again otherworldly in 1959 in right, where he played 144 games. He posted an 8.9 fWAR (the franchise’s best at this position) and hit 34 home runs, slashed .327/.381/.594 and stole 21 bases and led all of baseball with 223 hits, a .355 batting average, .636 slugging, 1.037 OPS, 182 OPS+ and 400 total bases. Despite all those italicized bold numbers that would later dot his Baseball Reference page, Aaron was third in MVP voting that season behind Ernie Banks and teammate Eddie Mathews. Aaron’s OPS was 0.067 higher than Banks, his batting average — in age where that was an obsession point — was 51 points higher, but he’d earn just two first-place votes to Banks’ 10, while Mathews drew five.