The Atlanta Braves led all of baseball in runs this season, having scored 286 times in 50 games, or 5.72 runs per game.
Spread over a 162-game season (which 2020 is not), that’s 942 runs. That would be a team record, outdistancing the 907 (5.6 per game) scored by the 2003 Braves.
The 2003 Braves clinched the National League East on Sept. 18, 17 years ago Friday. That team won 101 games despite a pitching staff that ranked just ninth in the NL in ERA (4.10).
This year’s team hasn’t been great on the mound either, with a 4.59 ERA entering Wednesday that ranked seventh in the NL. And its winning percentage extrapolates to “only” 94 victories over a 162-game season.
This year’s Braves also have a full-time designated hitter for the first time, and don’t have a run out a pitching staff that batted a collective .155/.186/.234 (an OPS+ of 9), as the 2003 team did. And that’s including Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton, who were pretty good hitters for pitchers.
That caveat aside, which lineup was better? Let’s compare them, lineup spot by lineup spot (listed in position they batted most often that year; 2020 stats through Tuesday):
2003: Rafael Furcal, SS, .292/.352/.443, 105 OPS+
2020: Ronald Acuña, CF, .254/.409/.582, 155 OPS+
Furcal, the 2000 NL Rookie of the Year, had a nice six-year run with the Braves, and 2003 was his best season at the plate. But it pales in comparison to the otherworldly performance of Acuña, whose numbers still hold up despite a recent slump.
2003: Marcus Giles, 2B, .316/.390/.526, 136 OPS+
2020: Dansby Swanson, SS, .284/.355/.454, 110 OPS+
It took Giles a couple of years to finally crack the Braves’ lineup (Bobby Cox was enamored of Keith Lockhart, for whatever reason), but when he did, he turned in perhaps the best-ever offensive season by an Atlanta second baseman. Swanson has been excellent at the plate this year, but he’s no Giles.
2003: Gary Sheffield, RF, .330/.419/.604, 162 OPS+
2020: Freddie Freeman, 1B, .352/.465/.653, 188 OPS+
This one is not as close as I thought it would be. As great as Sheffield was in his second and final season in Atlanta (37 doubles, 39 homers, 18 steals), Freeman has been the best or second-best player in the National League. Over a full season, Freeman’s .465 OBP would be Top 20 in the expansion era.
2003: Chipper Jones, LF, .305/.402/.517, 137 OPS+
2020: Marcell Ozuna, DH, .321/.407/.604/160 OPS+
This was not one of Chipper’s vintage seasons (though it was still a very good one), as he was playing out of position and began to suffer the leg and foot injuries that would plague him the rest of his career. Ozuna has been a butcher defensively, but the man can rake.
2003: Andruw Jones, CF, .277/.338/.517, 117 OPS+
2020: Travis d’Arnaud, C, .318/.377/.523, 132 OPS+
Andruw Jones brought so much more to the table than his hitting, which was still quite good before he really started hitting for power a few years later. As the better part of the Braves’ catching platoon, d’Arnaud has been for the most part excellent, if particularly prone to grounding into double plays (6 in just 146 plate appearances entering Wednesday).
2003: Robert Fick, 1B, .269/.335/.418, 95 OPS+
2020: Nick Markakis, RF, .252/.313/.408, 87 OPS+
Fick was the worst every day hitter in the 2003 Braves lineup, and one of a series of mostly forgettable Braves first baseman between Fred McGriff and Freddie Freeman (save your odd Mark Teixeira or Adam LaRoche). He platooned with Julio Franco, who ran a 113 OPS+ in 223 plate appearances at age 44. Markakis returned from his COVID-19 opt-out hitting like a house afire, but has been brutally bad for the last month or so.
2003: Javy Lopez, C, .328/.378/.687, 169 OPS+
2020: Adam Duvall, LF, .255/.313/.604, 132 OPS+
Lopez’s 2003 season is one of the great outliers in Braves history, as he posted home run (43) and slugging percentage totals 20 percent higher than any other year in his career. And just think what kind of numbers he could have put up had Greg Maddux not insisted on Henry Blanco as his personal catcher. Duvall has been outstanding — particularly of late — becoming the first Brave to hit three home runs in a game twice.
2003: Vinny Castilla, 3B, .277/.310/.461, 97 OPS+
2020: Austin Riley, 3B, .236/.291/.410, 81 OPS+
Castilla was terrible in his first year back in Atlanta in 2002, but rebounded to have a decent season in 2003. (It’s still debateable whether it was worth nearly crippling Chipper Jones to get him in the lineup, however.) Riley has had some big moments, but overall has been well below-average.
2003: A bunch of guys, P, .155/.186/.234, 9 OPS+
2020: Ozzie Albies, 2B, .247/.286/.425, 83 OPS+
This is not fair at all, obviously, even as comparatively bad as Albies has been this season. A much more fair comparison would be to install the Braves’ best hitting pitcher (Ortiz) into this slot. Ortiz posted a .257/.303/.400 line in 2003, good for an 81 OPS+. However, he only played every fifth day. The position was dragged down by a subpar hitting year from Hampton (53 OPS+) and truly dreadful hitting numbers from Greg Maddux, Horacio Ramirez and Shane Reynolds.
If we’re going strictly on head-to-head numbers, the 2020 team has the edge, 5-4. But a huge chunk of that is because of the DH (not to mention playing a much shorter season).
If you use just non-pitcher offensive numbers, the 2003 Braves batted a collective .292/.358.490, good for an OPS+ of 118. The 2020 Braves have hit .270/.346/.485, good for a 114 OPS+.
So because the 2003 Braves played a longer season, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and declare them a tentative winner in this category. It’s still possible the current Atlanta team could hit so well over its last 10 games that it puts some distance between the two.
The 2003 Braves ran into a pitching buzzsaw in the National League Division Series, losing to the Chicago Cubs of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in five games. The Cubs held the Braves to just 15 runs total, including games of one, one and two runs.
Can the 2020 Braves — the best-hitting Atlanta team in at least 17 years — avoid a similar postseason offensive slump?
Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. No, that’s not his real name.