So, how’s the COVID-19 quarantine treating you? My time has been spent rather unproductively but what are you gonna do? There was a box of my stuff that was dived into and among other things, it included four 1969 Citgo Mets portraits that were purchased on ebay some 20 or so years ago. The lot included Tommie Agee, Ken Boswell, Ed Kranepool and Tom Seaver. And right after those came back into my life, there was the anniversary of the Mets gaining the rights to Seaver in a special lottery. If you don’t know that story, you can catch up with it on this Craig Calcaterra piece.
As Mets fans, we always think about this as a milestone day, how The Franchise came over to our team. But how about what it was like for the Braves? It’s not really something that ever occurred much to me previously.
If you’re a baseball fan who studied the record books, you might know that the Braves won the pennant in 1957 and 1958, winning the World Series in the former season. But chances are you don’t know much about the Braves in the 1960s. They were a good but not great team, consistently winning in the mid-80s through the 1966 season. But they fell below .500 in ’67 and went 81-81 in ’68.
Looking at those mid 60s Braves teams, they had a very nice offense. The 1966 team featured seven of their eight regulars with an OPS+ of 108 or more, including Rico Carty with a 135, Felipe Alou and Hank Aaron, both with a 142 mark, and Joe Torre with a 156 as a catcher. It wasn’t an old team, with only 3B Eddie Mathews at age 34 being near the end of the line. It should have been a good offense for years to come.
The problem in 1966 was pitching. While the offense read like a who’s who of 1960s stars, the pitching was more – who’s that? The top two starters were Tony Cloninger (who for me will forever be known as the last card to complete my 1970 set) and Ken Johnson. Their top pitcher by bWAR was reliever Clay Carroll, who went 8-7 with 11 Saves.
So, what happened between ’66 and ’67?
Mets killer Denis Menke took a step back, as did Alou, Carty and Torre. And the pitching didn’t get magically better. Cloninger posted a 5.17 ERA. Remember, this is the deadball 60s. That’s a bad number in 2019 but it was horrible in ’67, checking in at 65 ERA+. Carroll had a 5.52 ERA. Johnson had a strong year with a 122 ERA+ but the unexpected bright spot was Phil Niekro, who after three forgettable seasons finally eclipsed 200 innings split between starting and relieving and put up a 179 ERA+.
As you probably know, 1967 was the year that Seaver made his MLB debut, winning 16 games as a 22 year old for a team that went 61-101. Seaver threw 251 IP en route to winning Rookie of the Year. He was a catalyst for a Mets team with no offense. Imagine what kind of spark he could have provided a team with an offense led by Aaron, Torre and Carty?
In 1968, we see a little more balance between the offense and pitching for the Braves, in good part because of two separate trades with the Reds. In the offseason, the Braves sent Mack Jones, who back in 1965 looked like he was going to be a cornerstone in CF for the next decade, to the Reds for 1B Deron Johnson, who put up a dismal 80 OPS+ as the team’s starting 1B. And during the year the Braves picked up Milt Pappas from the Reds. Pappas was acquired by Cincinnati for Frank Robinson and his time as a Red was just dismal. But with a new start, Pappas responded with 121.1 IP of 128 ERA+, giving the Braves a third solid starter to go with Niekro and Pat Jarvis.
Seaver again won 16 games in ’68 but did so while throwing 27 more innings and giving higher quality, too. His ERA+ went from 122 in his rookie season to a 137 in his sophomore campaign. The Mets still lost 89 games that year but just about all of the building blocks were in place for their magical ’69 season.
The Mets and Braves were on a collision course in 1969. The Braves had a dynamite 1-2 punch with Aaron (177 OPS+) and Carty, who rebounded from missing the ’68 season with tuberculosis to post a 163 OPS+. Torre was no longer there, as he was dealt to the Cardinals for Orlando Cepeda. The former MVP winner didn’t have a great year (109 OPS+) but that was a substantial upgrade from Johnson at 1B the year before.
Niekro had a 142 ERA+ and the rest of the starters were more or less average. But it was enough for the Braves to win 93 games and claim first place in the newly-created NL West, which set up the first NLCS with the East-winning Mets.
Seaver won the CY Award in ’69, with 25 Wins and a 165 ERA+. He won his start in the NLCS against Atlanta, but it was due to a strong offensive performance, rather than great pitching. Seaver allowed 5 ER in 7 IP but the Mets scored five unearned runs in the eighth inning off Niekro – thanks to a throwing error by Cepeda – which vaulted the Mets to the win.
The Mets scored 18 runs in the next two games to earn the sweep. But how would things have been if Seaver started the first game for Atlanta and Niekro took the hill for the second game? It’s possible that the Braves would have met the Orioles in the World Series, instead.
Cepeda had a better year with the bat in 1970, recording a 136 OPS+ and giving the Braves a true 1-2-3 punch when combined with Aaron and Carty. But Niekro fell off to a 12-18 mark and Atlanta dropped from 97 wins to a 76-86 finish. It wasn’t much better in ’70 for the Mets, as a late slide by Seaver – who lost six of his last seven decisions – kept them from defending their title, as they finished 83-79.
The rest of the 1970s was essentially a time to forget for Braves fans. The one exception was 1974, when Ralph Garr had his career year, winning the batting title and posting a 143 OPS+. It was Aaron’s last season with the club and he put up a still strong 128 OPS+ in a part-time role. The other hitting stars were Dusty Baker and Darrell Evans, who combined to hit 45 HR. Davey Johnson was there, too, providing a nice 107 OPS+ at 2B, the position that troubled the Braves so much during the 1960s.
And the pitching that year was pretty good, too. Niekro had a 159 ERA+ over 300.2 IP and won 20 games. He was backed by two 16-game winners in Carl Morton and former Met Buzz Capra. It wasn’t the greatest year for Seaver in ’74 but his 236 innings of a 112 ERA+ would have been a nice upgrade from Roric Harrison’s 6-11, 4.71 ERA output.
If Seaver stayed with the Braves, maybe they make it to the World Series in 1969 and 1974. Of course, it’s hard to predict the ripples that would have happened had the team had a young pitching star like Seaver as the counterweight to Aaron. Maybe they never trade Torre and get his ’71 MVP season. Perhaps Carty stayed healthy in this alternate universe. Who knows, perhaps they don’t make the Felix Millan/George Stone deal with the Mets and those two gave strong performances for Atlanta, instead.
We know what happened to the Mets when Seaver left and it wasn’t pretty.
Those of us who were around have great memories of Seaver and Jerry Koosman fronting the Mets’ rotation for years. It could have easily been Seaver and Niekro. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Atlanta. But then you remember all the years they had with Hall of Famers Warren Spahn, Niekro, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and the last thing that franchise needed was another pitching star.