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Nothing spoils us like greatness. It is so easy to take for granted the magnificence of once-in-a-lifetime talents like Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, precisely because their greatness produces a consistency that lulls us into becoming accustomed to their exploits.
Greatness isn't a quality reserved for those who take the field. The most dominant baseball figure of the past 25 years hasn't played in the major leagues since 1969. It has been 12 years since the playoffs started without a team managed by Bobby Cox, and he appears to be in no hurry to end that streak.
This year, despite an offense that ranks just ninth in the NL in runs scored, the Braves are firmly in first place in the NL East on the strength of a pitching staff that leads baseball in ERA. The previous sentence could have been written for any Braves' team of the past five years, but this season the Braves' pitching staff comes with a twist. Whereas the Braves of yesteryear out-pitched the rest of baseball on the strength of their Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz trio, this year's team has taken a much different tack. While Glavine leads the NL with a 1.71 ERA, Maddux has been a rather pedestrian pitcher all year, with just a 3.44 ERA, and Smoltz has the highest ERA (5.26) of any closer this side of Hideki Irabu.
If you want to know the secret of the Braves' pitching staff this year, all you have to do is look at this snippet of a box score from June 10, a game the Braves lost:
Pitcher IP H R ER BB SO HR PC-ST ERA G. Maddux 7 10 5 5 1 4 0 87-57 3.44 M. Remlinger 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 12-10 1.62 C. Hammond 1 1 0 0 0 2 0 13-9 1.65 K. Gryboski 2 0 0 0 1 2 0 22-15 1.40 D. Holmes 1 1 0 0 0 3 0 15-11 1.63 K. Ligtenberg (L, 0-3) 2.2 2 1 1 0 2 0 36-25 2.13
It's the last column that should catch your eye. The Braves used five relievers that night, three of whom were picked off the proverbial scrap pile over the winter. None of them had an ERA over 2.13.
We are spoiled by greatness. For years, we have watched as Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone have taken pitchers cast away by someone else, scorned by the rest of baseball, and sculpted them virtually overnight into unhittable relievers.
How spoiled are we? Cox and Mazzone have concocted one of the greatest bullpens of all time from yarn and twine, and we haven't even batted an eye.
Consider this: six pitchers have relieved in 20 or more games for the Braves so far this year. Kerry Ligtenberg, who has lowered his ERA to 1.98 since his loss on June 10, has the second-highest of the group:
Pitcher GR IP ERA Kevin Gryboski 24 26.2 1.35 Chris Hammond 26 34.2 1.56 Mike Remlinger 35 34.1 1.57 Darren Holmes 28 29.2 1.82 Kerry Ligtenberg 20 27.1 1.98 John Smoltz 33 37.2 5.26
(Side note: how many teams have chosen their absolute worst relief pitcher to be their closer? The same number who paid $10 million a year for a pitcher to throw 70 innings a season. As they say in those Hertz commercials: Bobby Cox? Smart. John Schuerholz? Not exactly.)
At the moment, the Braves have five pitchers who 1) have made at least 20 relief appearances and 2) have an ERA under 2.00. In the history of baseball, not one team can boast five such pitchers. Not one team can boast four such pitchers. Only two teams can boast even three:
Year Team Pitchers 1968 Chicago (AL) Wilbur Wood (1.87 ERA), Hoyt Wilhelm (1.73), Don McMahon (1.96) 1995 St. Louis Tom Henke (1.82 ERA), Tony Fossas (1.47), T.J. Mathews (1.52)
Who remembers that the 1968 White Sox employed the best right-handed (Hoyt Wilhelm) and left-handed (Wilbur Wood) knuckleballers of the last 50 years? Not many, because their hitters scored 463 runs all season and the team finished 67-95. The 1995 Cardinals hardly did better, finishing 62-81 and getting Joe Torre fired in May. That's what you get when you make Tripp Cromer your starting shortstop.
(Honesty–and the fear of being embarrassed by my readers–forces me to point out that the Twins, behind J.C. Romero (0.70 ERA), LaTroy Hawkins (1.51), and Mike Jackson (1.52); and the Padres, thanks to Trevor Hoffman (1.07 ERA), Alan Embree (1.12), and Steve Reed (1.82), are also in a position to be added to this list.)
And who are those five Braves pitchers?
Kevin Gryboski, a 28-year-old right-hander who spent the last seven years toiling in the Mariners' organization without ever receiving a major-league call-up. Gryboski's career minor-league ERA? 4.63.
Chris Hammond, who is 36 years old and who retired from baseball in 1998 before returning to pitch in Triple-A last season.
Mike Remlinger, who was 33 when he joined the Braves in 1999, and had never posted an ERA under 4.14 in six previous major-league seasons. Since reaching Atlanta, his career ERA is 2.68.
Darren Holmes, who was out of baseball ever since he allowed 28 runs in 19 innings for three teams two years ago.
- Kerry Ligtenberg, who was signed as an undrafted free agent, whose minor-league career was so uninspiring that he never received a single mention in the Minor League Scouting Notebook, and who underwent Tommy John surgery three years ago.
You couldn't find five more unwanted pitchers in baseball, and yet in the hands of Cox and Mazzone, they are the foundation of a bullpen that's on pace to rank among the greats of all time.
Three summers ago, I wrote an article ranking the 12 greatest bullpens of all time for ESPN.com. As fate should have it, the 12th-ranked team on my list from three years ago was the 1993 Braves. Using the same criteria as I used in that study–the combined stats of all relievers, where "reliever" is defined as a pitcher who made at least 80% of his appearances in relief–here is how the 2002 Braves stack up with their counterparts from nine years ago:
Year Team W L SV IP H ER BB SO HR ERA LERA 2002 Atlanta 11 9 22 209.2 161 58 101 183 12 2.49 4.02 1993 Atlanta 25 17 46 391.0 317 137 159 333 19 3.15 4.05
How about the other 11 names on the list? For the record, here are the top 12 bullpens of all time, along with their composite ERA relative to the league:
1. 1990 Athletics 2.16 3.92 0.551* 2. 1977 Phillies 2.78 3.91 0.709* 3. 1970 Twins 2.78 3.72 0.747 4. 1997 Orioles 3.00 4.57 0.657 5. 1984 Tigers 3.01 4.00 0.753 6. 1995 Indians 3.21 4.70 0.683 7. 1979 Orioles 2.86 4.23 0.678 8. 1985 Yankees 2.86 4.15 0.690 9. 1975 Athletics 2.67 3.79 0.704 10. 1979 Rangers 2.75 4.23 0.652 11. 1980 Yankees 2.80 4.04 0.693 12. 1993 Braves 3.15 4.05 0.779 2002 Braves 2.49 4.02 0.619
*The #1 bullpen on the list was actually the 1988-89-90 A's, and the #2 bullpen was the 1976-77 Phillies. For both bullpens, I listed only their best single-season showing.
That one exception, the 1990 A's, outpaces the competition by a Secretariat-like margin. Not only did the A's have the best relief season of all time (Dennis Eckersley: 0.61 ERA in 73 innings), but they also had one of the greatest set-up tandems in history, with Gene Nelson (1.57 ERA in 75 innings) complemented by Rick Honeycutt (2.70 ERA in 63 innings). If you take Eckersley out of the equation completely, the A's still have a 2.49 ERA, better than any other team on the list.
While the 1990 A's appear uncatchable, is there any other bullpen in history that undercut the league ERA by as large a margin as the Braves currently are doing? Here are the best ratios of all time for any bullpen with 250 or more innings pitched:
1990 Athletics 2.16 3.92 0.551 2002 Braves 2.49 4.02 0.619 1967 White Sox 2.01 3.23 0.623 1962 Pirates 2.47 3.94 0.627 1979 Rangers 2.75 4.23 0.652 1966 White Sox 2.25 3.43 0.654 1997 Orioles 3.00 4.57 0.657
If I were making a list of the 12 best bullpens of all time, I would have to find room for the 1966-68 White Sox, who as mentioned above, were led by Hoyt Wilhelm, who posted ERAs of 1.66, 1.31 and 1.73 during a three-year stretch that began at age 42. Wilbur Wood joined him in 1967 with a 2.45 ERA, and along with Don McMahon (1.67 ERA in 92 IP) and Bob Locker (2.09 ERA in 125 IP), the White Sox set a relief ERA standard that year that may never be broken, barring a return to the run-scarce days of the 1960s.
Yet as dominant as that bullpen was, even the 1967 White Sox weren't as impressive as the Braves have been this year. Only those 1990 A's stand in their way. Ironically, whereas the A's were led by Dennis Eckersley, the Braves were supposed to be led by John Smoltz, whose late-career transition to the bullpen is so evocative of the Eck, but who has struggled in his first full year as a closer (admittedly, his ERA is skewed by one horrible inning against the Mets). If we remove the closers from the equation:
So there you have it. Nearly halfway through the season, the question isn't whether the Braves are on pace to finish with the best middle-relief corps in baseball history. The question is, have we become too jaded by Bobby Cox's greatness to even notice?