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Braves' Top 5 righty starters: Bowman's take

@mlbbowman
May 26, 2020

ATLANTA -- No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are

ATLANTA -- No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Braves' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | Bench

Here is Mark Bowman’s ranking of the top 5 right-handed starters in Braves history. Next week: Left-handed starters

1. Greg Maddux, 1993-2003
Key fact: Received 98 of the 108 first-place votes cast for the National League Cy Young Award from 1992-95. Maddux and Randy Johnson (1999-2002) are the only pitchers to ever win four straight Cy Young Awards.

Maddux produced a 1.90 ERA and a 219 ERA+ over the 89 starts he made over his first three seasons (1993-95) with Atlanta. His ERA was more than a run lower than those constructed by Jose Rijo (2.92) and Johnson (2.97), who ranked second and third, respectively, among all big league pitchers during this span.

So how did Maddux fare during his final eight seasons spent with the Braves? Well, the 2.90 ERA he produced from 1996-2003 ranked fourth among all big league pitchers, trailing only Pedro Martinez (2.40), Kevin Brown (2.60) and Johnson (2.74).

The question is really where should Maddux rank amongst the best right-handed starters in baseball history? His career 132 ERA+ ranks seventh, and of the six pitchers ranked ahead of him, Roger Clemens is the only one who pitched after 1930.

Maddux’s 163 ERA+ with the Braves easily ranks as the best mark for a starter in franchise history. His 66.2 bWAR compiled over 2,526 2/3 innings ranks third among Braves right-handed starters. His WAR is .07 less than that produced by John Smoltz, who logged 863 1/3 more innings than Maddux as a Brave.

Phil Niekro ranks first among the franchise’s right-handed starters with the 89.6 WAR he amassed over 4,622 1/3 innings. Had Maddux maintained his same pace and equaled Niekro’s innings total, his WAR would have been approximately 121.

2. John Smoltz, 1988-2008
Key fact: Ranks second in MLB history in postseason wins (15) and postseason winning percentage (.789)

You’ve likely heard numerous stories about how mediocre Smoltz was before the 1991 All-Star break. What you might not know is that he produced the game’s fifth-best ERA (minimum 150 starts) over the remainder of the decade.

Here were the top seven ERAs produced within that span: Maddux (2.37), Martinez (2.83), Johnson (3.03), Kevin Brown (3.14), Smoltz (3.15), Tom Glavine (3.17) and Clemens (3.22).

Smoltz won the 1996 NL Cy Young Award and then became one of the game’s best closers after returning from the Tommy John surgery that cost him all of the 2000 season and much of ‘01. He set a single-season franchise record with 55 saves in ‘02 and totaled a then-franchise record 154 saves from ‘01-04. His Hall of Fame resume was highlighted by his standing as the only pitcher to record 200 wins and 150 saves.

Granted his wish to return to Atlanta’s rotation in 2005, Smoltz posted a 3.22 ERA over the next three seasons. The right-hander who won his lone Cy Young Award at 29 years old finished among the top seven in balloting for this same award when he was 39 and 40 years old.

3. Kid Nichols, 1890-1901
Key fact: At 30 years, nine months and 23 days, Nichols became the youngest pitcher to record 300 wins

The rules and game were somewhat different back when Nichols was establishing himself as one of the game’s top pitchers. But while we’ll never know how Nichols, Cy Young or any of the great hurlers of that era might have fared in today’s game, you still have to credit the greatness that earned Nichols a place in the Hall of Fame.

How great was Nichols during his 12-season stint with the Braves organization? Well his 107.4 WAR was trumped only by the 107.7 WAR Cy Young produced from 1890-1901. Amos Rusie ranked third among pitchers during this span with a 65.7 WAR.

Nichols made 502 starts during his time with the Braves and he went the distance in 476 of those outings. His career 140 ERA+ ranks eighth among all MLB starters who have logged at least 2,000 career innings.

4. Phil Niekro, 1964-83, ‘87
Key fact: Recorded more wins (121) than any other pitcher aged 40 or older in MLB history

Niekro finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting in 1969, which is the same year the Braves won their first division title in Atlanta. He also played a key role in the city’s second division title. The knuckleballer was 43 years old when he went 17-4 with a 3.61 ERA for the 1982 NL West champion Braves.

When Niekro debuted for the 1964 Braves, his teammate Hank Aaron had hit just 342 home runs. Aaron would hit another 400-plus homers and be retired for seven years before Niekro spent his last full season with the franchise.

Yeah, longevity highlighted the resume that earned Niekro a place in the Hall of Fame. But the 119 ERA+ the 300-game winner produced with the Braves proves that he managed to remain an above-average pitcher over the course of two decades. That’s pretty impressive.

5. Tim Hudson, 2005-13
Key fact: Hudson is one of only 21 pitchers in Major League history to win at least 200 games, post 2,000 strikeouts and have a .600 or higher career winning percentage

Hudson went 113-72 and posted a 3.56 ERA over 244 appearances (243 starts) in nine seasons with Atlanta. He missed most of 2009 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he then enriched manager Bobby Cox's final season as he helped the Braves reach the postseason, finishing fourth in balloting for the '10 NL Cy Young Award.

Maddux (.688) and Glavine (.624) are the only pitchers in Atlanta history to post a better winning percentage than Hudson (.611).

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.