Top 5 debut seasons in Braves history

February 1st, 2021

ATLANTA -- First impressions might not determine success, but they do often influence how a player’s tenure with a certain club is remembered.

Tom Glavine made significant strides after posting a 5.54 ERA over nine starts in 1987. But as he marched toward 300-plus wins and the Hall of Fame, many Braves fans remembered that like many other young pitchers, he stumbled at the start.

Along those same lines, longtime Braves fans likely remember the excitement Bob Horner created when he hit 23 homers over the first 89 games of his career in 1978. A few 30-homer seasons followed, but his most memorable season might have been that one, when he proved capable of going straight from college to the Majors in a successful manner.

Still, Horner’s impressive rookie season wasn’t quite strong enough to crack this list of the best seasons any Braves player has had during his first year with the club. If you are looking for Mike Soroka’s 2019 season, he didn’t qualify because he made five appearances in '18.

1) Greg Maddux, 1993
Key stats: 20-10, 2.36 ERA, 267 innings, 170 ERA+, 5.8 bWAR

Maddux exited his April 25 outing with a 3.48 ERA through his first five starts. He had allowed four earned runs in three consecutive starts and had not yet pitched to the expectations of the five-year, $28 million deal he’d signed during the offseason. But he posted a 2.20 ERA over his next 31 starts and won the second of his four consecutive National League Cy Young Awards.

As Maddux produced a 1.52 ERA over his last 13 starts, the Braves erased the 7 1/2-game division deficit they had carried into July 31. His initial season in Atlanta resulted in the Braves winning the third of their 14 consecutive division titles.

2) Rogers Hornsby, 1928
Key stats: .387 batting average, 21 HR, 202 OPS+, 1.130 OPS, 9.0 bWAR

While spending his only season with the Braves, Hornsby produced what remains the franchise record for OPS and OPS+. The Hall of Fame second baseman led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and walks. He did all of this while serving as player-manager after manager Jack Slattery was fired a month into the season.

Hornsby’s stats were inflated by the 107 walks he drew within an otherwise rather weak lineup. But he still flirted with a .400 batting average and his NL-best .632 slugging percentage was trumped only by the Yankees’ duo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

3) Wally Berger, 1930
Key stats: .310 batting average, 38 HR, .990 OPS, 137 OPS+, 4.1 bWAR

One of the premier power hitters of his era, Berger set a rookie record when he hit 38 homers in 1930. This record stood 57 years, until Mark McGwire broke it with 49 in '87. But no NL rookie surpassed this mark until 2017 (Cody Bellinger, 39). Berger's .990 OPS remains the best mark produced by a rookie in franchise history.

4) J.D. Drew, 2004
Key stats: .305 batting average, 31 HR, 1.006 OPS, 157 OPS+, 8.3 bWAR

While the Braves lost this trade that gave St. Louis Adam Wainwright for a couple of decades, they gained immediate results as Drew produced a career-best season during his only season in Atlanta. Drew’s adjusted OPS still stands as the highest mark ever produced by any player who totaled at least 120 games during his first year with the Braves. He helped Atlanta win a 13th consecutive division title, finished sixth in NL MVP Award voting and then signed with the Dodgers the following winter.

5) Ronald Acuña Jr., 2018
Key stats: .293, 26 HR, .917 OPS, 143 OPS+, 4.2 bWAR (111 games)

Acuña’s Rookie of the Year Award-winning performance was similar to the one David Justice (.908 OPS, 143 OPS+) produced in 1990. But the current Braves outfielder gets the nod because his production significantly influenced the team to capture its first division title in more than a decade.

Acuña spent the season’s first three weeks at the Triple-A level and missed a month with a right knee ailment. Still, he managed to become just the ninth rookie in MLB history to hit 25 homers and steal at least 15 bases in a season.