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Braves' Top 5 lefty starters: Bowman's take

@mlbbowman
June 2, 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.

Here is Mark Bowman’s ranking of the Top 5 left-handed starters in Braves history. Next week: Relievers

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

1. Tom Glavine, 1987-2002, '08
Key fact: Accounts for 12 of the 22 postseason wins earned by a Braves left-hander while pitching as a starter

How can I go with Glavine instead of Warren Spahn, who collected more wins (363) than any left-hander in baseball history and who was worth more Wins Above Replacement (per Baseball-Reference) than any Braves pitcher of the Modern Era (since 1900)? And yes, I am aware that Spahn might have recorded 400 wins had he not missed four seasons while serving in World War II.

Spahn compiled 91.9 WAR over 5,046 innings for the Braves. Glavine had a 58.6 WAR over his 3,408 innings for Atlanta. Had Glavine maintained this same pace and matched Spahn’s innings total, he would have produced a comparable 86.8 WAR.

Now that we’ve done a comparison that confirmed two great pitchers were essentially equally great during their time with the Braves, we’ll look at adjusted ERA (ERA+), which normalizes a player’s ERA while using external factors like ballpark factors and opponents, where 100 is league average and any number higher is considered above average.

Glavine had eight different seasons with a 130 ERA+ or better, while Spahn had just three such seasons. Glavine also had a 140 ERA+ or better five different times. Spahn did so just twice.

As great as Spahn was, Glavine set himself apart from same-era peers on a more frequent basis. The two-time National League Cy Young Award winner posted a 3.15 ERA and had a 134 ERA+ from 1991-2002.

Among all pitchers who totaled at least 1,500 innings within this span, Glavine ranked fifth in ERA+. The only pitchers with a better mark were Pedro Martinez (172), Greg Maddux (164), Randy Johnson (155), and Roger Clemens (140).

2. Warren Spahn, 1942-64
Key fact: From his 1947 rookie season through '63, Spahn produced 91.8 WAR, well above second-place Robin Roberts (77.0 WAR)

Glavine limiting the Indians to one run over eight scoreless innings in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series might have been the most valuable postseason start in Braves history, but Spahn created a few of his own good memories from the Fall Classic.

Serving as another reminder of how much different the eras were, Spahn pitched at least nine innings in four consecutive World Series starts. The lefty worked 10 innings in Game 4 of the 1957 World Series and he matched this workload in Game 1 of the '58 Series. He returned to the mound four days later to complete nine innings, then worked another 9 2/3 innings when Game 6 was played exactly one week after Game 1.

It should also be mentioned that Spahn was 37 years old when he threw 28 2/3 innings of World Series baseball within that seven-day span back in 1958. You certainly couldn’t knock the durability of this lefty, who averaged 278 innings with a 2.96 ERA over a 17-season span from 1947-63. He threw less than 250 innings just once during that stretch.

Spahn won his only Cy Young Award during the Braves’ 1957 World Series-winning season, but he finished in the top three in the voting five times within a span of six seasons (from '56-61), and he earned 356 of his 363 career wins while playing for the Braves.

3. Steve Avery, 1990-96
Key fact: Was just 21 years old when he threw 16 1/3 scoreless innings over two starts in the 1991 NL Championship Series win over the Pirates

A bothersome shoulder prevented Avery from living up to the expectations of those who predicted he would be better than Glavine and John Smoltz. But he still did enough during the early 1990s to establish himself as one of the best left-handed starters in franchise history.

Avery posted a 3.17 ERA over 105 starts from 1991-93, then produced a 4.40 ERA while totaling just 76 starts over the next three seasons. Still, Avery was an invaluable postseason asset in ’91 and ’92, and his 13.5 WAR ranks fourth among left-handed starters in Braves history.

4. Charlie Leibrandt, 1990-92
Key Fact: In 1991, Leibrandt, Avery and Glavine became the first trio of left-handed teammates with at least 15 wins in a season

Before justifying this ranking, I’d like to point out a wonderful story ESPN’s Sam Miller published a couple weeks ago about nine unsung World Series heroes. Within this article, Miller reminds of how much tough luck Leibrandt encountered during the postseason, dating back to his days with the Royals.

Anyhow, the story reminded me of how much Leibrandt’s presence aided the growth of Avery, Glavine and Smoltz, who were all age 24 or younger when the veteran lefty joined Atlanta’s rotation. But along with being a valuable mentor, Leibrandt posted a 3.35 ERA while totaling 91 starts from 1990-92. His 116 ERA+ during that three-season span ranked eighth among big league lefties.

Like Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Otis Nixon and a few others, Leibrandt was one of the veteran additions that allowed the Braves to make that huge unexpected jump in 1991 and capture their first of 14 consecutive division titles.

5. Denny Neagle, 1996-98
Key fact: Finished third in the 1997 NL Cy Young Award voting behind Pedro Martinez and Braves teammate Greg Maddux

Within the next few years, Max Fried could certainly earn a place within these rankings. But for now, we’ll reserve this last spot for Neagle, who produced a 122 ERA+ while making 71 starts over his 2 1/2-season stint with Atlanta. He continued to indirectly provide value after he was traded to the Reds in the deal that brought back Mike Remlinger, who will most likely be included within next week’s rankings of the best relievers in franchise history. Neagle also had a hand in a major milestone for Bobby Cox.

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