How does the 2020 offense stack up to the Braves’ all-time greatest?

Marcell Ozuna

Heading into the 2020 season, many believed the Braves lineup had a chance to be great, and for good reason. Save for a departed Josh Donaldson, essentially every player from 2019’s top-five lineup was set to return, and even Donaldson’s absence wasn’t expected to hurt too much given the team signed free agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal. The group that got hot together last season and scored the most runs since 2003 was back and ready to perform even better in 2020.

And now that the 2020 regular season is completed and we can look back at what the team accomplished, boy did they do just that…

Allow me to share some key offensive stats and rankings with you. The following is how the Braves, as a team, ranked on offense among all other MLB teams in 2020:

.268 AVG 2nd
121 wRC+ 2nd
89.5 mph exit velocity 2nd
348 runs 2nd
103 HR 2nd
338 RBI 1st
11.2 fWAR 4th

Watching this team play on a day to day basis, it’s not hard to see why the group was one of the best in baseball this season. And fortunately, thanks to a stretch of poor pitching from the starting rotation, this 2020 Braves’ offense never let up.

But given this season has been unlike any other, and the regular season ended after just 60 games, how can we accurately determine just how great this lineup truly is? Any type of counting stat is most definitely going to be distorted, as the this season’s sample-size is only roughly 40% of what a full 162-game campaign would be. So we can’t quantify 2020’s performance by simply looking at runs scored, homers or RBI.

So for this particular exercise, which involves looking back many seasons, we’re going to use OPS+ (On Base Plus Slugging Plus), which takes a player’s on-base plus slugging percentage and normalizes the total across the entire league. A lot like wRC+ at Fangraphs, OPS+ is also scaled so that 100 is league-average (150 would mean a player or team is 50% above league-average, while just a 50 would be vice-versa).

The great thing about OPS+ is that it can be used to compare a player or team from different eras, ballparks and run-environments, which allows us to more accurately compare a current offense with one from 40 or 50 seasons ago. The sport was much different in the 1980s than it is today, and better than any other stat out there at this time, OPS+ is able to contextualize the two vastly different periods.

So with that being said, using OPS+ here are the all-time top-five Braves seasons, going back to the Live-Ball Era (1920). We’ll talk about each offense in a minute, but in the table below I’ve also included the top offensive player from each season (per Baseball Reference WAR), for those who maybe don’t recall who was leading the team at that given time.

1 2020 Atlanta Braves 116 Freddie Freeman (2.9 WAR)
2 2003 Atlanta Braves 112 Marcus Giles (7.9 WAR)
3 1957 Milwaukee Braves 111 Hank Aaron (8.0 WAR)
4 1964 Milwaukee Braves 110 Hank Aaron (6.8 WAR)
5 1960 Milwaukee Braves 109 Hank Aaron (8.0 WAR)

There’s this year’s Freeman and the Braves at the top of the list, pacing three absolute monster seasons from The Hank Aaron and an out-of-nowhere 7.9-WAR year from second baseman Marcus Giles in 2003, in which he made his first and only All-Star team, and wound up hitting .316 with 21 home runs, 49 doubles and 14 stolen bases (136 OPS+). These five offenses are the best to ever play in Braves’ history, and should relieve you of any doubt as to just how incredible this season’s lineup really is. The 2020 Braves don’t just lead the field in OPS+, either.

This season’s lineup is first all-time in SLG% (.483), OPS (.832) and BABIP (.322), not to mention it scored over 5.5 runs per game in 2020 (a whopping 0.35 runs more per game than the second-best team). Compared to the last 100 years, we are currently witnessing the best lineup to ever play for the Braves, and we’re talking about a lot of very good hitters that have came and gone over the last century.

Although, for a bit more context, here’s a quick summary regarding each of the five offenses above, featuring each team’s top-three hitters (via OPS+):

2020 Braves Lineup

  1. Freddie Freeman, 1B – 186 OPS+, .341 AVG, 13 HR
  2. Marcell Ozuna, OF – 175 OPS+, .338 AVG, 18 HR
  3. Ronald Acuna Jr, OF – 155 OPS+, .250 AVG, 14 HR

We’ve been writing about this offense essentially since Day 1 of the 2020 season. The lineup is deep and powerful, and nos. 1-9 are able to come up big at any time in the game. However, it’s Freeman that has really topped it off this season, and he may have alrrady solidified his bid for NL MVP when he slugged a walk-off homer against the Red Sox in extra-innings during the final weekend of the regular season.

Six of the nine regular hitters in this season’s lineup boast an above-average OPS+ (100 or higher), with shortstop Dansby Swanson’s 110 OPS+ perhaps the biggest surprise so far. Although, at this point, I don’t believe any of us thought catcher Travis d’Arnuad would slash .321/.386/.533 (138 OPS+) with nine home runs, either. With the starting pitching finally coming around, this team could just go all the way.

2003 Braves Lineup

  1. Javy Lopez, C – 169 OPS+, .328 AVG, 43 HR
  2. Garry Sheffield, OF – 162 OPS+, .330 AVG, 39 HR
  3. Chipper Jones, 3B – 137 OPS+, .305 AVG, 27 HR

This is perhaps what the 2020 Braves’ offense could’ve looked like had the season been its normal length, though, no matter how well d’Arnaud is hitting this season, I’m not sure he would’ve put up a year like Javy Lopez did in ’03. At 32-years-old, Lopez was incredible, finishing the season with the seventh-most fWAR in baseball (6.8 WAR) and was almost one full WAR better than the second-most productive catcher, the Yankees’ Jorge Posada. I mean, you’re playing some good baseball when your worst regular hitter is first baseman Rober Fick (95 OPS+), who wound up with a still-solid .269 AVG, 11 home runs and 80 RBI.

This was the Braves’ most recent 100-win season, and surprisingly, the offense was mostly held in check during its NLDS against Cubs (in which they lost in five games). During that playoff series, Lopez and Jones OPS’d under .800, and Sheffield was terrible, hitting just .143 with one RBI. Unlike the ’03 team, hopefully 2020’s offensive surge will continue on all the way through the postseason.

1957 Braves Lineup

  1. Hank Aaron, OF – 166 OPS+, .322 AVG, 44 HR
  2. Eddie Mathews, 3B – 154 OPS+, .292 AVG, 32 HR
  3. Wes Covington, OF – 138 OPS+, .284 AVG, 21 HR

The World Champs in 1957 (beating the Yankees in seven games), the Braves were of course led by Hammerin’ Hank, who won his one and only MVP that year (It’s ridiculous that he didn’t win at least four more). That season, Aaron led MLB in RBI (132), homers (44) and total bases (369), though perhaps most impressive was the fact that he only struck out 58 times all season. It’s unreal, especially when looking at today’s game, that a player with that much home run power could also wield that much discipline at the plate.

We’ll probably never see another hitter like Aaron. The man hit 755 home runs throughout his career, and also walked 19 more times than he struck out. Unbelievable. Mathews, another Hall of Famer, actually had a bit of a down year offensively in ’57, but at 25-years-old he led the team in doubles (28). (Fun fact about Mathews: in just his second MLB season (at the age of 21) in 1953, he led all of baseball with 47 homers as well as the NL with a 171 OPS+.

Mathews still didn’t win the MVP award that year, even though his 8.1 WAR bested Roy Campanella’s 6.8.). The Braves reached the World Series for the second consecutive season in 1958 (though this time losing to the Yankees).

1964 Braves Lineup

  • Rico Carty, OF – 161 OPS+, .330 AVG, 22 HR
  • Hank Aaron, OF – 153 OPS+, .328 AVG, 24 HR
  • Joe Torre, C – 140 OPS+, .321 AVG, 20 HR

These were the Bobby Bragen Days, as the Braves were in the middle of a playoff-less stretch that lasted from 1959 to 1968. The 1964 team wasn’t great but it still consisted of lots of heavy hitters, finishing the year 88-74 and in fifth-place among a National League that had no divisions.

As a 24-year-old in his rookie season, this was Rico Carty’s second-best year of his career as he finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year vote (4.8 WAR). Joe Torre, who played with the Braves from 1960-68, posted his second-best year with the team in ’64, managing 5.5 WAR, thanks to a .321 AVG as a 23-year-old. At 30-years-old, Aaron was slap dab in the middle of a prime like no other, and that season he made the NL MVP ballot for the tenth-straight year.

It wasn’t a great year for every Braves’ player. Mathews, who was 32-years-old by then, suffered a huge drop-off in performance and missed 21 games. His 4.6 WAR in ’64 wound up being the worst season of his career, save for his 1952 rookie year.

1960 Braves Lineup

  • Eddie Mathews, 3B – 166 OPS+, .277 AVG, 39 HR
  • Hank Aaron, OF – 156 OPS+, .292 AVG, 40 HR
  • Joe Adcock, 1B – 140 OPS+, .298 AVG, 25 HR

Both in their mid-to-late 20s, Aaron (8 WAR) and Mathews (7.3 WAR) put up monster seasons in 1960, skipper Chuck Dressen’s first and only full-season over the Braves. The team finished second in the NL, with an 88-66 record, thanks to an offense that featured five different players surpassing ten home runs (Mathews led the way with 40). Despite a playoff-less season (the second year of a ten-consecutive season drought), the Braves’ lineup finished first in the NL in SLG% (.417) and homers (170) during the ’60 campaign, as well as second in runs (724), hits (1,393) and team OPS (.741).

Unfortunately, with the team’s third-best hitter (Joe Adcock) managing just 3.7 WAR, the two Hall of Famers mentioned above couldn’t carry the entire offense. The 1960’s wound up being a rough decade, featuring just one 90-win season and one playoff appearance, both of which came in 1969 (93-69) when the Braves were swept 3-0 by the Mets in the NLCS.

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