Freddie Freeman and the fastest starts in Atlanta Braves history
Braves manager Brian Snitker’s explanation for his superstar first baseman’s latest exploits succinctly summed up the franchise’s overarching view: Freddie Freeman is capable of just about anything at the plate these days.
Since the 2016 trade deadline, he’s the most productive hitter in baseball. Over the past calendar year, only human cheat code Mike Trout has been a more dangerous offensive threat.
Freeman finds himself in the prime of his prime and, in the wake of the best month of his still-young career, the jury is still out on just how high his ceiling reaches.
By going deep in the team’s final April game, Freeman wrapped up his month-long application into the MVP race with a .381/.485/.798 slash line, nine home runs, 16 extra-base hits and two wins above replacement. All told, he pieced together one of the best individual months in Braves history — if not quite taking the No. 1 spot. In light of Freeman taking a flamethrower to National League pitching, FOX Sports South looked back at the fastest starts in franchise history. (All stats via Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.)
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1985 Dale Murphy
Numbers game: .380/.451/.873 in 82 plate appearances, 9 home runs, 29 RBI, 279 OPS+
Rundown: Two years removed from his back-to-back MVP seasons, The Murph remained an offensive force. In the hitting-optional early- to mid-80s, few players produced like the Braves superstar: Among players logging at least 3,000 plate appearances from 1980 to 1985, only Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Pedro Guerrero, Eddie Murray and Rickey Henderson posted better numbers in the box.
The 1985 season was no different.
Murphy exploded out of the gate with five home runs in his first seven games. The 29-year-old reached base in every game that April, exiting the month leading the majors in home runs, total bases and runs batted in.
End result: The 1985 campaign stands as one of Murphy’s two greatest offensive seasons — slightly behind his 1987 personal home-run derby — and a top-five individual performance for a Braves position player in the 1980s. (To be fair, Murphy nearly holds a monopoly on that list.) Murphy slowed down from his torrid April start, but still finished with 37 home runs, a .388 on-base percentage and 150 weighted runs created plus.
MLB Photos via Getty ImagesRich Pilling
1997 Greg Maddux
Numbers game: 1.13 ERA in 32 innings, 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 3 extra-base hits allowed
Rundown: As run production and power numbers began to skyrocket — the league’s .417 slugging percentage in 1997 remains the 13th-highest mark in MLB history — Greg Maddux, fresh off four consecutive National League Cy Young awards and a “disappointing” fifth-place finish in 1996, kept adding to his Hall of Fame legacy.
Set aside the staggering ERA (typical) and a strikeout-to-walk ratio built to stun Chris Sale, Maddux gave up three non-singles in 32 innings. No home runs. No triples. Three doubles allowed to Derek Bell, Bobby Abreu and Glenallen Hill. After the Houston Astros tagged him with 10 hits and four earned runs in his 1997 debut, Maddux did not allow an earned run the rest of the month.
The only other starting pitchers jumping out to similarly ridiculous starts in terms of OPS+ allowed in that offense-friendly era? Eventual 1997 Cy Young winners Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens.
End result: Maddux finished top-three in the Cy Young voting for the sixth time in a nine-year stretch, finishing a distant second (and deservedly so) to Martinez, the Expos wunderkind.
His final line: 2.20 ERA in more than 230 innings with the ninth-best single-season K-to-BB ratio in baseball history.
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2000 Tom Glavine
Numbers game: 5-0 record, 1.80 ERA in 45 innings, .173 opponent batting average
Rundown: If Maddux cruising through April lineups in 1997 turned heads, then Tom Glavine following suit three seasons later is the runner-up by a razor-thin margin. At the height of MLB’s power surge — the 2000 season went down in the history books as the most slugging-friendly campaign on record — Tom Glavine was nearly untouchable early on.
Over the past 50 years, only three pitchers have allowed a lower OPS+ (a league- and park-adjusted measure of pitching efficiency) while throwing 40 or more frames in April: Randy Johnson (2000), Jim Palmer (1977) and Josh Johnson (2011).
End result: Two seasons removed from his Cy Young campaign, the future Hall of Famer tossed his hat back into the conversation. The southpaw finished second in the NL Voting behind Johnson after posting a 21-9 record with a 3.40 ERA in 241 innings.
Getty ImagesRon Vesely
1970 Rico Carty
Numbers game: .423/.500/.782 in 92 plate appearances, 7 home runs, 23 RBI, 258 OPS+
Rundown: Rico Carty’s production during the Braves’ transition from Milwaukee to Atlanta often gets overshadowed by his more famous teammates, but from 1966 to 1972 only Hall of Famer Hank Aaron was the more fearsome batter at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium — and Carty boasted the better batting average and on-base percentage (by significant margins).
Only four players received more plate appearances and posted a higher OBP over this stretch: Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Carl Yastrzemski and Frank Robinson. The two players directly behind him were named Dick Allen and Al Kaline. Ring any bells?
Still, Carty entered his age-30 season in 1970 without a single All-Star nod to his name. The Dominican product, who went to the same high school that eventually produced Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano and Sammy Sosa, would change that with a lightning-fast start. After going hitless in the season opener against the Padres, Carty reached base 46 times in his next 88 plate appearances.
End result: Carty not only scored his first and only All-Star appearance, but he beat out his former teammate, Joe Torre, for the National League batting title by a whopping 41 points. His 6.7 wins above replacement that season finished seventh-best in the majors, per FanGraphs, though he only finished 10th in the MVP voting.
Rundown: By 1969, Hank Aaron had little left to prove. The all-time crown loomed, but The Hammer reached the 500 Home Run Club before his age-35 season and had made an All-Star appearance in every season since turning 21 years old. His Hall of Fame invite was already written in ink.
Aaron still had more than 1,000 more games to play, though, and his 1969 run proved he had plenty more in the tank. The home runs would continue to arrive in waves, but the Braves superstar thrived off doubles (11) in the early going to lead the league in on-base percentage before May, walking seven more times than he struck out in the month.
End result: In hindsight, it’s certifiably laughable that Aaron only took home one MVP award, but 1969 would deliver the sixth of his seven top-three finishes. Tying his then-career high with 44 home runs, Aaron ranked fourth in baseball in offensive production as a 35-year-old behind only future Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew.
Rundown: In February of 2005, Chipper Jones opened spring training in Kissimmee, Fla., with a blunt description of his place in the baseball landscape: "I'm a realist. I know that I'm probably on the downside of my career.” The future Hall of Famer was reminiscing on a 2004 campaign in which a hamstring injury robbed him of 25 games and sent him back to third base full-time. He hit a career-low .248 with his worst OBP since his rookie season (overshadowing his 30 homers). More injury issues were on the horizon that season, but his ridiculous April numbers put such sentiments in the rearview mirror.
Jones opened the 2005 schedule, his 11th full season in the majors, ranking first in on-base percentage, fourth in slugging and sixth in batting average over the first month — further evidence that, when healthy, one of the premier switch-hitters in MLB history never stopped terrifying opposing pitchers.
End result: Injuries struck again. Jones played in just 109 games, the lowest mark of his career until tearing his ACL in 2010, yet still managed to hit above his career average (153 weighted runs created plus in 2005) when available for Bobby Cox & Co.
1999 John Smoltz
Numbers game: 4-0 record, 1.51 ERA in 35 2/3 innings, 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio
Rundown: The 1999 season is remembered in Smoltz-related terms as the final year before his elbow gave out and forced him to undergo the Tommy John surgery that, in his own words, helped boost his Hall of Fame case by becoming the first pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves in a career. (The 3,000-strikeout milestone didn’t hurt.) But DL stints and elbow problems were far from the topic of conversation that April.
Smoltz opened his 1999 campaign with seven scoreless innings against the Phillies, striking out eight without allowing a single walk. He ended that month with a complete-game shutout over the Reds. By the end of the month only the American League’s David Cone held surging MLB hitters to worse batting numbers.
End result: Statistically, it was a quiet season for Smoltz as his strikeout numbers plummeted and he was continually plagued by elbow discomfort. (He would miss the entire 2000 season.) One bright spot, albeit a tarnished outing in Braves history, was his seven-frame, 11-strikeout performance in Game 4 of the 1999 World Series … but New York's Roger Clemens bested him in the elimination game.
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1994 Greg Maddux
Numbers game: 1.12 ERA in 48 1/3 innings, .189 opponent batting average
Rundown: John Schuerholz and the Braves front office got exactly what they paid for in Greg Maddux. The reigning Cy Young winner from Chicago signed his free-agent contract and all but copy-pasted his stats in his first season in Atlanta: He decreased his workload by one inning (267 frames) and struck out two fewer batters (197). He was just getting started.
By April of 1994 there was little reason to doubt Maddux’s resume as one of the best control pitchers ever, even at 28 years old, but he reasserted the claim in a strike-shortened campaign. In an interesting juxtaposition of career paths, only future journeyman Ricky Bones turned in a better ERA among starting pitchers that month.
End result: Maddux’s absurd April set the stage for arguably one of the greatest pitching performances in modern baseball history.
En route to winning his third of four straight Cy Youngs, Maddux became just the second pitcher since 1920 to ever throw 200 or more innings with a league-adjusted ERA (where 100 is average) of 250 or better. Only three pitchers have ever pulled off such a feat in the Live Ball Era: Maddux in 1994 and 1995, Bob Gibson in 1968 and Pedro Martinez in 2000.
AFP/Getty ImagesMATT CAMPBELL
2008 Chipper Jones
Numbers game: .410/.455/.690 in 112 plate appearances, 8 home runs, 21 RBI, 209 OPS+
Rundown: Jones entered the 2008 season in a six-year All-Star drought. Forty-one hits and 10 walks in his first 112 plate appearances put him on the fast track to rectify that situation.
Perhaps nothing underscores how locked in Chipper was from the get-go than his two-game stretch against the Marlins and Dodgers: After belting two home runs against Ricky Nolasco in Florida, the veteran third baseman hopped on a plane to Atlanta with his teammates and arrived at Turner Field the next day to hit two more off Derek Lowe and Chan Ho Park in the friendly confines.
End result: The final truly elite season for Jones. He finished the season with the highest batting average and on-base percentage among qualified players, ranking only behind Albert Pujols (and his 37 homers) in terms of offensive output. He was responsible for seven wins above replacement in just 128 games played.
Over the past 50 years, here’s the full list of players to post 170 weighted runs created plus or more in a single season after the age of 34: Barry Bonds (five times), Hank Aaron (twice), Nelson Cruz in 2017 and Chipper Jones in 2008. That’s the list.
Rundown: The 1968 campaign, aptly known as the Year of the Pitcher thanks to Bob Gibson & Co., still ranks as the lowest-scoring season of the Live Ball Era and the second-worst offensive environment in league history – a collective drought that led directly to MLB lowing the mound in 1969. It is only in this light that Aaron’s very-good-but-not-explosive slash line can be understood: The Hammer’s ’68 campaign ranks third in Atlanta Braves history in terms of league-adjusted OPS, directly behind Dale Murphy (1985) and Rico Carty (1970). No. 4 on the list: Freddie Freeman in 2017.
End result: Another All-Star appearance but relatively marginal MVP love. Aaron finished out the year with 29 home runs, 33 doubles and a .354 on-base percentage. The problem for opposing pitchers: He still had 245 homers left in the chamber.
1983 Dale Murphy
Numbers game: .348/.469/.682 in 81 plate appearances, 7 home runs, 21 RBI, 223 OPS+
Rundown: The reigning MVP was not done. At 26 years old, Dale Murphy was on top of the baseball world — or at least as high as one could get without a World Series ring. In what would become the second season in a four-year run of 35-homer, 100-RBI performances, Murphy reached base in every game that April, including a five-walk night against the New York Mets that bumped his OBP by 56 points.
His final first-month numbers would not look nearly as impressive without his final outburst against the Mets on April 30, though: The Murph wrapped his fast start with three hits, two home runs, two walks and three RBI.
End result: Murphy joined Ernie Banks, Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt as the only players to win back-to-back National League MVP honors, a group later joined by Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols.
Getty ImagesScott Cunningham
2007 Tim Hudson
Numbers game: 3-0 record, 1.40 ERA in 45 innings, .186 opponent batting average
Rundown: Twenty-eight months before April 2007 arrived, the Braves front office flipped three fringe MLB players for the Oakland A’s star on the same day the New York Mets brought Pedro Martinez back to the division. New York enjoyed the immediate payoff — Martinez was excellent in 2005 and made two All-Star appearances — but the younger Hudson proved to be a mainstay for the better part of the next nine seasons.
In his first two seasons in Atlanta, the right-hander had yet to live up to his West Coast proficiency. That changed in Year 3. Hudson induced twice as many double-play balls as runs allowed in his first four starts then pieced together a 12-strikeout, zero-walk performance against the Marlins in outing No. 5.
End result: The official passing of the torch. In John Smoltz’s final season in a Braves uniform — two-thirds of the Big Three had long since moved on — Hudson reestablished himself as one of baseball’s premier sinkerball pitchers and a top-of-the-rotation veteran to build around. In his best season in a Braves uniform, Hudson posted a 4.9 WAR over 224 1/3 innings.
USA TODAY SportsDaniel Shirey
2013 Justin Upton
Numbers game: .298/.402/.734 in 112 plate appearances, 12 home runs, 19 RBI, 210 OPS+
Rundown: The most power-friendly April in Braves history did not arrive without drama. The Braves made the headline-stealing splash of the 2013 offseason by pairing the Brothers Upton with Jason Heyward in the outfield — a trio that delivered Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards, but also contract- and performance-related problems in center — and the younger Upton quickly made his presence known. He led the majors with 12 home runs (an April record for the franchise) and a .734 slugging percentage.
A comically low BABIP and only five doubles kept his slugging numbers from approaching the heights of some of the previous names on the list, including Freddie Freeman this past month, but those 12 home runs will be hard to forget.
End result: Upton tapered off down the stretch. He pieced together a more complete season and even gained some marginal MVP consideration in 2014 before being traded for Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson and Mallex Smith — a deal the front office might be most proud of during their rebuild.
USA TODAY SportsDaniel Shirey
1983 Pascual Perez
Numbers game: 4-0 record, 1.74 ERA in 31 innings, 25 strikeouts, 6 walks
Rundown: It’s difficult to top a complete game allowing just one run in your season debut, but Perez did just that by taking the mound five days later and spinning a gem: a complete-game shutout of the Padres with six strikeouts and zero walks. Perez won every game he took the mound in April of 1983 and helped Atlanta jump out to a 14-5 overall record.
End result: Fast starts are often precursors to All-Star nods. Much like Rico Carty, Pascual Perez made his lone All-Star appearance thanks in large part to the fastest start of his career. The Dominican Republic product pitched a career-high 215 1/3 innings with a 3.43 ERA to form a solid rotation with Craig McMurtry and Phil Niekro.