Righthanded Hitting, Righthanded Throwing Outfielder
Seasons With Braves: 1988-1992
Stats With Braves: .291/.380/.456, 46 HR 207 RBI 256 RS
Alas, poor Lonnie. He had his best years with the Braves right before they got good, then got a lot of mostly undeserved blame for the World Series loss in 1991.
Though they were completely different types of hitters, Smith had a lot in common with Jeff Burroughs. Both were very high draft picks (Lonnie third overall in 1974 by the Phillies), both played well early in their Braves tenure, then faded, and both were really bad outfielders. One of Bill James’ best bits — I won’t reproduce it here, but look it up if you can — is his description of how Lonnie’s defense didn’t really hurt the team that much, because he made mistakes so often that he always knew how to deal with them.
Lonnie was a terrific hitter in the minor leagues, as you’d expect from a high draft pick, hitting over .300 with lots of walks for an OBP over .400. But his defense was so bad that the Phillies wouldn’t use him. He finally got a chance to play in 1980 and duplicated his minor league totals, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year balloting, only to get benched and limited to 60 games the next year.
The Cardinals liberated him in 1982 and he finished second in the MVP balloting though he didn’t play any better than he had as a rookie. After a couple of more good seasons he started having drug problems (or the drug problem he already had started being a problem on the field) and he faded as a hitter and started to put on weight. He also got sucked into the Pittsburgh drug trial, and was initially suspended for the 1986 season though that was later overturned. He never could take the weight off, but he rebounded with the Royals in 1986 before struggling again in 1987, and hit bottom by winding up with the Braves.
Lonnie actually spent most of the 1988 season in Richmond, where he played well, but didn’t do much with the “big” club. In 1989, however, he exploded. By this time, he was a completely different hitter. While the drugs apparently were in the past, he was distinctly portly and had lost a lot of his speed. At the same time, he’d added a bit of power to his already strong plate judgment, and when he was hitting well he was a complete player. He hit .315/.415/.533 in 1989 with a career high 21 HR — actually, it was the only time in his career he hit double digits in homers. The .415 OBP was a league high.
He didn’t play as well in 1990, but he was still good, .305/.384/.459. He had even improved defensively — his fielding percentages were still low but his range factors were quite good. With Ron Gant and David Justice, Smith looked like part of a strong outfield to come.
But in 1991, as the Braves made their leap, they left him behind. While he played in 122 games that season, he had only 353 AB. His power had largely vanished and he hit .275/.377/.394. Otis Nixon started taking his playing time in left field. He got a reprieve when Justice was out and Otis played right, and another when Otis was suspended, but was still getting pinch-run for and replaced for defense. (The other primary left fielders the Braves used that year were Deion Sanders and Keith Mitchell. You know you’re in trouble when Deion starts looking like the sane, solid citizen.) By this time, Lonnie was slow enough that Fat Brian Hunter pinch-ran for him in postseason. Unfortunately, he wasn’t pinch run for that one time.
Lonnie found a bit of his power in 1992 but didn’t hit for average, winding up at .247/.324/.437. When Otis came back, Gant was shifted to left and Lonnie became a somewhat surly pinch-hitter. He had a nice renaissance in 1993 with the Pirates but was traded late in the season to the Orioles. He didn’t hit then or the next year and his career came to an end.
To be honest, I don’t know that he would have scored if he’d kept running.