Seasons With Braves: 1990-1996
Stats With Braves: 72-62, 3.83 ERA
Since 1980, only four pitchers have thrown more than 800 innings (counting postseason) before their Age 24 season: Doc Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela, Bret Saberhagen, and Steve Avery. All developed arm problems. The first three were able to overcome them to some degree, though they never were able to achieve the heights of their early careers. Avery really wasn’t in their class, and was not able to pitch well at a reduced state.
I don’t blame Bobby for using him hard — the Braves were in pennant races in both 1991 and 1993, and Avery was the second-best pitcher on the staff each year. He could have eased up on the throttle a bit in 1992 when Steve wasn’t pitching as well and the team had a comfortable lead. Avery’s career with the Braves basically comes down to those three seasons. He was outstanding in 1991 and 1993, and pretty good in 1992 (but only finished 11-11 because nobody hit for him).
Steve was the third pick in the 1988 draft out of a Michigan high school. He was far too good for rookie ball that year and for Durham (then the high-A team) in 1989, earning a promotion to Greenville, where he was merely better than everyone else. He started 1990 in Richmond, where he was good, not great, but the Braves called him up in June and allowed him to get his head handed to him for 20 starts. I guess it worked out okay, but it seemed odd at the time and still does. It’s not like they had anything to play for.
He blossomed in 1991 and won 18 games with a 3.38 ERA. He was still the third-youngest player in the league. In the NLCS, he was named the MVP for a dominating performance, winning two games and throwing 16 1/3 innings without allowing a run. He started the Leibrandt Game in the World Series, leaving it tied in the seventh. He fell back a little in 1992 but had his best year in 1993, winning 18 games again and finishing fifth in the league with a 2.94 ERA.
But that was pretty much it. Steve actually had the best strikeout rate of his career in 1994 but at the cost of doubling his walks. He’d already thrown 151 innings when the strike hit, and though he was 8-3 his ERA was 4.04. In 1995 he was worse than average, 7-15 with a 4.67 ERA. However, he pitched well in the postseason, winning Game Four of the World Series in Cleveland to give the Braves a 3-1 lead. He was actually better in 1996, close to the league average, but went 7-10 and fell out of the rotation when Neagle came to Atlanta. His last appearance in a Braves uniform was a catastrophic relief appearance in the 1996 World Series, getting the first two men only to allow a walk, a single, and two more walks to lose the final game.
Avery moved on to Boston, where he pitched badly in 1997, then had basically replacement-level years there in 1998 and in Cincinnati in 1999. He tried a comeback with the Tigers in 2003 but failed miserably. I don’t know where Steve belongs on this list. He could go a lot lower, but his two best years were really good and so is his postseason record.