Righthanded Hitting, Righthanded Throwing Shortstop
Seasons With Braves: 1987-1996
Stats With Braves: .268/.355/.415, 109 HR, 601 R, 461 RBI
There’s already been some talk about Blauser in the comments, and some people will think that this is too high. If anything, it is too low; judging only by offensive statistics, Jeff Blauser was the best middle infielder in Atlanta history. I rank him lower than Furcal and Giles because I docked him for defense, baserunning, and inconsistency, but I really don’t know that this can be sustained.
On the master list of Atlanta Braves runs created, which is where I looked first to sort out the members of this list, Jeff ranks seventh. Now, he’s not as far above average as some, but he’s more above average than Furcal, and his career is a lot longer than Giles’. He’s sixth on the Atlanta hits chart and twelfth in home runs. Six players have at least 1000 hits and 100 homers in Atlanta, and he is one of them.
Blauser had two big seasons, 1993 and 1997; they are two of the three best offensive seasons by an Atlanta shortstop (the other being Furcal in 2003) and quite likely the two best. During the years Blauser played at least semi-regularly for the Braves (1989-97) the best shortstop in the NL, by far, was Barry Larkin; the battle for second is basically Blauser versus Jay Bell, and I would give the offensive edge to Blauser. So what I’m saying is that Blauser is probably ranked too low.
Jeff was the Braves’ first pick, the fifth overall, in the 1984 draft; Tom Glavine was picked in the second round that year. One thing people forget is that Blauser played more than 300 games in an Atlanta uniform before 1991. He was the first of the champion Braves to join the team, debuting in July of 1987, a month before Glavine and two before Ron Gant and Pete Smith. He wasn’t really ready, hitting .242/.328/.352, but he was already a far better hitter and defensive player than Andres Thomas was. He played only briefly in 1988 but in 1989 hit .270/.325/.410 (playing mostly third base) and a basically identical .269/.338/.409 the next season (playing mostly short).
When Schuerholz took over the team after that season, he had basically five building blocks: Justice, Gant, Glavine, Smoltz, and Blauser. (I don’t think he could have counted on Avery.) But he didn’t like Blauser’s defense, or Bobby didn’t, and the team brought in Belliard to caddy for him. Looking at the statistics, Blauser’s defense seems pretty good, but this is subject to the same doubts as all the Braves’ infielders of the eighties; a lot of balls in play means high range factors. Blauser spent the next two seasons as a half-time, or slightly over half-time, player, playing 129 and 123 games but with fewer than three PA per appearance.
In 1993, he finally got to play full-time with 161 games, though some were partial games; he also finally got left alone to play shortstop all the time and not move to cover second or third. He responded by hitting .305/.401/.436 and making the All-Star team. I should cover here the belief that Blauser only played well in contract years. In the case of 1993, this is largely fiction. 1993 was an arbitration year for Blauser; he became a free agent after the 1994 season. He earned a pretty big arbitration award, nearly doubling his salary, but he was not playing for a long-term contract.
In 1994, Blauser was not nearly as effective, getting caught up in a nearly teamwide offensive malaise (Lemke outhit both Blauser and Pendleton) and putting up a .258/.329/.382. Jeff’s 1995 was a disaster, a .211/.319/.341 line capped by being benched in the NLCS and not playing in the World Series (though I don’t know if he was actually left off the roster). The basic point was that if Blauser hit like Belliard there was no reason not to get Belliard’s bat into the lineup.
In 1996, he rebounded offensively with a .245/.356/.419 line; the offense was just about league average despite the low batting average. However, he missed half the season with injuries and pulled off the bad fielding triple crown, leading NL shortstops in lowest range factor, lowest zone rating, and lowest fielding percentage.
In 1997 his contract was running out and he responded with a big year. The criticism may be warranted in this situation. He made his second All-Star team and hit .308/.405/.482 with a career-high 17 homers. He played well in the playoffs as well, and signed a free-agent deal with the Cubs after the season. He was horrible in 1998 and adequate in 1999, and then his career ended. He too is now unemployed.