Lefthanded Hitting, Lefthanded Throwing Right Fielder
Seasons With Braves: 1989-1996
Stats With Braves: .275/.374/.499, 160 HR, 522 RBI, 475 RS
I never really liked David Justice — I was a Gant man. I didn’t like that he got hurt a lot, or the wild variations in his batting average and the shape of his contributions, or his smugness (people say Chipper and Andruw are smug, there is no comparison), or that he married Halle Berry even though she is mine. Anyway, he was a really good player (when he was in the lineup) and though his career is on the short side compared to the players who rank ahead of him, it is very high impact. Justice was the only player who was a top offensive contributor for the Braves in every year from 1991-95. The man could hit.
Justice was drafted out of a small college in Ohio in the fourth round in 1985 and took his sweet time making it to the Show, not debuting until 1989. Basically, he got off to a promising start but hit a roadblock in Greenville in 1987 and had to repeat the level, then had trouble on his first exposure to Richmond as well. He had a cup of coffee in 1989 and then spent most of 1990 in the majors.
At first, he mostly played first base. After the horrible, horrible Murphy trade in August, Justice took his spot in right field. He had been struggling (.235/.322/.389 as a first baseman, according to Retrosheet) but now suddenly blossomed (.332/.424/.683 as a right fielder) and my recollection is that this was credited on him playing his natural position. More likely, it was just the level adjustment he’d had to make in AA and AAA. Justice won the Rookie of the Year award and joined Gant as the team’s building blocks.
The typical David Justice year is hard to see statistically, because he did change from year to year, but typically he would hit really well when fully healthy, then go into a slump that would eventually lead the team to realize he was hurt and needed to go on the DL. He played 109 games in 1991, Otis Nixon mostly filling in when he was out. Justice hit .275/.377/.503 and finished 12th in the MVP voting.
In 1992, he played 144 games but really wasn’t any healthier; he just tried to stay in the lineup more when banged up, and his numbers suffered: .256/.359/.446. He got off to an awful start, was hurt, and came back not fully healthy. In 1993, he managed a career high 157 games and hit 40 homers, making the All-Star team for the first time. His line was .270/.357/.515. Then the next year it was .312/.427/.531, with 19 homers in 104 games (of 114); still really productive, but in a very different way. I never got him. He and McGriff carried the offense while most of the team was trying to find itself. I am not a believer in “protection” except in certain extreme circumstances, but I do believe that Justice was better when he had McGriff around, because when McGriff was on the team Justice could slide into a supporting role instead of being the team’s big bopper.
Justice played 120 of 144 games in the World Championship season, hitting .253/.365/.479. He really didn’t do much in the postseason that year — until the homer for the only run of Game Six of the World Series. In 1996, he played only 40 games, though he was lights-out when he did play (.321/.409/.514). Justice dislocated his shoulder on a swing and needed surgery.
Schuerholz traded him and Marquis Grissom for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree in spring of 1997. The deal was basically to save money which the team could use on the pitching staff and the younger players (Chipper, Javy, Klesko) who were approaching arbitration. At the same time, it more or less marks the end of the dominant Braves and the beginning of the very good Braves. From 1991-1996 they won four pennants in five postseasons, and whatever happened in the World Series the Braves were the dominant team in baseball. From 1997 on, it would be the Yankees.
Justice spent the second half of his career in the AL, periodically DHing to rest his shoulder and legs. He was Comeback Player of the Year with the Indians in 1997 and had a huge year in 2000 with the Indians and Yankees. He retired after the 2002 season even though he could still play.
I was surprised Justice ranked this high, but his career statistics are very good and very high-impact, and I didn’t really discount for the time he missed with injuries. His OPS+ with the Braves was 132, and he played on five division champions and four NL champs. Defensively, he was a pretty good right fielder who had a strong arm early in his career, though to be honest it wasn’t that much of a factor.