Since the Pirates are almost totally uninteresting, I figured I’d talk about something else. First, here’s a video.
While checking Henry Aaron’s stats for the season he broke the home run record, I noticed how out of context that season was for the Braves of that era. The previous season, the Braves had led the league in runs scored while finishing tenth in ERA, which was not particularly noteworthy. But in 1974, they fell to eighth in the league in runs scored, but allowed the fewest runs in the league. (Because they played one more game, they actually allowed two more runs for the season than the Dodgers, and the ridiculous “unearned” runs system gave the Dodgers the ERA title as well; the Braves still were the best pitching/defense combination in the league, particularly when you keep the parks in mind.) If the Braves had hit in 1974 like they had in 1973, they surely would have won the division, despite the presence of superteams in LA and Cincinnati.
The offensive decline was in part just players coming down to earth after fluke seasons. Davey Johnson’s 1973 is one of the most famous fluke seasons in history; it’s no surprise that he returned to his normal levels. Darrell Evans went back as well, though in his case there was every reason to believe he had reached new levels. It’s hard to call Aaron’s 1973 a “fluke” as it fits right in with his career, but still he was a 39-year-old who was finishing a record chase, and it’s not too surprising that after passing Ruth a 40-year-old Aaron declined to merely being a good player (for the first time in twenty years). Mike Lum had an Age 27 year in which he was for once a useful hitter; he was back to being useless in 1974. And so forth. Ralph Garr had his big year in 1974, hitting .353, and yet he scored only 87 runs because there wasn’t anyone to drive him in.
Still, this was exacerbated by some… peculiar choices in giving playing time. I speak in particular of Craig Robinson, the everyday shortstop, who got 506 plate appearances despite hitting .230/.280/.265 and having a below-average range factor and fielding percentage. I’m sure they had a reason to not at least try Richmond shortstop Larvell Blanks, but I don’t know what it was. Johnny Oates was at least a good defensive catcher, and has to get some credit for the pitching staff, but he did hit .223/.278/.268. Johnson played first base half the time despite slugging .390, probably because the other options slugged .366 (Lum) and .272 (Frank Tepedino).
The pitching staff was sensational. That was the year that Buzz Capra won the ERA title at 2.28. What’s not often pointed out is that Capra may have cost Phil Niekro the Cy Young Award. That was one of Knucksie’s finest seasons, 20-13 with a 2.38 ERA and 195 strikeouts. The wins led the league, and the ERA was second. If Capra had been a bit worse and Niekro had won the ERA title, it’s hard to justify not giving the award to the league leader in wins and ERA even if Mike Marshall is pitching two innings every day. Carl Morton had a 3.15 ERA as the third starter. The bullpen (once Capra moved to the rotation) was a bit shaky beyond Tom House (11 saves, 1.93 ERA) but it was probably the best staff the Braves had in Atlanta before 1991.
And, of course, it all fell apart the next season, and the offense was still terrible, and they lost 94 games. Baseball is weird.