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Braves’ Top 5 left fielders: Bowman’s take

By Mark Bowman –

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Mark Bowman’s ranking of the top 5 left fielders in Braves history. Next week: Center fielders.

1. Rico Carty, 1963-72
Key fact: Ranks first among Braves left fielders in fWAR (25.1) and bWAR (23.2)

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How good was Carty offensively? The 147 WRC+ he produced from 1964-71 ranked second among MLB left fielders, trailing only Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski (147). The talented outfielder finished second in balloting for the ’64 National League Rookie of the Year Award and established himself as one of the game’s best hitters before missing all of 1968 because of tuberculosis.

Carty finished 13th in balloting for the 1969 NL MVP Award and 10th after winning a batting title with the .366 batting average he produced for the 1970 Braves. He earned a place in the NL’s starting lineup via write-in All-Star votes that year. But he missed ’71 with a fractured kneecap, and he was labeled by some to be a headache by the time the Braves traded him after the ’72 season.

Still, Carty proved healthy and productive enough to join Sid Gordon as the only left fielders in Braves history to produce a 3.0 bWAR or better over four seasons. Carty is also the only left fielder in franchise history to produce a 130 OPS+ or better over at least four seasons. He actually reached this mark on five different occasions.

Carty’s career-best 171 OPS+ from the 1970 season is the third-highest mark ever constructed by a Braves player over at least 130 games during the Atlanta era. Hank Aaron trumped this total four times in his career, including twice (’69 and ’71) after the club moved from Milwaukee.

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2. Sid Gordon, 1950-53
Key fact: Ranks second among Braves left fielders in both bWAR (19.3) and fWAR (18.2)

If nothing else, while evaluating who was the best at each position over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn were far from the only great players in Milwaukee Braves history.

Though he played just four seasons for the Braves, Gordon stands with Carty as the only left fielders in franchise history to produce a 130 OPS+ or better at least three times. The .886 OPS Gordon constructed while with Milwaukee is tied with Ryan Klesko for the highest mark produced by a Braves left fielder over at least 300 games.

3. Ron Gant, 1987-93
Key fact: After recording consecutive 30-30 seasons in 1990 and ’91, Gant finished four steals shy of another in ’93

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After debating whether to rank Lonnie Smith, Ryan Klesko or Gant third, I chose to go with the guy I’d want playing left field if given those three choices to fill a lineup.

Had Gant been playing left field when he produced the consecutive 30-30 seasons in 1990 and ’91, he might have ranked at the top of the list. But because he spent just two seasons (’92 and ’93) as Atlanta’s primary left fielder, Carty and Gordon received credit for their extended contributions.

After having a somewhat down year in 1992 (17 homers and a .736 OPS), Gant returned to form as he hit 36 homers and produced an .836 OPS in ’93. That season earned him what was then the biggest one-year contract ($5.5 million) in baseball history. But the dirt bike accident that fractured his right leg the following winter ended his days with the Braves.

4. Ryan Klesko, 1992-99
Key fact: His 16.89 at-bats-per-homer ratio ranks first among left fielders in franchise history

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Klesko was not the slickest fielder and he frequently sat against left-handed pitchers. But there was no denying the power possessed by the slugger who was bat flipping long before it became a thing in the baseball world.

Carty is the only Braves left fielder to make more starts than Klesko in left field. Klesko’s 139 homers ranks first among left fielders in franchise history.

5. Lonnie Smith, 1988-92
Key fact: Smith ranked second among all MLB outfielders with the 8.1 fWAR produced in 1989

Smith’s unexpected career resurgence in Atlanta helped the Braves make the first two of their five trips to the World Series during the 1990s. The outfielder was embroiled in the cocaine scandal of the 1980s, but he found success after Bobby Cox brought him to Atlanta in ’88.

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Smith finished 11th in NL MVP Award voting after producing a .948 OPS in 1988. He might not have been as elite over the next few years, but despite spending just a little more than three seasons as Atlanta’s primary left fielder he still ranks fourth at this position in franchise history with a 14.9 fWAR.

Honorable mention: Chipper Jones and Aaron will be ranked at their primary positions during this series and Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 147 career games as a left fielder were not enough to qualify him for consideration. Ralph Garr Jr. led the NL in hits (214) and triples (17) during the 1974 season. Justin Upton ranked fourth among MLB outfielders with the 7.2 fWAR produced during his two-year stint (2013-14) with Atlanta.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for since 2001.

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