#27: Ryan Klesko

See the 44 Greatest Atlanta Braves here.

Lefthanded Hitting, Lefthanded Throwing Outfielder/First Baseman
Seasons With Braves: 1992-1999
Stats With Braves: .281/.361/.525, 139 HR, 450 RBI, 374 RS

Another hard case. Klesko’s offensive statistics are very good. By my admittedly loose and interpretive standards, they’re better than several players who haven’t been ranked yet. This is tempered partly by his defensive troubles, but largely by the fact that for most of his Braves career, Ryan was platooned. He’s basically alone on the list with that, with the possible exception of Claudell Washington. I really don’t know how much to dock him for that, or even whether to dock him at all; the basic idea behind this list is to rate what a player did, not what he “should have” or “could have” done, and from 1994 to 1999 he created a lot of runs for the team.

Ryan was drafted out of high school in the fifth round in 1989. He was considered a two-way player, a pitcher primarily by some, but the Braves always thought of him as a hitter. About a year after the draft, he was already in high-A Durham, and at 20 he was at AA. He got his first callup at 21, though he wasn’t in the majors for good until two years later.

The problem facing Ryan Klesko in 1994 was that the Braves had acquired Fred McGriff to play first base. Klesko could sort-of play left field, but Chipper Jones was pencilled in there after Ron Gant’s accident. When Chipper got hurt during spring training, Tony Tarasco was in line to inherit the job, but then he got sick at the end of spring training, and wound up getting Wally Pipped by the fourth-stringer. Klesko was platooned with Dave Gallagher for no good reason, and then the strike hit, but he still hit .278/.344/.563 with 17 homers in 276 PA, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

Ryan had his best year in 1995. Platooning with the useless Mike Kelly (until Mike Devereaux was acquired), Klesko was the best hitter on the team at .310/.396/.608 (the slugging and on-base were team highs, the BA second to Javy Lopez); his 23 HR tied for third. He was also the Braves’ best hitter in the World Series, poking three homers. Playing more often in 1996, he fell off a little but was still excellent, hitting a career-high 34 homers.

I’ve always thought that Klesko’s problems in 1997-98 stemmed from the move to Turner Field, which played as a very tough park for lefthanded power hitters in its early days. At the time, I didn’t have access to complete splits, but now I have Retrosheet. The evidence is mixed, but I have to say now that this probably isn’t the case. Ryan was equally good at home and on the road in 1995, better at home in 1996. In 1997-98, it was pretty much equal; he hit more homers on the road but made up for it in other ways. At any event, he was just a worse hitter in those years. Considering his defense, I can’t say that he had a whole lot of value, though he was still a well-above-average hitter.

In 1999, he rebounded to hit .297/.376/.532, just about what he had in 1996. After the 1999 season, Schuerholz made one of his worst trades, getting Quilvio Veras, Reggie Sanders, and Wally Joyner for Klesko, Bret Boone, Jason Shiell, and Jason Shiell’s wife. Basically, the Braves got one good half year of Veras and a season’s worth of decent bench work from Joyner in exchange for two players who have combined to hit 133 and 146 home runs since the deal.

I’ve written that Klesko became a better hitter after the trade, getting to play more regularly, but that really isn’t the case. His 2000-02 percentages are just about the same as 1996 and 1999. His counting stats look better because he played every day… After missing most of 2006, Ryan’s most-similar hitter through Age 35 is actually Dave Justice, followed by another Brave, Joe Adcock. Andres Galarraga is also on the list.

The disadvantage of Klesko’s defense can easily be overstated. His range factors are very bad, except in 1996-98 when they rise to mediocre. At the same time, it’s left field. I wrote in the Rico Carty comment that teams in the fifties and early sixties tended to put slow sluggers in left field rather than at first base. (This may be why almost no first basemen from the 1950s are in the Hall of Fame.) There’s an argument to be made for this; a bad first baseman will make you a lot more miserable than a bad left fielder. At any rate, Grissom, Lofton, and Andruw were mostly able to cover for Ryan most of the time, and at the end of the game with a lead he’d be pulled.

Ryan Klesko Statistics – Baseball-Reference.com

24 thoughts on “#27: Ryan Klesko”

  1. Wow, I never thought Ryan would be this high…

    …speaking of Grissom, I just realize that he will not be on this list…I love Marquis.

  2. My lasting memory of Klesko with the Braves was one at-bat he had (in the late 90s) where the pitcher threw inside and Klesko got really mad at him. I think a coach had to come out and calm him down, because he was really screaming at the pitcher and was in danger of doing something that would get him thrown out. On the very next pitch, he hit a towering homerun and glared at the pitcher the entire way around the bases.

    I was 10 or 11 at the time, and I became convinced that he hit better when he was angry. Later that season (it might have even been a postseason game, I don’t really remember), Klesko had a really pivotal at-bat. My dad and sister and I were watching the game on television and the atmosphere (both at the park and at my house) was very tense because the game was so important. As Klesko walked up to the plate I said we needed him to get mad. So, my sister and I started yelling at the TV image, “you’re so ugly…you can’t hit worth anything…I don’t know why Bobby even plays you…” and other like insults that two young girls would think of to yell. Sure enough, he hit a homerun and gave the Braves the victory. I can remember going completely nuts over that.

    I remember when he and Boone were traded. Definitely not one of JS’s best moves.

  3. I know it seems high, but actually this is as low as I could with good conscience put Klesko. His stats are just about the same as McGriff’s and better than Gant’s, in similar career lengths, and I couldn’t separate them that much from him considering that neither of them was exactly a gold glover.

  4. This rating seems ok with me. He was a good player for us. I never understood why he was really never given much of a chance to move out of the platoon role. I hated the trade to San Diego. Sometimes the moves Schuerholz makes are really bizarre.

  5. Because he basically mauled RHPs & couldn’t hit LHPs worth a damn, I always kinda wished Klesko could’ve stayed a “permanent platoon” guy with the Braves. (Not that he’d ever want that—he now makes $9M a year.) Unfortunately, aside from the brief (but WS-winning) run with Mike Devereaux, that John Lowenstein/Gary Roenicke thing never worked out for us.

    When Klesko came up in 1994 and before people knew how to pitch him, he hit some of the most monstrous HRs I’d ever seen. I remember one in Wrigley that clanked off a flagpole, above the clock, above the out-of-town scoreboard, in dead center field. Been watching games at Wrigley for a long time & that’s the only time I saw a ball hit there.

    And I can’t really address his defense—it’s too painful.

    Still, he was a WS-winning player, and a beacon from that first round of Baby Braves that included Chipper & Javy.

  6. the trade to san diego was bad, but I could see sortof what JS was trying to do. He wanted to increase OBP at the top of the lineup (like he should for next season) and so that’s where Veras and Sanders came in. Plus, wasn’t that the season where we didn’t know anything about how bad/good Andres G. would be at first??

    I think he was just trying to cover his butt on a couple of different positions…..and Boone didn’t do anything in SD and was traded that next year and then all of the sudden hit 40+ homers and 30 some bombs in seattle…in Safeco field?? yeah….no steroids there…

    Oh, Mac, are you going to do a write-up or something about what Bor@ss is quoted as saying about Andruw’s next contract?? I think its time for another round of trade rumors involving AJ.

  7. I think it’s okay to dock Klesko a little bit for the platoon arrangement — his inability to hit LHPs forced us to play mediocrities like Gerald Williams, Danny Bautista, Brian Hunter, etc.

    After he went to San Diego, he really did suffer from his home park. He and Nevin had significant home/road splits in ’00, ’01, and ’03 — I think it could be said that he did become a better hitter in those years, particularly in the OBP department.

  8. As I think Mac will back me up, the “inability to hit lefties” was a direct result of BC’s not letting him bat against lefties. He really showed no problem in the minors. You have to get a chance to hit lefties in order to succeed, and BC never let him.

    His defense In LF was much better than some commenters suggest.

  9. I think that’s correct. The platoon advantage is real, but it’s not that great, and elite hitters are good enough that putting an ordinary righthanded hitter in there 1/3 of the time isn’t worth it. Ryan hit lefties well in the minors and okay in San Diego. It’s hard to do something when you haven’t been allowed to practice it for several years, and after awhile it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: Klesko couldn’t hit lefties because he never got to hit against lefties because people said he couldn’t hit lefties.

    Also, I really do think (that as we saw with LaRoche this year) hitters hit better when they’re in the lineup most of the time. (Not all, they need their rest.) LaRoche, who is basically a reduced version of Klesko (but with reduced flaws as well) got into a groove when he stopped being platooned.

  10. That all may be true, but I can only go on Klesko’s performance. And I don’t blame Bobby for doing that either.

    Vs. RHP (3,674 AB): 289/384/545
    Vs. LHP (1,167 AB): 244/330/375

  11. OK, I haven’t posted much at all, but I’ve read the write-ups on every player. This is great stuff, Mac. I’m way too young to have heard of a lot of these players, so it’s cool to read about these players from a modern context and see how the game has evolved over the years.

    and after awhile it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: Klesko couldn’t hit lefties because he never got to hit against lefties because people said he couldn’t hit lefties.

    Even though it sounds so crazy, it’s sad that that’s the reality of so many left handed hitters. Klesko seems to have been a victim of this, and LaRoche is a current example of someone who would have been if Brian Jordan hadn’t been absolutely atrocious. Seems pretty foolish, kinda like Scott Boras…

  12. The crack on Jason Shiell’s wife is great, by the way. I wonder how “happy the Braves were with his performance” after those crap starts that he had this year.

  13. As always, Mac’s write-ups give a great accounting of the players, none better than he has with Klesko.
    It’s so good, that all I could add would be subjective feelings. It’s hard to describe what it meant to hear Skip or Pete announce Ryno would be coming up in the next half inning, the subtle hope that he’d make something happen.
    I think the Braves got his best. That’s got to count for something.

  14. I see the point, bledsoe and Mac. But you know, Klesko was very vocal about wanting to play against LHPs, and that might color our recollection of how many opportunities he actually did get to face them. ABs and performance by year:

    vs. RHP

    1994 — 223 (.287/..347/.583)
    1995 — 251 (.331/.412/.657)
    1996 — 389 (.301/.390/.604)
    1997 — 361 (.280/.349/.535)
    1998 — 366 (.284/.362/.508)

    vs. LHP

    1994 — 22 (.227/.320/..364)
    1995 — 78 (.244/.348/.449)
    1996 — 139 (.230/.285/.324)
    1997 — 106 (.198/.283/.340)
    1998 — 61 (.213/.342/.262)

    Retrosheet doesn’t have his ’99 splits for some reason.

    It’s not like he never got chances against LHP. After hitting them fairly well in ’95, he got a pretty good number of chances in ’96 and ’97 and was terrible.

  15. I think this is a fair ranking for Ryan. He was always a favorite of mine – I loved the follow-through on his swing, and those monster homers were something to see.

    The main problem of his platooning that I saw was that Bobby couldn’t manage it worth a damn in the postseason. He could never manage Klesko in a way to maximize his at-bats, and other managers always seemed to get the better of the arrangements. I guess for a few years there we’d have a string of lefties in a row for which an opposing manager could bring in one lefty-killer to neutralize them.

  16. Colin,

    That worked in 1996, but it didn’t really work in 1995. The biggest moment, of course, was David Justice vs. Jim Poole. We know how that worked out.

    But between Graeme Lloyd & Rick Honeycutt, we caught some deathly LOOGYs in ’96.

  17. Sansho, our point is that he hardly ever got to hit against lefties for a couple of years, and many of the lefties he did see were LOOGYs. I’m not saying that Ryan could hit lefties, I’m saying that if he’d gotten regular work against them he could have.

    In 1995 the Braves routinely had Chipper followed by McGriff-Justice-Klesko. It was just asking to be LOOGYized. They still had problems with it in 1996 with Justice out, because you’re still talking three guys in a row vulnerable to lefty specialists.

  18. I know this is a subjective observation without statistical support, but I never liked to see Klesko up in a critical situation, right hander or left hander. To me, he was a lot like Andruw in his early days (and, to some extent, even now) in that he would frequently get himself out by swinging at atrocious pitches. He certainly had power but I never thought of him as being that difficult to replace. IN retrospect, I guess he was pretty good, but, to me, he was a typical Brave hitter: lots of power, little plate discipline, struggled to hit good pitching.

  19. Justice was a much more balanced hitter than Klesko; Justice had only a tiny platoon split – same BA, 31 points better on OBP, and 11 points better in SLG for his career vs righties as opposed to lefties.

    But in terms of being outmanaged, I’m thinking more about playing time. For isntance, in the 6-game 1999 NLCS, Klesko played in only 4 games and saw only 10 PA. In the 6-game 1996 Series he got only 12 PA. It wasn’t too difficult for opposing managers to force Cox’s hand and get Klesko out of games.

    As for game-on-the-line situations, I don’t have any particular recollection. I don’t think of him as Andruw-bad in such situations. For his career Klesko has a 900+ OPS with runners in scoring position, 880 with RISP and two outs, 1000+ with bases loaded. But that doesn’t address, say, close and late situations.

  20. #17 —— Hey Mac, you may have just invented a new word in “LOOGYized”. Funny thing is I knew exactly what you meant.

  21. Not a huge secret, JS did not like klesko’s california attitude, the surfer mentality that he thought Klesko had and frankly has.
    Yes he stunk vs LHP, but he was also thrown under the bus for the post season failures as well
    my thoughts. I say scapegoat number 1# and Dye scapegoat #2, both bit us on our buts.
    Looking forward to the big time right up on Big Bob at NUMBER ONE mac, please don’t disappoint, Be kind on his wrist thing, and the leaving for Yakult

  22. As a huge fan of Ryan’s while he was both a Brave and a Padre, his years in a San Diego Uniform was the best in EVERY way. The only good thing the Braves did for Ryan was trading him to San Diego. In San Diego, Ryan was not only treated with the respect he deserved, but his talents were encouraged. Comparing his “state of mind” while with both teams (from what I could observe), he seems much more at ease and happier with the Padres. He no longer had to sit on the sidelines due to the Chipper Jones show, the Andruw Jones show, or whatever other “pretty boy” was the center piece of the Braves. Ryan was able to prove himself in San Diego, and indeed he proved himself. San Diego gave him that chance and as a result, Ryan Klesko was an All-Star and eventually became part of a WINNING team. Once I saw wtih my own two eyes the treatment Ryan received in San Diego compared to what he received in Atlanta, I forever became a Padres fan and totally “denounced” the Atlanta Braves forever to the point they are my least favorite MLB team – never dreamed that was possible considering the Mets are a baseball team…

    Ryan’s performance has declined in recent years due to injuries, but he was such a FORCE in San Diego from 2000-2002 and even 2003. The bright side was his 2006 comeback when everyone had him on the “death row” of baseball. Everyone said, “He can’t possibly come back…” Well folks, the swings he took during his last two weeks of the season showed me that Ryan is in top form. I see a comeback year for him in 2007 – a major comeback year. I am not sure if he will remain in San Diego, I think he may be added to the Giants’ Roster, where Bruce Bochy is now the manager, when it is all said and done.

    Statistics aside, Ryan Klesko gives something to a team, to the clubhouse. His presence is obviously tremendous. Ever since the most stupidest trade ever by JS (although a TRUE blessing for Ryno), the Braves have been NOTHING. Ever since Ryan’s depature, the Braves have not advanced past a NLDS Championship series. Coincidence? Maybe.

    Ever since Ryan’s departure, the Braves have said goodbye to, or tossed away their best players: Maddux, Glavine, Javy, Kevin Milwood… do I need to list anymore?

    Once Ryan arrived in San Diego, the team began turning around and eventually became NL West Division winners. And, Ryan became an All-Star (I hope JS enjoyed that one!) and a team MVP. Coincidence? Maybe.

    Or maybe, Ryan Klesko is that much of a “lucky charm.”

    The Atlanta Braves don’t know a great player when they see one, the current Braves are NOTHING compared to the powerhouse team of the mid 1990’s – a powerhouse that included Ryan Klesko.

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