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.