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Righthanded Hitting, Righthanded Throwing Catcher
Seasons With Braves: 1992-2003
Stats With Braves: .287/.337/.502, 214 HR, 694 RBI, 508 RS
Another one of my favorite players. It’s been questioned why Javy ranks ahead of Joe Torre, and Torre’s statistics are in fact better than Javy’s overall while his number of plate appearances isn’t much lower. I probably discounted the Milwaukee years a little, subconsciously, but the real reasons are:
1. Javy played in fifteen postseason series in nine years; Torre never played in postseason — not with the Braves or Cardinals, and certainly not with the Mets. This is not his fault but it’s something I take into account.
2. Torre played a lot of games at first base, while Javy was exclusively a catcher.
3. Javy’s best year is better than Torre’s best year with the Braves.
Javy Lopez was signed as a free agent in 1987. His early seasons are nondescript, but he broke out in Greenville in 1992, hitting .321/.362/.507 and establishing himself as a top prospect. I recall that in 1993 I was able to suffer through Damon Berryhill’s utter collapse as a useful player by thinking to myself that Lopez would be up soon. Javy was actually called up briefly in 1992 and 1993 and wound up behind Bobby’s “Break Glass In Case Of Emergency” third catcher box in postseason; he actually got one AB in the 1992 NLCS and was on deck when Sid slid.
In 1994 he was handed the job in spring training, to be backed up by Charlie O’Brien. He got off to a hot start but then two things happened: he fell into a terrible slump in late May, and Greg Maddux took a dislike to him. At the “end” of that season, he was hitting .245/.299/.419.
The Braves stuck by him (with O’Brien becoming Personal Catcher No. 1) and were rewarded in 1995 with a .315/.344/.498 season. He tore it up in the NLDS and NLCS, though he didn’t do much in the World Series. In 1996 he fell off a little, though his numbers (.282/.322/.466) are still very good for a catcher. Again, he played well in the NL playoffs, winning the NLCS MVP, but didn’t hit in the World Series.
In 1997, Lopez made his first All-Star appearance, hitting .295/.361/.534. He had a terrible NLCS, plus the Braves were even letting Eddie Perez (PC No. 2) catch Maddux in postseason now. In 1998, Javy made the All-Star team again, hitting .284/.328/.540 with 31 homers and 106 RBI, and played well in postseason. He got off to a tremendous start in 1999, then started getting hurt, then was shut down in July with a knee injury.
I had remembered him not playing well in the seasons after the knee injury, but his 2000 numbers (.287/.337/.484) are close to what came before. It was in 2001 that he fell apart (.267/.322/.425) but the Braves didn’t have any other options and signed him to a free agent contract anyway. He was just awful in 2002 (.233/.299/.372).
Suddenly, at the age of 32 and after three years of decline, Javy had the best year of his career. I will not speculate why and encourage you not to either. He hit 43 homers, a team record for a catcher, and .328/.378/.687 overall. For the first time since 1998 he made the All-Star team, and finished fifth in the MVP voting, which I actually think is low. He signed a free-agent deal with the Orioles and had a couple of decent years, then had a problem campaign last year in which after the Red Sox traded for him the entire population of New England decided to blame him for the team missing the postseason.
You may not think it, but Javy has Hall of Fame statistics. His three most-similar players through age 35 are Fisk, Hartnett, and Campanella (it was Campy’s last year). If he can bounce back from his lost season, it seems likely that Javy will finish with over 300 homers (he has 260). He won’t make the Hall of Fame, and I don’t really think I can make a case, but I thought I would point it out.