Braves One Year Wonder, Buzz Capra played with the Atlanta Braves from 1974-77, but his 1974 was something to behold.
The Atlanta Plagues
I referred last week to the Bravesâ€™ lack of success between their division wins in 1969 and 1982. â€œLack of successâ€ was an understatement. One year it was Blood, the next Frogs, then Lice, followed by Flies, Dead Cows, Boils, Hail, Locusts, and Days of Darkness. My first child was born in 1982; fortunately, the plagues finally came to an end that year. (Only to have another six year run from 1985-1990â€”pestilence, war, famine, death, and a couple of other bad thingsâ€”but thatâ€™s a story for another day.)
I suspect those of you who became Braves fans in the last thirty years canâ€™t imagine how bad it could be. Yes, I remember 2015-17, and I know 2006-2009 were disappointing. But the 1970â€™s for the Braves werenâ€™t just a dry spell; being committed to the Braves in that decade was to experience disillusionment, dismay, and despair that fortunes would ever change.
After the 93-69 division championship in 1969, here are the win totals for the next decade: 76, 82, 70, 76, 88, 67, 70, 61, 69, and 66. If you read each number in that list, one number should stand out. Yes, in 1974 our Atlanta Braves went 88-74. In many years, thatâ€™s enough to make the playoffs, or at least play meaningful games in September. Unfortunately for the Braves, the NL West was a powerhouse; the Dodgers won the division with 102 wins.The second place Big Red Machine-to-be was second with 98 wins. Despite the strong overall record, our Braves were never in the pennant chase.They were only 50-49 on July 27, when they fired manager Eddie Matthews. Under Clyde King, they went 38-25 the rest of the way, but they never got within 9 games of the lead, and despite a strong September finished 14 games out of first. So even that relatively strong year is not memorable. (Curious fact: the 1974 team may have been better than the 1969 pennant winners; the Pythagorean for the 69 team was 88-74, while the Pythagorean for 1974 was 93-69.)
Hammerin’ Hank Hammers Number 7-1-5
Of course 1974 is memorable today for the events of the first week of the season. Henry Aaronâ€™s tying and breaking of Ruthâ€™s record in April will always be the standout memory of that seasonâ€”and any other Braves season. But the rest of the season is lost in the shrouds of memory, as perhaps it should be. In fact, I suspect more people remember the 1973 Braves, which was the first in history to have three players with 40 home runs each (and still the only non-Colorado team to do so). Aaron hit forty to finish at 713 for his career. That was a terrific offensive team, leading the league in runs scored. Even so, that team finished 76-85, because as usual for the Braves of that era, the pitching wasnâ€™t good; they also led the league in runs surrendered.
In 1974, other than Ralph Garr, who led the league with a .354 average, none of the hitting stars of 1973 were nearly as good. Age finally started to catch up with the 40 year old Mr. Aaron. For the first time in 20 years, his OPS+ was under 141 (and it was still 126!). The always underappreciated Darrell Evans was excellent, with 126 walks, an OPS+ of 120, and a bWAR of 7.3, but his Triple Crown stats were only 25, 79, and .240, so everyone considered him a disappointment.
The difference was that the pitching, for once, was outstanding. Phil Niekro finished with 8.0 bWAR. He tied for the league lead in Wins with 20, led the league in innings pitched and in complete games, and was second in the league in ERA, with a 2.38â€”all while pitching in the best hittersâ€™ park in the league. Carl Morton was a solid starter, eating 274 innings with a 3.15 ERA and winning 16 games.
Braves One Year Wonder, Buzz Capra
Niekro finished second in the league in ERA. Who topped him? Why, our One Year Wonder, Buzz Capra. Capra was as unlikely an ERA champ as ever pitched. The 26 year old had pitched in 41 games for the Mets over the past three years (only 6 of them starts). His ERA+ up to that point in his career was under 100. The Braves, as always, were desperate for pitching, so they purchased Capraâ€™s contract at the end of spring training in 1974. After 11 relief appearances, Capra had a six inning scoreless relief appearance in mid-May. From that point until the end of June, he went 9-0 in 10 starts with a 0.98 ERA. He finished the season with 217 innings, a 16-8 record, five shutouts, 11 complete games, the lowest hits per inning ratio in the league, a bWAR of 5.4â€”and as noted, the lowest ERA in the league of 2.28.
Capraâ€™s ten game stretch of starts in May and June was eerily similar to Kris Medlen down the stretch in 2012. You may recall that Medlen went 9-0 over his final 12 starts with an ERA of 0.97. Both Capra and Medlen were listed as 5â€™10â€, although Capra seemed even smaller. And both would have promising careers cut short by injuries. The only other Braves pitcher to be so dominant for a couple of months would be Greg Maddux for most of his career.
Neither Buzz Capra nor the Braves could come close to replicating their 1974 success. A bum shoulder limited Capra to only 12 starts the next year, and in another year he was finished. And the Braves returned to their abysmal ways with a vengeance in 1975, winning only 67 games, not to see even 80 wins for another 6 seasons. But for about half of one magical season, Buzz Capra was the most dominant starter in the league. And for that I will always remember him. Thanks, Buzz.
Thanks for reading on Braves one year Wonder, Buzz Capra. If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to catch the whole wankers and wonders series right here.