1966 vs. 2023
Sometimes people don’t believe me when I tell them about the 1966 Braves. It’s easy enough to pull up BRef and see a 85-77 team that finished 5th (no divisional play) 10 games back of a World Series. But professional sports arrived in Atlanta on April 12, 1966, and a 10 year old kid was transfixed. As far as I was concerned, 25 Gods had descended on the city, playing in a brand new stadium and nothing they could do could possibly be wrong.
So every Braves team needs a comparison with the 1966 edition, just to show how good the 1966 Braves were. I want to be clear about my methodology here, because it is in fact anything but solid. I reserve the right to evaluate 1966 players on the basis of their careers both prior to and subsequent to 1966. Why? Because I can. I also reserve the right to bend the facts to suit my agenda. Finally, I reserve the right to shade my second-half projections for a few current players. I might make a lame joke or two. But I will not outright lie.
RF: Ronald Acuña, Jr. versus Hank Aaron
The two best players played RF and, despite Ronald’s first-half numbers, I’m going with The Hammer. In the fullness of time, Ronald Acuña Jr. could possibly have as great a career as Hank Aaron. I don’t believe that and neither do you, even as we all acknowledge Ronald’s true greatness. Acuña’s 2023, though, unless he cools off, will probably be better than Henry’s 1966, but even if it is, it won’t be by much and will have to weight stolen bases and runs scored pretty heavily. Aaron had 44 homers and 127 RBIs, and had an OPS+ of 142 and a 7.9 WAR season. RAJ is currently projecting to a 10 WAR season, with fewer homers and, obviously, owing to his place in the batting order, fewer RBIs. But you don’t pass a good Hank Aaron season on the basis of a somewhat better first half season. RAJ is at the moment the odds-on favorite MVP for 2023; in 1966 Henry Louis Aaron finished 8th, and wasn’t even the top vote-getter on the team.
Catcher: Joe Torre/Gene Oliver/Rico Carty versus Sean Murphy/Travis d’Arnaud
In 1966 the 25 year-old Torre hit .315 with 26 homers and 101 RBI for a team-leading OPS of .943. In addition to catching 111 games, he played first base on 39 of his off-days. He had a 6.4 WAR season, which looks just about right for Sean Murphy as well. Joe Torre vs. Sean Murphy is a wash, and that ought to tell you a lot about how good Joe Torre was, and how trading him away in 1969 just before the season started was a stupid idea. Now Travis d’Arnaud is a much better player than Gene Oliver, and especially Gene Oliver at the end of his career. But there’s a catch: Rico Carty caught 17 games in 1966. The Braves had moved him from catcher to outfield, but he was once a highly touted catching prospect. They were the only games he caught in his entire career. Oliver caught more games than Carty, but Carty was a much better hitter than d’Arnaud, and the Braves won the first seven games he caught, so how bad a catcher could he have been? (In fact, the Braves manager for the first two-thirds of the season, Bobby Bragan, hated Carty. So did almost everyone else Carty ever worked for, and plenty of other guys he worked with.) But until Bragan got the idea to move Felipe Alou to first base, Carty had nowhere to play. I’m going to go with managerial incompetence here and argue that Torre/Carty could have been as good as Murphy/d’Arnaud if the experiment continued.
First Base: Felipe Alou/Joe Torre/Lee Thomas, et. al. versus Matt Olson
Matt Olson, barring injury, is probably going to play 162 games again at first base, just like Freddie Freeman before him. First base for the 1966 Braves was not nearly as steady, but Torre and Felipe Alou, who manned first base for a combined 138 games, were only a hair behind Olson’s production. Alou, who played 80 games in the outfield as well finished 5th in the MVP voting, highest of any Brave, and led the league in runs scored, hits and total bases, with an OPS+ of 142, only slightly behind Olson’s current 146. But Alou’s season was so good that it got a 10 year old Jewish kid to buy and read Alou’s autobiography My Life in Baseball, a book devoted to explaining how his deep Catholic faith was the key to his entire life. So I’m giving this one to Alou conditionally – if Matt Olson writes a book in the offseason I reserve the right to change my vote.
Third Base: Eddie Mathews versus Austin Riley.
Eddie was at the end of a Hall of Fame career, so this comparison isn’t really fair. In fact, it’s so unfair I’m not going to make a call here.
Left Field: Rico Carty/Felipe Alou versus Eddie Rosario
Dominican Republic versus Puerto Rico. I’ve discussed the 1966 guys at other positions, but they were ahead of Rosario. Carty was no better fielder than Rosario, but Alou was. 1966 wins.
Center Field: Mack Jones versus Michael Harris II
I believe that Michael Harris II will have a better career than Mack Jones. He may even have a better 2023 than Jones’ 1966. But looking at the numbers right now, Jones had a 118 OPS+ to Harris’ 98. Jones suffers from the fact that he is the second best center fielder in Braves history named Jones. We’re going to give him some credit here.
Shortstop: Denis Menke versus Orlando Arcia.
I never liked Menke and his first name didn’t have enough N’s in it. Offensively, he and Arcia are about equal, but Arcia is a much better fielder. I’ll let 2023 win one.
Second Base: Woody Woodward versus Ozzie Albies
Not close. 2023 wins… by a lot. But the fact that the only truly lopsided 2023 win comes at 1966’s weakest position by far is indicative of just how good offensively the 1966 team was.
DH: Marcell Ozuna versus ???
Carty was made a DH at the end of his career, and he was very successful at it when he wasn’t getting injured or getting into fistfights with teammates or alienating the universe. Torre was already playing first base on his days off catching. I’d rather have Carty than Ozuna. So I’m either taking the DH off the board, or provisionally awarding it to 1966.
Reserves: Gary Geiger/Miguel de la Hoz/Frank Bolling/Felix Millan versus Kevin Pillar/Sam Hilliard
Pillar and Hilliard are, I think, better than the 1966 reserves (I include Millan who was eventually really good but he was a rookie callup). Since they never get to play, though, I’m going to call this one a wash as well. Geiger was the main pinch hitter, and he OPS+ed 122.
Starting Pitching: Tony Cloninger/Ken Johnson/Denny Lemaster/Dick Kelley/Wade Blasingame versus Bryce Elder/Spencer Strider/Charlie Morton/Bunch of Other People
2023 is much better at the top three positions, but 1966 was better on the back end. And I can make the unequivocal prediction that no 2023 pitcher will hit two grand slams in a game like Tony Cloninger did. Indeed, Cloninger had a batting WAR of 1.2, the same as Eddie Rosario is projected to achieve. If we make the pitchers hit, this comparison is going to be much closer, I suspect.
OK… I’m not even going to detail the players. The 2023 bullpen can pitch, and the 1966 bullpen had Chi Chi Olivo. Clay Carroll was a serviceable closer, but back then bullpens really were the Island of Mismatched Toys. Now there was a guy on that bullpen named Niekro who eventually became a fairly effective starter. So the combined 2023 Braves bullpen, over their careers, might pitch for 2000 innings or so and garner about 100 or so wins. The 1966 Braves had a bullpen guy who crushed that all by himself.
I’m never going to convince you that the 1966 Braves could ever have won as many games as their 2023 edition is going to do. Because they couldn’t. Their pitching wasn’t good enough and their hitting was only very, very good… not other-worldly. But that team could ball, and nothing you’re going to tell me 57 years later is going to change my mind. They had 4 Hall of Famers, with Alou and Carty as worthy residents of a somewhat larger Hall. The 2023 team could conceivably have more, but I think the under is a better bet. (I’d guess 3, but I keep changing my mind about which three.)
 Obviously, that wasn’t quite true. The Crackers played professional baseball in Ponce de Leon Park through 1965 and there was a NASCAR event or two every year and professional wrestling at the Municipal Auditorium. But get real.