Lonnie Smith was never the best baseball player in the world, although there were times when he could have been in the major leagues. His speed was his greatest asset as he swiped 370 bags during his 17-year career. He was above average with the racquet, posting a career average of .288, just over 1,400 hits and 273 doubles. Other than that, nothing really stands out from its stat sheet. No number gives a clear indication of how good Smith could be. At the heart of his career numbers is a journeyman with excellent legs. However, there is one year that is not like the others.
Today we begin a new series examining the top five offensive seasons in Atlanta Braves history. It begins with Smith, the most unlikely of ancestors, making his mark on a team that has failed in so many ways. The 1989 Braves were nearing the end of their basement apartment era, though no one knew it. Certain things began to turn around and a new future dawned. In an individual reflection, Lonnie Smith had his best season ever. A difficult period in his career became one of the most fascinating stories in team history. It is now WAR’s fifth-best offensive Braves season, according to Baseball Reference.
Lonnie Smith’s Rough Patch
If Lonnie Smith was looking for something to come and go in 1989, it was a consistent season. In the last two seasons he has only been involved in 91 competitions. Much of this had to do with his involvement in the events surrounding the baseball cocaine scandals. After 1987, the Kansas City Royals had fired Smith, even though he had 42 goals in 48 games. The Braves signed him, and he hit a modest .237 in 43 games in 1988. Things might have been looking bleak for the veteran left fielder, but he was on the verge of breaking through.
April: Lonnie Smith breaks out
It certainly didn’t start that way as he didn’t record a single hit in his first 11 at-bats. He exploded after picking up his first knock. Over a seven-game batting streak, he went 12-for-29 (.414) with three homers and seven RBI. Overall, he totaled .326 in April with 30 hits, five doubles, a triple, nine stolen bases and 18 walks. The free passes are perhaps the most telling of his stats. He played a much more patient form of baseball that season. His walking percentage increased from 8.0% in 1988 to 13.2% in 1989. April was just the beginning as he had consistent free pass counts throughout the season.
May & June: Consistency amid contradictions
In May, Smith provided a more steady offense for a Braves team in need. He hit .321 with three more home runs, eight more RBI and 13 more walks. Additionally, he hit .642 and booked his first month with an OPS north of 1,000. In fact, he was so good he shot at 1.104. Unfortunately, he missed a good part of the end of the month due to injury. That said, upon his return, his bat continued to eclipse torches. He hit .328 in the month of June with four homers, ten RBI and 19 hits. His contact was impeccable, finding ways to get to the base rather than hitting. His walks suffered, of course, but he only struck six times all month. Wood found the ball and Smith found his place as one of the best players in the Braves roster.
July: Lonnie Smith catches fire
In July, as the Braves were battling for an 11-16 record, Lonnie Smith blew up. He crushed the ball with a .344 average and 33 hits. There were only seven games all month that he failed to get on base safely. His power was also elite, hitting six homers and four doubles. In comparison, league MVP Kevin Mitchell, who started 47 home runs, only had two more all month. Smith also found his patience in the face of a return to consistency. His 18 walks contributed to an on-base percentage of .448 and a staggering 1.042 OPS. Overall, Smith’s contributions to the Braves added a winning probability of 2.066. So while the team as a whole was struggling, Smith had broken free again in a big way.
August: A cooling off period
In August, Smith cooled off a bit. However, his numbers are enviable on a so-called cold spell. With 32 hits and an impressive 12 doubles, he still hit .305 for the month. His power dropped a bit (three homers in 105 at-bats). Despite this, he managed 12 walks and drove 17 runs. He slipped somewhat mid-month, where he had one hit in seven games. In the last 12 games, however, he has failed to score once. During that span, he hit a searing .391 (18 to 46) with 11 RBI and went on a six-game winning streak through September.
September: showing weaknesses
September was Smith’s weakest month as the Braves stuttered to a 9-14 mark. He hit .269 with two home runs. His strikeout numbers were meteoric, skyrocketing to 25 in 78 at-bats. However, he continued to pull in his fair share of runs and posted 15 RBI. An interesting aspect of this month is the sheer difference between Smith’s average and his BABIP. The latter stat sits at a hefty 0.352. So a big part of the blame for his comparatively slow attack this month definitely lies with his breath rate. He hit over 26% of the time but still managed a respectable wRC+ of 112. That’s how good Smith was in 1989.
Lonnie Smith: Unlikely Hero
Overall, Lonnie Smith had an 8.8 WAR this season, the best in the National League. His .415 on-base brand was also top. He hit .315 with 21 homers and 79 RBI and finished 11thth in the MVP vote. An OPS of .948 was good for third place in the league and an OPS+ of 168 was fourth. He managed 113 runs, beating Ryne Sandberg, Bobby Bonilla and Tony Gwynn. In addition, he hit 59 extra base hits, placing him in the top ten in the league. In summary, one of the most unlikely players kept us company with some of the best racquets of the day. The fact that he made it after overcoming so many obstacles only makes it worth repeating.
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LonnieSmith, Kevin Mitchell, Ryne Sandberg, Bobby Bonilla, Tony Gwynn