Baseball Musings: A look at Lonnie Smith's shocking 8.8 WAR season in 1989Sporting News — (Jason Foster)
This is Baseball Musings, an occasional offseason column that riffs on random things found while perusing Baseball Reference.
Sometimes a stat just jumps right out and punches you in the face. It seems like a crazy typo, something that makes you laugh because doesn't make a bit of sense — an egregious outlier among other, more sensible numbers. But a second look and little digging show that, no, it's not a mistake. It really happened. But it still doesn't make sense. This was my experience the first time I saw Lonnie Smith's outrageous 8.8 WAR for the 1989 season.
There's a lot to unpack here, but we'll start with this: A big part of what made Smith's '89 campaign so surprising was the path he took to get there.
On the field, Smith's MLB career up until that season had been an unequal mix of great, good and mediocre for the Phillies and Cardinals. His traditional batting stats were usually good, so his value came from his offense. He could hit for average and steal bases back when those were necessary traits in top-of-the-order guys. But his game had a big drawback: his defense. In the field, Smith was a consistent liability, earning him the nickname "Skates" and putting him on many a blooper reel. But the good tended to outweighed the bad.
By far his best pre-1989 year came in 1982, when he was an All-Star with the Cardinals, leading the league in runs scored, putting up a 6.2 WAR and finishing second in the MVP vote. From 1980 through 1987, Smith had a career slash line of .290/.365/.406 along with 302 stolen bases. He was also part of three world championship teams: the Phillies in 1980, the Cardinals in 1982 and the Royals in 1985.
But any on-field success was countered with off-field issues, including a drug problem, public bashing of the American League and a beef with then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth related to drug testing. It was a negative mix that left him unwanted and essentially out of baseball as the 1988 season approached. Nobody wanted to take to on the baggage, so the phone never rang. Eventually, Smith went proactive and started calling teams in hopes of finding a job. The only taker was the rebuilding Braves, who signed the overweight and out-of-shape Smith to a minor league deal during spring training.
Once he was back in baseball-playing shape, Smith impressed enough in his Triple-A assignment that he was called up to the big league team in July. He played 43 games that season for a 54-106 Braves team, but put up lackluster totals, slashing .237/.296/.342. Still, Smith was a big leaguer again, albeit as essentially a platoon player on the worst team in the National League. But it was something to build upon.
Which brings us to 1989, when the Braves were bad again but Smith somehow became the best all-around player in baseball.
Smith won a starting job in spring training and began the season as the Braves' lead-off hitter before eventually settling into three spot. And he made an impact from the beginning, leading the Braves in most offensive categories in the season's early months. But he wasn't just the best on the Braves — he was among the best in the National League. Through early August, Smith was among the NL leaders in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Absolutely nobody saw it coming.
"Lonnie Smith is the best damn story in baseball, absolutely the biggest and the best," Braves manager Russ Nixon told Sporting News in an August cover story that carried a blunt but accurate headline: "Given Up for Dead — Except by Braves — Smith Revives Career."
That Smith, at age 33, was back in the majors at all was impressive to the rest of the league. His numbers only enhanced an epic comeback story.
"Most of the time, when a guy goes down as far as Lonnie, he never recovers," Giants manager Roger Craig told Sporting News then. "... Overall, I don't think I've ever seen anybody come back as far as he has."
The turnaround wasn't lost on then-Royals GM John Schuerholz, who released Smith in 1987 and, conincidentally, would become his boss again with the Braves a few years later.
"I think if you polled baseball general managers and asked if they're surprised to see Lonnie Smith having the kind of season he's having, I think surprised would be a pretty unanimous description," he told SN.
Smith's offensive contributions were the attention-grabber in 1989, but his defense also went to another level. For the first time his career, he was among the best outfield defenders in the league, compiling a 2.1 dWAR and 23 runs saved on defense — shocking numbers for the erswhile Skates — although such things weren't fully appreciated at the time.
When it was all over, Smith's 1989 campaign was easily the best of his career. In 134 games, he clubbed a career-high 21 home runs and drove in a career-best 79 runs, while also taking more walks (76) than he ever had. He led the National League with a .415 on-base percentage and also led the league with a .427 average with runners in scoring position. Not to mention those 23 defensive runs saved. The totals with the bat and glove added up to produce that prodigious 8.8 bWAR, leading all MLB postition players. To put that in perspective, that's a higher WAR than Mike Trout's 2019 campaign. But unlike Trout, Smith finished 11th in MVP voting and didn't even make the All-Star team, though he was named Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year.
There was no obvious logic for why Smith's 1989 played out the way it did. It was just a year when everything clicked: the right setting, the right team, the right motivation — and a year free from the negativity and various obstacles that had dogged him in the past. Smith himself offered no insight as to his turnaround, but said his 1989 output could be just the beginning.
"I still don't feel as if I'm totally back to where I was before," Smith told SN in that cover story.
But, it turns around, there was nowhere to go but down after such a stellar and unexpected output.
Smith never again approached his 1989 production, though he wasn't without his significant contributions. His 1990 season produced a strong 4.6 bWAR, but his 1991 production saw a signifcant dip, thanks in part to his defense returning to normal, though he did contribute to the Braves' worst-to-first turnaround that year and hit three home runs in the World Series against the Twins. 1992 was more of the same, though he was limited to just 84 games. His big highlight that season was a grand slam off Jack Morris in the World Series against Toronto. His 1993 season saw a slight uptick in his offense in stints with the Pirates and Orioles, as he carried a .420 OBP and an .868 OPS in 103 games.
Smith retired at age 38 in 1994 after playing 35 games for the Orioles. He hit .203 with a .333 OBP. The end was unremarkable, other than that it came six years later than everyone expected.
"I don't want to be remembered as the guy who used to fall down and stumble after fly balls, or as the guy who came back from a drug problem," Smith told SN. "I want to be remembered as a being a good player. That's all."
Indeed, Smith was a good player — except for in 1989, when he was eye-poppingly and shockingly great.