As we count down the days to 2018’s opening day, we take a look at the greatest Braves to wear each jersey number that’s been worn.
The greatest Brave to wear #56 is Oscar Villarreal.
Signed by the Diamondbacks in 1998 as an amateur free agent, Villarreal advanced quickly through Arizona’s system. He pitched in AAA as an 18-year old, and made his MLB debut at age 21 in 2003. Entering the game in a 1-2 count, he needed only a single pitch to log his first career strikeout. He had a great rookie year for the D-Backs, appearing in 86 games (10-7, 2.57, 7.4 K/9). Unsurprisingly for a 21 year old who appeared in 86 games, Villarreal struggled to stay on the field for the next couple of seasons, and in December 2005 was traded to Atlanta for Johnny Estrada.
Villarreal bounced back in a big manner for the 2006 Braves, appearing in 58 games (starting 4), throwing 92.1 innings, and registering a 3.61 ERA. Strikeouts weren’t a big part of his game (just 5.4 per 9), but his mix of soft contact and groundballs kept him productive. In 2007, he tossed 76.1 innings over 51 appearances and picked up his first and only MLB save, but Villarreal wasn’t quite as good at preventing runs from scoring as the year before (4.24 ERA). After the season, Atlanta traded Villarreal to Houston for Josh Anderson.
Villarreal imploded in Houston (5.02 ERA, 6.97 DRA) in 2008. He continued to get looks from MLB organizations, signing with the Mariners, Rockies, Royals, Phillies, Dodgers, Orioles, and Red Sox between mid-2008 and 2012, but he never reached the majors after leaving Houston. He returned to his native Mexico, where he has pitched for the Monterrey Sultanes since 2012. He remains an innings-eating reliever, throwing 63.2 innings last year in 38 games.
I tried to find some video of Villarreal with Atlanta, but instead found this:
Why does he put his name in quotation marks? Is it not his name? Anyway, this Oscar was a Tejano musician who was tragically killed in 1967 when he was struck by a car while changing a tire.
There are no honorable mentions. Despite 20 different Braves wearing #56, Villarreal was the only one with a remotely positive contribution to the team while in the jersey. However, the most notable #56 was Ball Four author Jim Bouton, who wore it in 1978, his first major league action in 8 years.
Who is the best ever to wear #56?
Mark Buehrle. Buehrle wore #56 throughout his MLB career, spanning 3283.1 innings. Buehrle made 5 All-Star teams and was a 4 time Gold Glover. His 214 career pitching wins rank 90th in MLB history. In 2005 he went 16-8 with a 3.12 ERA en route to a 5th place finish in the Cy Young race. Oh, and he did this:
Insanely, he’d go 6 perfect innings into his following start, to retire a MLB-record 45 straight batters.
Buehrle, possibly one of the 100-125 best starting pitchers in MLB history, was easily the best #56 in MLB history (though Jarrod Washburn, Brian McRae, and Fernando Rodney had productive careers as well).