From 1991 through 1993, Braves starter Steve Avery established himself as a vital member of the best pitching staff in baseball, together with Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and (in 1993) Greg Maddux. Avery set a record with 22 1/3 scoreless LCS innings in 1991 and ’92 and was the youngest pitcher to win a playoff game with an eight-inning six-hitter in Game Two of the ’91 NLCS. Armed with a top changeup and exceptional poise, he compiled a record of 47-25 in the three-year span, including two 18-win seasons. But Avery began to struggle in 1994, a season in which he spent much of the season traveling between Atlanta and his home in Detroit after his wife gave birth prematurely to a son weighing just two pounds. Avery began the season 5-1 but saw his ERA balloon as he dealt with his personal trauma. “It was hard to do something when your heart was elsewhere,” Avery told Baseball Weekly after the season. “Looking back on it now I can say it affected me more than I thought.”
After that, he never again enjoyed a winning season with the Braves. It all fell apart in June 1996, when a pulled rib cage muscle sidelined him for two months in the middle of the season. When he returned late in the year, the injury still hindered him. He pitched inconsistently and never recovered his spot in the rotation.
The Braves traded for up-and-coming left-hander Denny Neagle late in the season, indicating they weren’t prepared to bring Avery back to the rotation in 1997. Instead, Avery signed with the Red Sox, who hoped he could help fill the shoes of departed ace Roger Clemens. Even though he was reunited with Boston manager Jimy Williams, a former coach with the Braves, Avery spent much of the season injured and didn’t pitch particularly well when he was healthy. In his prime, he had been one of the toughest pitchers in baseball against left-handers. In ’97 they hit .400 against him.
Avery began 1998 in the Red Sox bullpen, but after a short rehab assignment in May earned a spot in the rotation. Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan helped Avery develop a three-quarters delivery to help his breaking pitches and even though his fastball rarely rose above the mid-eighties, Avery somehow managed to win ten games. He still walked more batters than he struck out.
But erratic control and low velocity caught up with Avery as he returned to the National League with the Cincinnati Reds in 1999. In one stretch he lasted an average of just four innings per start. Avery insisted he was healthy, but his left shoulder began to hurt him in July as his pitches dropped below 80 MPH. Later that month, he underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum below the rotator cuff.
Avery’s father pitched briefly in the Tigers’ minor-league system.