Will John Smoltz join fellow former Braves Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux in Cooperstown on his first Hall of Fame ballot try? Don't be so sure of that.
This past summer's Hall of Fame induction ceremony celebrated three key figures of the Braves' long run as an NL powerhouse: pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux and manager Bobby Cox. It was taken as nearly a given that the third pitcher from the team's long-running triumvirate, John Smoltz, would follow them to Cooperstown in short order when he became eligible this winter.
It may not be that easy. Smoltz was often credited as having the best pure stuff of Atlanta's big three, with an outstanding fastball/slider combination eventually augmented by a splitter that could function as a change-up. But unlike Glavine and Maddux, he lacks the magic number of wins — 300 — that guarantees a quick election for a starting pitcher. While he's one of just 16 pitchers to strike out at least 3,000 hitters, Smoltz didn't light up the leaderboards in the same manner as his two former teammates, not to mention fellow 2015 newcomers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez.
Elbow woes and a 3 1/2-season stint as a closer took a bite out of Smoltz's final numbers as well, and yet the shape of his career makes for a less-than-ideal comparison to the enshrined Dennis Eckerlsey. Unlike the paradigm-changing Eck, Smoltz accrued far more value as a starter than as a reliever, and he's more appropriately measured against other starters. That could be a problem given an electorate that has tabbed just one starting pitcher with fewer than 300 wins since 1991 and has thus far failed to wrap its head around the accomplishments of holdover candidates Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, both of whom also have more than 3,000 strikeouts and fewer than 300 wins.
Still, Smoltz's success in both roles as a pillar of the Braves' dynasty and his status as one of the top postseason pitchers of all time will probably carry the day, at least at some point. Unless the writers elect four players for the first time since 1955 — in addition to Johnson and Martinez, Craig Biggio seems unlikely to miss after falling two votes short last year — Smoltz could have to wait a year or two.
|Avg. HOF SP||73.4||50.2||61.8|
Born in Detroit, Smoltz came from a lineage of Tigers loyalists. His grandfather John Frank Smoltz worked on the Tiger Stadium grounds crew, and was such a ballpark staple that when he died, broadcast legend Ernie Harwell was the first to show up to his wake. His father, John Adam Smoltz, played accordion at the Tigers' 1968 World Series championship celebration and worked as an usher at the famous ballpark at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues as well. Meanwhile, his mother, Mary Smoltz, was a second cousin of Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer.
Smoltz grew up in Lansing, where he was an All-State baseball and basketball player at Waverly High School and was good enough at hoops to be offered a scholarship to Michigan State. Fears that he would go that route scared some major league teams away, which explains in part why he wasn't chosen until the 22nd round of the 1985 draft. The club that finally drafted him, of course, was the Tigers, and so it wasn't surprising that he chose the diamond. But Smoltz never got to wear the Olde English D. While scuffling at the team's Double A Glens Falls affiliate in 1987, his second professional season, he was traded to Atlanta for 36-year-old righty Doyle Alexander on Aug. 12. The move quickly looked like a stroke of genius on the part of Detroit general manager Bill Lajoie. Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA down the stretch while helping the 98-win Tigers take the AL East, although he was roughed up for 10 runs in nine innings across two ALCS starts by the 85-win Twins, including being chased in the second inning of the decisive Game 5.
Smoltz spent the remainder of 1987 and the first half of 1988 at the Braves' Triple A Richmond affiliate, where he hooked up with pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who helped him refine his mechanics. The results were striking: Pummeled for a 5.73 ERA with more walks than strikeouts in '87, Smoltz trimmed that to 2.79 with a 3.1 K/BB ratio through 20 starts in 1988. On July 23, the 21-year-old righty made his major league debut, throwing eight innings of one-run ball against the Mets, who eventually won the NL East.
The remainder of Smoltz's initial foray was much rockier. At one point, he failed to get past the third inning in three straight starts, but Atlanta, bound for 106 losses after averaging 92 in the previous three seasons, let him take his lumps. He finished his rookie season 2-7 with a 5.48 ERA, and Glavine, who had arrived the year before and was just 22 himself, went 7-17 with a 4.56 ERA.
Though the Braves lost 97 games in 1989, both pitchers turned the corner that year. Thanks to improved control, Smoltz went 12-11 with a 2.89 ERA in 208 innings while striking out 168, the league's ninth-highest total despite his being shut down after Sept. 5 due to arm fatigue. He made his first All-Star team as well. He got off to a rough start in 1990, burning his chest during spring training while trying to take the wrinkles out of a shirt he was wearing. Initial reports (and legend) had him trying to iron said shirt, but it was actually a hand-held steamer that sprayed hot water on him.
Once the season began, Smoltz interspersed five disaster starts (more runs than innings pitched) with gems such as a five-hit shutout of the Cubs on May 16 and a two-hitter against the Phillies on May 27. His June 21 complete game lowered his ERA to 5.44. The next day, Cox — who had previously managed the Braves from 1978 to '81 and then returned from a four-year stint in Toronto to be Atlanta's GM — fired manager Russ Nixon and took the job himself, appointing Mazzone his pitching coach to replace the fired Bruce Dal Canton. Smoltz threw a three-hit shutout against the Dodgers in his next outing and posted a 2.94 ERA under the new regime to finish at 3.85 for the year.
After another 97-loss season in 1990, the Braves stunned the baseball world by winning 94 games and the NL West flag in '91. Glavine won 20 games and his first NL Cy Young award, but Smoltz emerged as the go-to guy after overcoming another shaky start. Though he was just 2-11 with a 5.16 ERA before the All-Star break, Smoltz went 12-2 with a 2.63 mark after, finishing with a 3.80 ERA and 5.4 WAR (fourth in the league).
Smoltz continued to roll in the postseason, posting a 1.52 ERA in four starts, including a six-hit shutout on the road against the Pirates in Game 7 of the NLCS — helping Atlanta to its first pennant since 1958 — and two strong starts opposite the Twins' Jack Morris in the World Series. He delivered seven innings of two-run ball in Game 4, a contest won by the Braves with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, when Mark Lemke scored on a sacrifice fly. Both pitchers returned on three days' rest for Game 7, with Smoltz spinning 7 1/3 shutout innings but departing with two men on base. Reliever Mike Stanton got out of the jam, but Morris hung zeroes through the 10th inning before Minnesota's Gene Larkin hit a single off Alejandro Pena that brought home Dan Gladden with the Series-winning run.
Smoltz helped Atlanta to another pennant in 1992, after his strongest regular-season showing to date: a 2.85 ERA (130 ERA+) with a league-leading 215 strikeouts, as well as his second All-Star appearance. He earned NLCS MVP honors against the Pirates with a 2.66 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings across three starts, the last two of which were on three days of rest, and he made a pair of impressive starts in the World Series against the Blue Jays. But the bullpen coughed up his 4-2 lead in Game 2, and while he beat Morris in Game 5 to stave off elimination, Toronto clinched the series in Game 6.
That offseason, the Braves signed Maddux, the reigning NL Cy Yooung winner, bringing a significant amount of hype to Atlanta's rotation as 1993 dawned. The unit of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Steve Avery and Pete Smith "may be the finest five-man pitching rotation ever assembled," suggested Steve Rushin in a Sports Illustrated profile that April called "Five Aces." The rotation was indeed strong that season, as Glavine won a league-high 22 games, Maddux 20 -- and his second Cy Young -- and Avery 18. Smoltz went 15-12, but his ERA shot back to 3.62 (111 ERA+), and while he finished second in the league in strikeouts (208), he also did so in walks (100). Atlanta won its third straight NL West flag, but was ousted by the Phillies in the NLCS.
Smoltz struggled during the strike-shortened 1994 season, the only one between 1991 and 2005 that the Braves finished out of first place. Just before the strike hit, his elbow seized up; he needed surgery to remove a bone spur and several bone chips that had apparently been causing pain since late '91, and that doctors had advised him to have removed since then. That did the trick, as he put up a 3.18 ERA and a career-high 9.0 strikeouts per nine in 1995. While just one of his three postseason starts was any good, Atlanta captured its first World Series title since 1957 — the only one they would win under Cox, as it turned out.
With his teammates having combined to win the previous five NL Cy Youngs — Maddux with a record four in a row — Smoltz finally claimed his own hardware in 1996, fueled by the refinement of his split-fingered fastball (sometimes referred to as a forkball). He led the league with 24 wins and 276 strikeouts, posted career bests in ERA+ (149, via a 2.94 ERA), strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.0, having never been above 2.7 before) and WAR (7.3, second in the league). In addition to his fourth All-Star berth, he took 26 of 28 first-place votes in the Cy Young voting. The Marlins' Kevin Brown, who went 17-11 with a 1.89 ERA and 8.0 WAR, finished second due to his lower win total.
The Braves won yet another pennant, and Smoltz put together his best postseason, with a 0.95 ERA in 38 innings across five starts, including a four-hit complete game in the Division Series opener against the Dodgers and six innings of one-run ball in a Game 1 blowout of the Yankees in the World Series. Despite matching a postseason high with 10 strikeouts, he lost a 1-0 decision to Andy Pettitte in Game 5, with the only run unearned, and New York clinched the Series back in the Bronx in Game 6.
A free agent that winter, Smoltz stayed with Atlanta, signing a four-year, $31 million deal that set a record for average annual value for pitchers and ranked as the game's third-highest at the time. He led the league in innings (256) for the second straight year in 1997, whiffed 241 hitters (third in the league) and set his single-game postseason high with 11 strikeouts while three-hitting the Astros in the Division Series. Alas, that December he needed another operation to remove a bone chip in his elbow. The surgery forced Smoltz to open the 1998 season on the disabled list, and between that stint and one for elbow inflammation in late May and early June, he lost six weeks and was limited to 26 starts. He finished 17-3 with a 2.60 ERA and 9.3 strikeouts per nine and tied with Maddux for fourth in the Cy Young award vote, while Glavine won for the second time.
Smoltz's elbow continued to bark, to the point that he abandoned the splitter due to the stress it caused his arm. He served two stints on the DL for strains in 1999, and while he helped the Braves to another pennant, they were swept by the Yankees in the World Series, despite his 11-strikeout performance in the decisive Game 4. The following March, he wound up needing Tommy John surgery, which cost him the entire 2000 season and the first quarter of 2001. When he returned that May he was rocked for a 5.76 ERA in five starts before landing on the DL again, this time with shoulder inflammation.
When Smoltz came back in July, the Braves sent him to the bullpen, and he soon took over closer duties from the struggling John Rocker. Able to reach 98 mph in his short stints and to call upon a deeper arsenal than most relievers, he dominated batters via a 1.59 ERA and 37/5 strikeout-to walk ratio in 34 relief innings, converting 10 out of 11 save opportunities down the stretch. He allowed just one run in seven postseason innings in his new role, but Atlanta fell to the Diamondbacks in the NLCS.
The bullpen experiment was such a success that Smoltz reportedly spurned a four-year, $53 million deal to start for the Yankees in order to re-up with the Braves via a three-year, $30 million deal to remain as closer. He set an NL record with 55 saves in 2002, making the All-Star team and placing third in the Cy Young voting, then followed up with 45 saves, a microscopic 1.12 ERA and an Eckersley-esque 73/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 1/3 innings in 2003.
By then, Atlanta was a team in transition. Glavine had departed for the Mets via free agency after 2002, and Maddux returned to Chicago after 2003. Smoltz saved 44 games as the Braves won 96 times in 2004, but after their third straight first-round exit, he agreed to rejoin the rotation at the team's request, that after having his $12 million option picked up. Though entering his age-38 season, Smoltz pitched as he had a decade earlier, making 100 starts and totaling 667 1/3 innings with a 3.22 ERA (135 ERA+) from 2005-07. He cracked the league's top 10 in pitching WAR in all three years, with a high of 5.9 (third) in 2006, placed third in strikeouts in both 2006 and '07, made a pair of All-Star teams and received down-ballot Cy Young support twice during that stretch. On May 25, 2007, 10 days after his 40th birthday, he outdueled Glavine and the Mets for his 200th win.
As brilliant as ever at the start of the 2008 season, Smoltz delivered a 0.78 ERA through his first four starts, the last two of which featured 10 strikeouts apiece. In the latter, on April 22, he fanned the Nationals' Felipe Lopez for his 3,000th career strikeout, but he lasted just four innings in his next turn, and was soon diagnosed with severe inflammation of his biceps tendon and rotator cuff. After missing five weeks, his June 2 return lasted all of one inning, and conceding that his career could be at its end, he underwent surgery for a torn labrum later that month.
The surgery didn't end his career, but it may as well have. Still unsure of what he might have left, Smoltz chose a one-year deal with the Red Sox over one with the Braves on the basis of more guaranteed money. He didn't make his Boston debut until June 25, and he was released after being tagged for an 8.32 ERA in eight starts. The Cardinals picked him up, and he pitched considerably better, striking out 40 in 38 innings with a 4.26 ERA and then whiffing five in a two-inning bullpen stint in the Division Series. He didn't officially retire, but his acceptance of a booth job with TBS and MLB Network signaled that he was moving on, and indeed, he never pitched again.
From a traditional standpoint, Smoltz has an intriguing case for Cooperstown, with eight All-Star appearances, a Cy Young award, a key role on five pennant winners and 13 division winners and an impeccable October resume. Aided by perennial appearances in the three-tiered playoff format, he's all over the postseason leaderboard: first in strikeouts (199), second in wins (15), third in innings (209), fifth in starts (27) and sixth in appearances (41), all with a 2.67 ERA, two-thirds of a run lower than his regular-season mark. He won "only" 213 games, but that's buffeted by his being the first pitcher to notch 200 wins with 150 saves; Eckersley is just short via his 197 wins. Additionally, Smoltz is 16th all-time in strikeouts at 3,084, with the fifth-highest rate (8.0 per nine) of any pitcher with at least 3,000 innings.
So he should book a hotel for July 26, 2015 in Cooperstown, right? Not so fast. As noted previously in this series, the BBWAA voters have elected just one non-300 win starter in the past 23 election cycles, Bert Blyleven, and it took him 14 years to get in even with 287 wins and 3,701 strikeouts. Membership in the 3,000 strikeout club hasn't been enough for Mussina (270 wins, but just 20.8 percent of the vote in his first year in 2014) or Schilling (216 wins but just 29.2 percent in his second year) to make headway, and that's with the latter having one hell of an October resume himself (11-2, 2.23 ERA in 133 innings, with three rings and a World Series co-MVP award). The three pitchers have comparable ERA+ marks (Schilling 127, Smoltz 125, Mussina 123), but Smoltz has the only Cy Young award among that group. On the other hand, he suffers in comparison to fellow first-year candidates Johnson (five Cys, 303 wins and 4,875 strikeouts) and Martinez (three Cys, 219 wins and 3,154 strikeouts).
WAR and JAWS don't make a strong case for Smoltz either. His 69.5 career WAR is about four wins shy of the average enshrined starter, due in part to his injuries and his time as a reliever; he was worth just 7.5 WAR from 2000 to '04. Still, he's a respectable 34th all-time, ahead of 34 of the 59 starters in Cooperstown. More troubling is that his 38.8 peak WAR bests just 11 of the 59 and is 11.4 wins short of the average. His 54.2 JAWS is 7.6 points below the standard and ranks just 58th among starters, ahead of just 21 of the 59 enshrined. While he wouldn't be a terrible choice for the Hall, the metric suggests that Smoltz would be a below-average one.
It's true that Smoltz scores better than Eckersley (63.0/38.1/50.5) on all three fronts, but the latter had a much more substantial career out of the bullpen, with 390 saves and 807 1/3 innings in that capacity to Smoltz's 154 saves and 251 1/3 innings. Eckersley accrued more value as a reliever, which is why he's measured against that standard, though I'll concede that some of his value as a starter winds up skewing the relief standards.
Given the overstuffed ballot, I could shrug my shoulders and say that Smoltz misses the cut in my eyes without begrudging his eventual enshrinement, as I did with Andre Dawson. But in search of ways to improve my system, I've chosen to view Smoltz as a test case, and I've stumbled upon a reasonable adjustment to my methodology that paints him as a Hall of Famer while acknowledging the unique bifurcation in his career (warning: gory math ahead).
If I throw Eckersley's score out from the relievers, the standards — the average of the other four enshrined relievers — become 35.0 career, 25.7 peak and 30.4 JAWS. By weighing the fraction of Smoltz's and Eckersley's games (not innings) in the two roles using that revised set, as well as the existing standard for starters, we can measure each pitcher against a custom, blended standard.
Before getting to that table, the third pitcher included below is Tom Gordon, another first-year candidate who ranks sixth in reliever JAWS thanks in some part to his 203 starts. The numbers next to each pitcher's blend represent the percentage of his appearances as starter and reliever, which I used in creating their custom standards. Admittedly, this ignores the fact that most enshrined pitchers have experience in both roles, but Hoyt Wilhelm's 52 starts — representing 4.8 percent of his appearances — are the high among the other four relievers, and blends for the four don't move the needle with regards to the JAWS view of them (Wilhem and Goose Gossage above the bar, Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers below).
|SP/RP blend (34/66)||47.7||34.0||40.8|
|SP/RP blend (33/67)||60.0||42.0||51.0|
|SP/RP blend (23/77)||43.6||31.3||37.5|
By that methodology, Eckersley and Smoltz both clear their custom JAWS standards, even with the latter dinged for a below-average peak – albeit one that's not far below — while Gordon falls considerably short. That's a fair bit of contortion, but it squares with the popular perceptions of the three candidates, and may represent an improvement of the system. Combined standards aren't unprecedented in this series. I've compared Biggio against an up-the-middle-standard based on the enshrined players at catcher, second base, shortstop and centerfield because he split his career between catcher, shortstop and the outfield. Because catchers generally don't play every day (at least for long), the position imposes its own limits on WAR-based value, with the average career WAR of the enshrined catchers roughly 25 percent lower than that of the other position players.
Further study of the methodology is in order, but I'm reasonably comfortable with a verdict that Smoltz is Hall-worthy. That isn't to say he's a lock for first-ballot election, or that voters absolutely should move him ahead of Mussina, Schilling or other JAWS-approved worthies, of which there are more than there are spots on a ballot. I'm not sure yet whether I'd include him among my final 10. That's an exercise I'll undertake once I'm through with the remaining candidates on the ballot.