#6: John Smoltz

See the 44 Greatest Atlanta Braves here.

Righthanded Pitcher
Seasons With Braves: 1988-2006
Stats With Braves: 193-137, 3.27 ERA, 154 Sv

The Tigers drafted John, a local boy, in the 22nd round in 1985. Three years later he was in a big league rotation, which can’t be too common for a 22nd round pick. The Cube‘s minor league stats show him pitching at high-A Lakeland in 1986, then having trouble in AA and AAA the next year; I don’t know how to interpret this, and it would be unusual for a high-school player to start off in high-A, so I’m guessing there’s some mistake. Anyway, the Tigers were in a stretch run, so they sent off a struggling pitching prospect for veteran anchor Doyle Alexander, who pitched them to the division title in 1987. I hope Bobby gave whichever scout picked Smoltz as the man to get a raise.

John got in one start in Richmond in 1987, then went 10-5 with a 2.79 ERA there in 1988, earning a callup. His rookie season was nothing to brag about, but in 1989 he was great, going 12-11 (remember, this was a team that went 63-97 and was 11th in the league runs scored) with a 2.94 ERA; he made the All-Star team because someone had to, but it was a deserving pick. In 1990, he slid back to a little above-average, which still made him one of the best players on the team after Justice and Gant.

One of the remarkable things about the 1991 team is that for much of the season Smoltz, the team’s #1 starter (he was the opening day pitcher and clearly the best pitcher on the team coming in, his only competition being Leibrandt) was awful. At the end of July, he was 6-12 with a 5.47 ERA. There was a well-publicized visit to a sports psychologist; I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but Smoltz did his best Doyle Alexander for the Tigers imitation down the stretch, going 8-2 with a 1.49 ERA from August to October, and pitching a complete-game for the clincher. In the postseason, he won two games in the NLCS (and as a batter had a hit and a walk, and even stole a base) and of course pitched brilliantly in two no-decisions in the World Series.

In 1992 John pitched well from the get-go, going 15-12 with a 2.85 ERA. He’d thrown a lot of innings in these formative years, this time 246 2/3, third in the league. Bobby didn’t have a lot of faith in his bullpen compared to his starters at this time, and said starters got ridden hard. Glavine didn’t have any problems, but John faded a bit the next two years, and of course Avery was never the same. On top of the regular season load, Smoltz started three games in the NLCS, going 2-0 (the no-decision being the clincher) with a 2.66 ERA, and 1-0 in two starts in the World Series. At this stage, John was 5-0 with an ERA in the low twos in postseason.

Smoltz started having elbow problems at about this time, having thrown a ton of innings over the last few seasons and still being a workhorse. In 1993, he went 15-11 but with a 3.62 ERA, and he lost his first postseason game, on unearned runs, in the NLCS. In 1994 he had a bit of a lost season — but who didn’t, in 1994? — 6-10 with a 4.14 ERA that was a bit below the league average. Right before the strike, or right after it started, he had bone chips removed from his elbow.

He came back strong in 1995, 12-7 with a 3.18 ERA. The Braves, as you probably know, had a ridiculously good pitching staff at the time and particularly in 1995, when Maddux and Glavine were the two best pitchers in baseball and Smoltz by far the best #3 starter. The team allowed almost half a run a game less than the Dodgers, the second-best pitching staff. Smoltz for once didn’t pitch well in postseason, but Maddux and Glavine made sure it didn’t matter.

Smoltz could still have seemed something of a disappointment; he had never won more than 15 games in a season or received a single Cy Young Award vote. And then in 1996 he had what I call a misprint season, one completely unlike everything else in his career to date. 24-8, 2.94 ERA, 276 strikeouts, a Cy Young Award. He was back to his dominating ways in postseason, 4-1 in five dominant starts.

He didn’t get the run support in 1997, but still pitched exceptionally well, winding up with 15 wins, again, on a 3.02 ERA. But he had a bad start in the NLCS and didn’t get a chance to fix it. The elbow problems came back hard in 1998 and 1999, but he pitched very well when he could get out there. He went 17-3 the first year, which was really a fluke; the next year he was just about as good and pitched just about as much, but went only 11-8. He was due some luck, anyway.

But it was bad luck; John tried to pitch in spring of 2000 but wound up having Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2000 season. He tried to come back as a starter in 2001, but was shut down after being ineffective. When he came back, he was moved into the bullpen, and saved ten games down the stretch. In 2002 he set an NL record with 55 saves, though his ERA was inflated by one terrible outing against the Mets early in the season. That game might have cost him a Cy Young; he was still third in the voting. In 2003, John saved 45 games with a 1.12 ERA; this time he might have won the Cy Young if he hadn’t missed time down the stretch. And in 2004, he saved 44 games and moved past Gene Garber as the franchise record holder.

After the season, he managed to talk the Braves into moving him back into the bullpen. Unfortunately, to do this they traded Jose Capellan for Dan Kolb, but that’s not John’s doing. He succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest expectations, going 14-7 with a 3.06 ERA, eighth in the league, with the fifth-highest number of innings. The Braves didn’t want him to pitch that much, but they had to because he was holding the staff together. He couldn’t keep the staff together in 2006, as the Braves finally lost the division, but had another terrific season, 16-9 with a 3.49 ERA. The 16 wins were enough to lead the league, as were his 35 starts. If the bullpen hadn’t been so awful, he might have gotten his second twenty-win season.

So, the Hall of Fame. Barring another major injury, John should get his 200th win this season. Dennis Eckersley had 197, so John would become the first 200-win, 150-save man. He isn’t really comparable to Eckersley, but then again he isn’t really comparable to anyone. The people he comes up as similar to are mostly starting pitchers of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s who (other than Phil Niekro) came up short of Hall of Fame consideration. However (a) many of them were active in a slighly lower offensive era, and (b) none of them have a three-year run as a dominant closer. Also, Sim Scores look only at regular season stats and ignore this “season”:

207 IP, 40 G, 27 Starts, 15-4, 4 Svs, 2.65 ERA, 194 K/67 BB

That’s his career postseason line. 15-4 with a 2.65 ERA against the best teams in baseball.

However, John lacks one thing that the Hall voters go for, and that’s big seasons; he’s only won 20 games once. It’s a monster season, 24 wins and a Cy Young, together with four wins and an NLCS MVP in postseason. But it’s so good that it looks like a fluke next to the 15 win seasons. He’s never won an ERA title, or finished higher than fourth, though he does have two strikeout titles. He has only 34 Black Ink points, which is on the low side for a Hall of Famer. I think that if he get to 225 wins he’ll have a good shot.

John Smoltz Statistics – Baseball-Reference.com

42 thoughts on “#6: John Smoltz”

  1. Kei Igawa: Plan B To Matsuzaka?
    It appears that both the Mets and Yankees were scouting 27 year-old lefty Kei Igawa Tuesday night against the MLB All-Stars. He’ll be an option for teams looking overseas for pitching that are reluctant to break the bank. However, David Wright was not impressed:

    “Asked if Igawa’s pitches were major-league quality, Wright hedged a bit.

    ‘I just don’t know,’ Wright said. ‘I’d have to see him when he’s in midseason form. You send a guy up there after a month layoff and you can’t get a handle on a guy. But as far as a lefty goes, he has a sneaky fastball. I thought he threw, for a lefty, an average to above-average fastball, an above-average changeup, and his slider was a little flat. But with a month off, who knows? Could be any number of reasons.’

  2. I think if Smoltz stays with the Braves to finish out his carrer that would boost his HOF chances. Another 20 win season would help too.

  3. Those 35 Black Ink points make him the 45th best pitcher ever by those standards.

    Mac is I’m sure aware, but doesn’t mention, that he does a lot better on other HOF “tests.” HOF Monitor has him at 142 (44th best pitcher ever), when a “likely” HOFer is 100. HOF Standards has him at 41 (65th best pitcher ever), when average HOF is 50. The former is Bill James’ shorthand for probability of selection, the latter is deserving of selection. And the “Standards” test doesn’t even count reliever stats at all!

    He’s going in.

  4. My favorite Brave, by a long shot. Another consideration for Smoltz going into the HOF is that he is widely perceived to be one of the highest-character guys in all of baseball, year-in and year-out. This matters because the character of the potential inductee is part of the criteria for induction, according to the official guidelines. Of course, judgment of character is entirely subjective, but Smoltz wins awards to back this up. If speculation that McGwire, Sosa and Palmiero’s recently exposed flaws of character may cost them HOF votes, Smoltz’s near-universal high regard should sway close votes in his direction. I hope he plays his entire career in Atlanta.

  5. Nice write up on a great Brave. Smoltz is really not like anybody, but HOF is about much more than career stats. Smoltz’s career stats are likely to be impressive anyway–they just will not fit into an easy pigeonhole. I am proud to say that I saw his first game at Shea in 1988 and I am looking foward to seeing him inducted the HOF.

  6. I originally had it 5. Smoltz 6. Glavine. But I looked and looked and finally decided I couldn’t justify that. Yes, John gets a lot of credit for postseason, but at the same time Glavine was a World Series MVP! While his overall postseason numbers aren’t as good, when the Braves actually won it all it was Glavine who won it. And for regular season, it’s really no contest.

  7. My gut tells me that he’ll make the HOF.

    In the eyes of voters, I believe, he’ll be viewed as a “compiler” of impressive & unique career numbers. His post-seasons, however, will put him over the top.

    FWIW, I’ve said it before, but Smoltz, more than any other Brave from this era, is most respected by rival fans. It’s due, mostly, to his post-season performance.

  8. The Braves chose Smoltz. And they chose correctly it turns out. I figured that Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz would pitch into their 40’s but I thought that Maddux had a better chance of being above average at that age than Glavine who had the outside corner taken away or Smoltz who was an aging power pitcher with a history of arm troubles. Shows you how much I know. Before anyone goes into the forbidden topic I realize that Smoltz chose us by spurning New York but the Braves did offer a very generous contract to him after that one had run out. Way more than they offered Glavine and they didn’t even make one to Maddux after his arbitration surprise. If Smoltz continues to age as gracefully has he has then I think he is a shoo in for the HOF.

  9. I’m not sure how much credit we can give the Braves for acquiring Smoltz in the first place. Granted, they were going to trade Doyle Alexander but as the story goes, which is covered well in the book Scout’s Honor, they Braves wanted Steve Searcy from the Tigers because he was left handed, and was a much higher draft pick, but they were told no and had to “settle” for Smoltz. Funny how things work out sometime.

  10. Will Smoltz make the Hall of Fame? I don’t think so.

    Why not? Where does he rank among contemporary pitchers? There are two no-brainers with tremendous peaks and tremendously long careers, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. Then there are two pitchers whose peaks leave Smoltz in the dust and have basically as much or more career value, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. Tom Glavine has one more Cy Young and 100 more wins. Curt Schilling has basically the same overall record, more big seasons, and an equally good post-season record. David Cone is basically the same as Smoltz but a few years older. Mike Mussina has more wins, is more durable, and has the same ERA+. Mix up Kevin Browns stats with Smotlz’s in a random order, and I’ll be most fans here couldn’t pick out who is who. And you’ve got relievers like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.

    Looking through that list, Smoltz is somewhere between #7 and #12 in likelihood of making the Hall. It is very rare to have an era in which there are half a dozen contemporary pitchers all selected to Cooperstown. Great pitcher with brief periods where he was superlative. But missed too much of his peak years with various elbow woes for induction into Cooperstown.

  11. bamadan,

    You make a great argument.

    That all may be true, but I’m not sure how it has anything to do with Smoltz’s unique accomplishments. Maybe most of those guys deserve to get in, too. I’m looking more at what turns on the voters, and I think Smoltz passes that test.

    Mussina or Cone may have been better starters, but they don’t have his post-season record or almost-off-the-charts bullpen success. I bet they don’t get in.

    Johnson & Pedro are HOFers–it’s not even a debate. Rivera? Same thing. Hoffman? I’d put him in, but others may not.

    The Kevin Brown analogy is a good one. But again, he doesn’t have Smoltz’s bullpen history or the post-season. He had some dominant starts in the post-season, but overall his numbers aren’t that good. He’ll never get in for reasons more than his numbers.

    Which brings me to Curt Schilling. HOFer? Helluva debate. I don’t know. Great post-seasons; we’re talking 8-2 with a 2.06 ERA in legendary situations. Without him, the Phils don’t get to the WS; without him, the D-Backs or Sox don’t win. That goes a long way in my book. He’s had more big seasons than Smoltz, but he sucked in the bullpen (not that it really matters, but we’re comparing him with Smoltz).

    I guess we’ll leave that debate for the Sons of Sam Horn.

  12. Not to get off topic but a trade went down that could affect the Braves in a big way.

    Trade:
    Padres – Josh Barfield

    Indians – Kevin Kouzmanoff
    – Andrew Brown

    With Barfield now in Cleveland that frees up 2nd base for the hometown boy Marcus Giles. Giles has always wanted to play with his older brother and now he could have that chance. Question for us is who (besides Peavy…ha,nice wish) do we try and realistically get for Giles. Or do we hold onto him and send him someplace else?

  13. My gut tells me that Smoltz won’t get in. Had he posted those postseason numbers in NY he would, but not for ATL> Again, just my gut. But I think Mac’s right, fi he can get over 220 wins then it changes. Then I think he gets in.

    I know you likely did the cutoff on ERA and because you think W/L numbers are weak, but that turnaround in 1991 – he started out 2-11 and then went 12-2. But you are right htat the start of that win streak wasn’t really the start of effective pitching. Good call.

    Truthfully, I always thought Smoltz was bluffing the Braves with his “offer” from new York, but I guess they decided not to call that bluff. I thought his community ties would keep him here. It’s worked out fine, but Smoltz was fairly intent on getting market value after thinking he didn’t on his previous contract (even though he was injured for a large chunk of it).

    Good call on the ranking, btw. It is close, but I think you got the relative positions of Glavine and Smoltz correct.

  14. Smoltz is my favorite Brave, but Giles is second….the Braves do not need to deal Marcus, especially for an overrated middle reliever like Linebrink! Why is Giles not being considered for a long-term deal in Atlanta, unless he has assured Schuerholz & co. he does not intend to re-sign? What a shame…

  15. I am really, really bad at evaluating clubs’ interest in trade and the way they– as opposed to me — value players. But the Padres have both Chris Young and Clay Hensley, two good young starters, in addition to Peavy. I’m not sure who else on their ML roster WE would be interested in …

  16. some sources say Peavy is possibly available, I dont see how. If he is at all, I say we put our eggs in the basket and send Salty, Giles, and another for Peavy. If not, Giles for Linebrink sounds good.

    I bet we also get FA, Williamson, to be in our pen. Williamson, Linebrink, Wickman. Is a stong combo.

    The other sources are Giles for Byrd or Westbrook, but there isnt a vacancy there now!

  17. Interesting that Smoltz’s body has held up better than Schilling’s, as they both edge toward 40. Schilling and Smoltz both started their careers as occasionally dominant, occasionally inconsistent flamethrowers, usually in the shadow of someone else until they finally got the chance to anchor a rotation in their late 30s. Both of their careers were marked by a general failure to live up to expectations until they hit the wrong side of 30. (Schilling’s 3 20-win seasons came at ages 34, 35, and 37. Smoltz’s came at 29.) Schill was dominant for some terrible Phillies teams (though occasionally Terry Mullholland was the #1 instead of him), then in the shadow of Randy Johnson; Smoltz always had Tommy and Mad Dog.

    I give Smoltz the edge because of his incredible bullpen success and his unreal playoff career, and the fact that over the next couple years Smoltz may well be better than Schilling, as he has been in the last couple.

  18. #17, I think there are about $5.5 million reasons why Giles is leaving. I like him too, but we need pitching of any kind and that also free’s up some cash for other needs. Now that Giles is injury prone and is going to be an FA after this year, it makes it a perfect time to get rid of him!

  19. just read this also,

    Padres also announced that they have hired former Angels pitching coach Bud Black as their new manager

  20. anyone think this could be a very bad idea…???

    A free-agent market thin on five-tool players could grow stronger if Dodgers outfielder J.D. Drew opts out of his contract. Drew, who turns 31 on Nov. 20, must decide by Friday whether to void the final three years and $33 million on his current deal.

    While Drew seems content with the Dodgers, his agent, Scott Boras, generally prefers his clients to determine their values on the open market.

  21. @24 yes its a bad idea. We could use a REAL corner outfielder but our pitching needs are greater. Scoring runs last season wasn’t the issue, run prevention was. Drew is most valuable in right or center. We already have players there. If he is crazy enough to turn down 33 guarenteed million on Scott Bora’s advice then he is going to ask for 15 or 16 per season. The Braves won’t pay that for a corner OF.

    Man y’all are all so right. Giles is a goner. He was before the Padres traded Barfield. I don’t understand it unless Bobby just doesn’t like him. Second basemen that can hit .285/.361/.448 don’t grow on trees.

  22. #26, Johnny, I dont want JD back nor do I want the Braves to consider that at all. I was just saying that its a bad idea for JD to opt out of his contract where he is guaranteed $33 mil. I dont think anyone in their right mind would do that. That’s just Boras’ mindset though….

    I agree, we should only focus on pitching at this point

  23. #26 also, Giles isnt on anyone’s bad side or anything. I think everyone in the clubhouse likes him, but lets face it he’s one of the few pieces we have that can bring us a bigger need in return. Also, there is the $$$ side of things and $5.5-6 mil for a .285, losing power, 2nd baseman is something we need. The question isn’t if, but when will he be traded. I’m sure one of our 4 replacements will be good enough. KJ, Orr, Prado, Aybar

  24. Giles is gone. Done deal. That’s the first thing I thought when I saw the headline. Barfield gone, Giles in.

    Linebrink, though? Not enough for an All-Star caliber second baseman. I’m in the camp that you don’t trade above-average everyday players for bullpen arms, which are highly inconsistent from year-to-year.

  25. There are just too many other potential middle infielders in the system, although I’m somewhat skeptical about Linebrink. I guess he’ll have to do.

    Interesting to see Andrew Brown traded again – he was originally a Brave draft pick, included in the Gary Sheffield deal to LA, then shipped to CLE for Milton Bradley, and finally ending up in SD. Maybe we can get him back (along with Linebrink) for Giles!

  26. Linebrink and salary relief. keep in mind Linebrink only makes 1.5 and Giles will be a lot more. Who knows how good it will be for us, but it will give us some extra cash for another arm or maybe the leadoff that we need!

  27. Moving Campbell to 2nd is interesting; I always figured he’d be the one to take over for Chipper. But, I don’t really know a whole lot about him except that I’ve seen his stats and that I like him.

    Giles is definitely gone now, and while I like him, his play doesn’t justify his salary anymore. I think getting Linebrink in return and also saving money is a good deal. We’ll be OK at 2nd. ‘Course, now that we’re all speculating on this, watch something completely different happen. :)

    Good call on Smoltz/Glavine, too. Smoltzie has become one of my favorite Braves in the years since Maddux and Glavine left, but I think Glavine rates just a bit above him on this list.

  28. Smoltzie-HOF-Yes!
    Despite any viable statistical analysis, the HOF is still an incredibly subjective decsion. I’ve had Bill James’ book for years and I still believe that the only thing that matters is that a preponderence of voters believes John belongs there.
    All I can remember is how many times over the last 15 years John made the other team look helpless. How he accepted the move to the bullpen and then excelled. He came so close to winning a Cy Young as both a starter and reliever.
    With all that said, he’s clearly a great guy outside of baseball.
    What a pleasure it’s been to root for John Smoltz!

  29. Anyone else surprised the Braves only picked up Smoltz’s option and didn’t try to work out a 2 yr extension? esp at the going rate of pitching on the FA market.

    Smoltz gets a big boost to his HOF chances cos Eck made it FIRST BALLOT.
    but I am with Mac on this. atleast 2 more good seasons needed to push him over the hump..

  30. With all that said, he’s clearly a great guy outside of baseball.

    Because Mac has asked that this not be a political blog, I will refrain from discussing it at length, but I believe that a person who compares homosexuality to beastiality is not what I’d call a “clearly great guy.”

  31. @38
    Since you’re probably not prepared to provide us with a link to a direct quote then it’s probably not worth bringing up here.

    I don’t know John Smoltz so he could be a jerk, but i know a few people I would call “great guys”. Should it matter if their opinions that run counter to my own? You don’t see many widely-known jerks winning Roberto Clemente awards.

    Yes, Smoltz for the hall!

  32. @38
    Since you’re probably not prepared to provide us with a link to a direct quote then it’s probably not worth bringing up here.

    When asked about homosexual unions, Smoltz’s direct quote was, “What’s next, marrying an animal?”

    It was originally quoted in an AP article on July 3, 2004. I can’t link to the original article, but I can provide a link to an article that quotes the original AP article:

    http://www.washblade.com/2004/7-16/news/national/mlb.cfm

  33. Actually, Clemente could be a bit of a jerk at times, too.

    And he didn’t win any Roberto Clemente awards either.

    Badump-bump :)

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