Technically, John Smoltz will enter Cooperstown this summer with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio. But Braves fans will know better.
Instead, Smoltz will simply be entering the Baseball Hall of Fame with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Bobby Cox. Smoltz just had to wait an extra year to get in with others who wore the Braves uniform.
Smoltz became a first-ballot Hall of Famer with his election Tuesday, receiving 82.9% of the vote. It will be the first time since 1955 four players will enter Cooperstown on the same day.
Smoltz might not have been the best pitcher to wear a Braves uniform. He might even tell you that Glavine and Maddux were better. But when it came to the term of being an ‘ace,’ no one filled it better. He was the one you wanted on a mound to start a season, the one you wanted in a big game in September and the one you wanted on the mound to start Game Seven of the World Series.
He was clutch. He might not have won Game Seven of the 1991 World Series, but it definitely wasn’t his fault. He pitched his heart out, which is exactly what Smoltz did every single time he took the mound – whether it was a non-essential game one of a three-game series in May against the Brewers, or a do-or-die game to get the Braves into the playoffs.
All three of ‘the big three’ were competitive as hell. That competitiveness is what made each of them special, whether it was on the pitching mound or on the golf course. But Smoltz was on a different level. He fought for the ball when the game was on the line. That’s why he thrived when he switched roles in midstream and became the elite closer in the game.
Who else could have done that? Think about it. Take the best pitchers of that era – Maddux, Glavine, Martinez, Johnson, Schilling and Clemens. Which one of those six could do what Smoltz did? Maybe Clemens. I doubt Johnson could have, even though his fastball might have hit 106 mph in one inning. But he doesn’t seem to be built go out and there and be a closer.
Smoltz did something not done by many in the history of the game. Sure, he’s the only one with 200 wins and 150 saves, so obviously Smoltz did something unique in the history of the game. That’s why he’s going to the Hall of Fame. His 210 wins alone would probably not get him to Cooperstown, especially on the first ballot. But it’s that transition he made for three-plus seasons that made him even more special than he already was.
The Braves needed a closer. They had gone through the John Rocker fiasco. Smoltz was coming off Tommy John surgery. The thought was they may save his arm if he was a reliever instead of pitching 200 innings every season. So being the team player he was, Smoltz agreed to go to the bullpen.
He was dominating. From the time he took over late in 2001, through the 2004 season, Smoltz was the best closer in the game. It wasn’t even close. Mariano Rivera was tremendous, but if Smoltz had been a closer for his entire career, he might have had more saves than Rivera.
When Smoltz came through that outfield fence from the bullpen, the game was over. The opponent had no chance. And it wasn’t just the stuff, but it was his demeanor that made him so automatic. The look on Smoltz’s face was perfect for someone closing out a game.
But then, when he thought the Braves needed an ace starting pitcher, after Maddux and Glavine had left, Smoltz wanted back in the rotation. He thought the Braves needed that big pitcher in the rotation to get back deep in the playoffs.
I interviewed Smoltz in the winter of 2004, when it was already announced he was headed back to the rotation. I asked him if he had any doubt that he would be successful again as a starting pitcher. Smoltz paused, and then said with a purpose, “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind I can do this.”
It gives me chills writing about it, thinking about how he sounded. He was so determined, even when there were skeptics. People didn’t think his arm would hold up. They thought he would blow his elbow out again after airing it out as a reliever for 241 games. He knew better. He knew he could still start and once again be a top starting pitcher in the game.
And for the next three seasons, from 2005 through 2007, that’s exactly what he was. Smoltz went 44-24 in those three seasons with an ERA of 3.22 in 667.1 innings. In that last season, Smoltz was 40 years old.
Again, who else could have done that, except for John Smoltz?
Dennis Eckersley is the one Smoltz is often compared to, as a pitcher that started his career as a starter and then transitioned to the bullpen. Eckersley was a starting pitcher from 1975 through 1986 – for 12 seasons. Then after he was traded by the Cubs to the A’s (he was almost traded to the Braves, by the way, for Rafael Ramirez), Oakland switched him to the bullpen.
Eckersley became one of the best closers in baseball history, saving 387 games (he had saved three games early in his career with Cleveland) with the A’s and then the Cardinals. But his numbers were nothing like Smoltz’s statistics.
As a reliever, Eckersley had 390 saves in 710 games out of the pen. He had a 2.85 ERA.
As a reliever, Smoltz had 154 saves in 242 games. He had a 2.41 ERA.
But Eckersley was an ordinary starting pitcher. That’s why he became a reliever. Eckersley, as a starter, was 149-130 with a 3.71 ERA in 361 starts. He wasn’t bad, a good middle-of-the-rotation starter, but he wasn’t great.
Smoltz was 209-149 in 481 starts as a starting pitcher with a 3.40 ERA and a Cy Young Award in 1996. He went from being one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, to one of the best closers in baseball and then back to being one of the best starting pitchers in the game for three more years in his late-30s and into his 40s.
That is amazing. The fact he went back to being one of the best starters in the game after he became a closer is just incredible to believe.
And if it wasn’t John Smoltz, we probably wouldn’t have believed it actually happened.
That’s why he is so special. That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smoltz worthy of Hall of Fame vote
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