Now that Rickey got inducted on his first ballot and Mr. Rice slid in on his last, there’s a baseball Hall of Fame story that I don’t understand, and I’d like those knowledgeable fans to help me.
It’s not really a story, per say. It’s more rhetoric than story. Actually, it’s the rhetoric of many baseball talking heads, be it game announcers, or ESPN “insiders.” When it comes Hall of Fame time, every player falls into one of three categories. There are the sure-fire guys, the borderline guys, and the other 99% whose names are never discussed with Cooperstown.
One guy that everyone seems to link in with the “no doubters” is the guy Oriole fans are going to see tonight, John Smoltz. Quite frankly, I just don’t get it. If I had a vote, would I vote for him? Maybe. I might even go far as to say probably. But whatever it is that makes him a stone cold lock is missing from my databanks.
Here’s my theory on Smoltz. It’s like real estate. If you have a pretty nice house, its value is hurt by the neighborhood if all the houses around it are run-down. On the other hand, the house’s value is increased if the neighborhood houses are really nice. Personally, I can’t think of any player in any sport who has benefitted from “his neighborhood” more than Smoltz.
For years in Atlanta, baseball people talked about the three-headed monster. The holy trinity of starting pitchers if you will. But when you look at the numbers of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, these three weren’t equal. In fact, there’s a very clear distinction as to the pecking order. Maddux was the best, by far. Glavine was second, and Smoltz was a very distant third. He may have been the best 3rd starter in baseball history, but when talking about these three pitchers, he was clearly the last of the bunch.
I’ll give you a quiz. How many times did Smoltz enter the season as a starting pitcher? OK, that answer is 18. Now, how many of those 18 seasons as a starter, did he win 18 or more games? I’m not saying 18 is the end all, be all, but if you’re a top pitcher in your league, a guy who’s supposed to be a first ballot inductee, you should be up around 18 or 19 or 20 on a regular basis, right? Well, Smoltz won 18 or more games exactly one time. That’s it, his Cy Young season. A season in which he won 24 games but not only didn’t he lead the league in ERA, he didn’t even lead his own team. I’ll get back to the ERA thing in a minute, but just for comparison’s sake, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, who are seen as a borderline, hall of fame guys, won 18 games or more six times and three times respectively. Heck, you can even take guys who aren’t included in the Cooperstown talks. David Wells, Jamie Moyer and Andy Pettitte all have multiple seasons of winning 18 or more. Again, I’m not saying Smoltz wasn’t good, but it’s curious that he didn’t win more. I mean, winning games in the big leagues is hard to do, but great pitchers find a way to do it. Even guys who were just good pitchers seemed to do it more than Smoltz.
OK, back to the ERA. Another quiz. How many times do you think Smoltz ended up in the top three in his league in ERA? Answer…..none. That’s right, not ever. Again, for comparisons sake, Mussina finished in the top three in ERA four times, Schilling twice, but Smoltz, not even once.
So he didn’t win as much as other guys, he didn’t give up fewer runs than the other guys. Again, I’m at a loss. At least as a starter.
As a reliever, he was great. Better than people think. In his three seasons as closer for the Braves, Smoltz saved 144 games. By comparison, Mariano Rivera’s best three-year rolling total was ’03-’05 when he saved 136. That means, Smoltz’s only three-year stretch, outdid any of Mo’s three-year stretches. That’s pretty good. In fact, if you cherry picked Mo’s best three seasons out of his thirteen years as a closer, you’d find that save total would be 148. Yes, by comparing him to the Yankee legend, we see how tough Smoltz was coming out of the pen.
So is that what they’re talking about? Whenever people mention Smoltz as a sure-fire Hall of Famer, is it because of his success as both a starter and a reliever? I guess it has to be. But again, when you figure the guy entered the season as a starter 18 times, and entered the season as a reliever 3 times, then, for all intents and purposes, he’s a starter.
To take the analysis even one step further, Smoltz was the Braves best post-season pitcher. Those numbers are much better than people think as well. Significantly better than the numbers of “post-season legends” like Jack Morris and Andy Pettitte.
OK, 211 wins 154 saves, one title, one Cy Young. Is the enough for enshrinement? I would probably say “yes,” eventually, but saying he’s a definite is a disservice to the other definites, IMHO.
So anyway, while you’re watching Smoltz on the mound tonight, if the guy behind the microphone talks about his John’s future in Cooperstown, send an email and ask him exactly what it is about him that makes him a lock. And then ask him if it’s possible for Smoltz to pitch his way out of the Hall, because whether it’s possible or not, with a 1-4 record and ERA of 7.04, it looks like he’s trying.