Friday, March 25, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #25: John Smoltz

I can't think of another player who had a career quite like John Smoltz had. He was a 22nd round draft pick, not the sort of player who seems destined to even make the Major Leagues, much less star there. In his first full season he was an All-Star, and he eventually won a Cy Young. A serious injury sidelined him for a full season though, and then not long after his return, he was moved to the bullpen. Almost immediately he became one of the best closers in the game. Then, after a few years in that role, he shifted back to the starting rotation, and was almost every bit as good as he had been a decade earlier. That's not taking the road less traveled, it's using a machete to carve out a new path entirely.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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Smoltz is known for is having been traded to the Braves by the Tigers for veteran Doyle Alexander when Detroit late during the 1987 season. That trade is often held up as a prime example for the dangers of trading prospects for veterans. Given that Smoltz would go on to become one of the best pitchers of his (or any) era, with hindsight it's easy to say the Tigers got the worst of it. At the time though, the Tigers were absolutely right to make that deal. Alexander posted a 1.53 ERA and a 9-0 record for them as they won the division by just two games. Without Alexander, they probably would have missed the postseason, instead they entered it as favorites to win the World Series.

Meanwhile, Smoltz was not a top prospect. He was in Double-A at the time of the trade, with a 5.68 ERA, not many strikeouts, and a whopping 81 walks in 130 innings, which works out to 5.61 per 9 innings. (For context, that exactly matches the worst walk rate by any pitcher with 1500+ career innings in MLB history). He was young for that level, but the former 22nd-round pick understandably was not viewed as a blue chip talent. If you can turn that caliber of minor leaguer into a guy who posts a 1.53 ERA while going undefeated as your team wins the division, you should do it.

With hindsight though, yeah, you hate to have given John Smoltz away.

Almost immediately after the trade, Smoltz began putting up numbers that would earn him a quick promotion and spot on the All-Star team. The following year, having been promoted to Triple-A, Smoltz cut his walk rate by nearly 60%, to 2.46 per 9 innings. He allowed fewer hits and home runs as well, while his strikeout rate shot up. On July 23, 1988, less than a year after the trade, Smoltz was called up to make his Major League debut. The following year he was part of the Braves' rotation right from the start. By midseason he was 11-6 with a 2.10 ERA and a spot on his first NL All-Star team.

Two years after that, in 1991, the Braves shocked baseball by going from the worst record in baseball to 94 wins and the NL East crown. Smoltz pitched a shutout in Game 7 of the NLCS, then pitched 7.1 shutout innings in Game 7 of the World Series. Smoltz's postseason dominance would continue throughout his career. He pitched a total of 209 postseason innings, with a fantastic 2.67 ERA, giving him an extra season's worth of excellence in the most demanding of circumstances. Postseaosn numbers aren't counted as part of a player's career totals, but it's wrong to ignore the significance of those games. Only five pitchers have 150+ postseason innings, and none of the others had an ERA within half a run of Smoltz's.

For all his individual accomplishments, Smoltz is often remembered as part of a trio (or sometimes quadrant) of great pitchers, with teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Glavine won the NL Cy Young in 1991, and then Maddux won the next four (the first of them with the Cubs, before joining Atlanta). In 1996 it was finally Smoltz's turn, as he turned in the best season of his career, leading the league in innings, wins, and FIP. Smoltz was almost as good again in 1997, and pitched more than 250 innings for the second year in a row. The mileage began to catch up with him in 1998 though, and while he continued to pitch well, he missed a number of starts for a couple years before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery.

That operation led to him missing the entire 2000 season, and struggling somewhat after his return in 2001, he moved to the bullpen, taking over as the team's closer by the end of the season, Thus began one of the better stretches by any closer in baseball history. From 2002-2004, Smoltz saved 144 games, second-best in baseball, and had a 2.47 ERA, one of the lowest figures in the league. He was listed on MVP ballots for each of those seasons.

At that point, one could have used Dennis Eckersley as a reasonable comparison for Smoltz. Both were All-Star starters who went on to become All-Star closers. Smoltz was a much better starter, and Eck had a much longer stretch of success out of the bullpen, but there were certainly enough similarities to put them together.

Then 2005 rolled around, and Smoltz (weeks from his 38th birthday) was moved back into the starting rotation. He was shelled on Opening Day, but quickly found his footing. He made the All-Star team and was basically every bit as good as he had been a decade earlier. He had another two great seasons after that before his career wound down. A late-round draft pick given away for a few weeks of an established pitcher turned great starter, turned top-flight closer, turned very good starter again, with postseason excellence throughout his career.

Oft-remembered as part of a group, Smoltz was fantastic in his own right, and fantastic in a way perhaps no other pitcher in Major League history can claim.

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