Nobody has ever been unanimously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Even those like Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, whose production and legend place them in a totally different stratosphere, didn’t receive 100 percent support for their enshrinement. Thus, the annual ballot typically has a number of candidates whose merits are the fodder for furious debate, trying to prove who is over and who is short of the imaginary line that establishes who is a Hall of Famer and who is just another retired player. One member of the 2015 ballot that falls into this category is pitcher John Smoltz, who perhaps has the most interesting case of anyone in this year’s class.
Let’s get a few bits of business out of the way. First, early indications are that Smoltz will likely receive the requisite 75 percent of the votes needed for enshrinement when the results are announced on January 6, 2015. Second, I personally believe he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Having watched him since he began his career, he passes my eye test. There is no set standard or authoritative voice that determines who is in and who is out. Accordingly, let’s break down his case a bit more to see what the statistics, anecdotes and other shreds of evidence used in such arguments have to say.
Played- 1988-2009 (except for 2000, which he sat out with injury) for the Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.
Career Statistics- 213-155, 3.33 ERA in 723 games (481 starts), 53 complete games, 16 shutouts, 154 saves, 3,084 strikeouts, 3,473 innings pitched.s started (thrice); innings pitched (twice); strikeouts (twice); saves (once).
Awards/Recognitions- Eight-time All Star; won 1996 National League Cy Young Award; four other top-10 Cy Young finishes; 1997 Silver Slugger Award; 1992 National League NLCS MVP; 2002 National League Rolaids Relief Award; 2005 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award (player who best personifies Gehrig’s character and integrity on and off the field); 2005 Roberto Clemente Award (good play combined with outstanding work in the community); 2007 Branch Rickey Award (community service recognition).
It seems that with a record this varied and accomplished, one would be hard-pressed to dismiss the right-handers candidacy out of hand. However, he doesn’t have the same straight-forward case as most players. He missed significant time (probably close to three full seasons-worth) because of injury; bounced between starting and closing; never hit any major benchmarks (300 wins, no pitching triple crowns, only three seasons with at least 15 wins, etc); and was often considered his team’s third starter (pitching with Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in Atlanta).
That all being said, Smoltz has an incredibly sound foundation of a Hall of Fame resume built brick by brick during his lengthy career, including:
*Despite being a third starter in name, he was far from that in actuality. With the kind of talent the Braves had in their starting rotation, there couldn’t be three number one starters. Smoltz, who threw a fastball (in the mid-90s), a devastating slider, split, changeup and curveball very well may have had the best overall pure stuff between himself and his vaunted rotation mates.
*He was a playoff beast. Although he only played on one World Series winning team (1995 Atlanta Braves), he pitched in a whopping 25 series during his career, going a combined 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA, four saves and 199 strikeouts in 209 innings. He appears on the all-time postseason leader board for many categories, including the most strikeouts of any pitcher.
*The path Smoltz’s career took was unprecedented. Between 1989-1999, he won 155 games and was widely considered among the best starters in the game. He had Tommy John surgery, missed the entire 2000 season, returned to partial duty in 2001, and then became a full-time closer the next three years, compiling astounding totals of 144 saves and a 2.47 ERA.
Amazingly, his ability to adjust did not end in the bullpen, as he was made a starter once again at the age of 38. From 2006-2008, he rang up 44 wins, a 3.22 ERA and 667.3 innings. He also had to endure a half-dozen other surgeries at various times during his career, making one wonder if he was made out of some sort of new-aged titanium material rather than flesh and bone.
The only pitcher that comes to mind with a similar career is Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who also successfully converted from starting to relieving. However, Eck did not have to overcome serious injury. He did battle alcoholism, and also never went back to starting once he joined the bullpen. He and Smoltz remain the only pitchers in major league history to have both a 20-win and a 50-save season.
Smoltz’s ability to not only persevere but thrive through the physical and mental roadblocks each transition must have taken is remarkable. That alone should give him his own definable niche among Hall-of-Fame inductees.
*Although Smoltz’s counting stats might not be as great as others in the Hall, they are more formidable than they might first appear.
According to BaseballReference.com, his 66.5 career WAR is 39th all-time among pitchers. He is also 16th in strikeouts, 22nd in adjusted pitching wins (33.9), 10th in win probability added (40.5), and tied with the likes of Lefty Grove and Jim Palmer for 64th with a 125 ERA+—meaning he was 25 percent better than the league average pitcher.
*Character, or alleged lack thereof, is something often used as a weapon against Hall of Fame candidates. The reverse is rarely true but if it was, Smoltz would have that box emphatically filled in with No. 2 pencil.
According to the BBWAA voting criteria, character is literally something that should be taken into account when considering candidates— “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Smoltz is a first-ballot good guy who has few superiors in that department.
Ultimately, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a museum capturing the best moments, players and contributors in the game’s history. Just to be considered is an actual honor but there will always be a debate over who belongs, who doesn’t and why. After playing this rationalization game with Smoltz’s career there should be no argument other than acknowledging the man better look into flight and accommodation reservations for Cooperstown, New York in late July, 2015.
Statistics obtained from BasebalReference.com
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