A quick glance at the pitching record of John Smoltz
would not convince you that he is a potential Hall of Fame inductee. John Smoltz has a career won-loss mark of 189-134, a decent record but not Cooperstown worthy in itself. However, if one looks a little further they would notice that John Smoltz has a career earned run average of 3.26, outstanding in today’s high scoring age. They would find out that John Smoltz has recorded over 150 saves, and shares the National League standard for saves in a single season with 55. John Smoltz has been awarded a Cy Young, a Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Award, a Silver Slugger for his position, and holds numerous Atlanta Braves records. But to me, the binding tie that elevates John Smoltz to his place among the game’s greatest ever is the fact that while pitching under the intense pressure of the post-season, John Smoltz sports a record of 15-4!
Coming over to the Braves in an August of 1987 trade for Doyle Alexander, John Smoltz had been a product of the Detroit farm system. He was selected low in the amateur draft of 1985 because there was concern that the two-sport standout from Lansing, Michigan’s Waverly High School might attend Michigan State to play basketball. But John Smoltz chose baseball instead, and has played every game of his 18 years in the majors as a member of the Atlanta Braves. His success came slowly at first, but once John Smoltz learned to stay calm and within himself on the mound, he began to dominate National League hitters. John Smoltz rebounded from a 2-7 rookie campaign to go 12-11 in 1989, striking out 168 batters and being named to the first of seven All-Star squads.
Perpetually a victim of poor run support, John Smoltz did not have a real breakout year until he posted a 24-8 record in 1996. But despite his less than overwhelming winning percentage during the early 1990s, John Smoltz pitched exceptionally well. He struck out over a batter an inning for the combined 1992 and 1993 seasons, and when the Braves went to the playoffs in 1991, it was John Smoltz who carried them to the World Series. Against the Pirates in the National League Championship Series, John Smoltz went 2-0, winning Game Three 10-3 and shutting out Pittsburgh 4-0 in Game Seven. He hooked up with Jack Morris in a legendary Game Seven in the World Series, matching the Twins’ stalwart goose egg for goose egg before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the seventh inning of an eventual heartbreaking 1-0 loss.
In 1992, back in the World Series after winning two games against the Pirates once more over a seven game thriller, John Smoltz won Game Five after his bullpen blew a lead and lost Game Two to the Blue Jays. Atlanta went down in six games, but John Smoltz was building the reputation of being a big-game hurler. Ironically, in the only World Series the Braves have won during their incredible run of division titles, the 1995 Fall Classic, John Smoltz pitched poorly, but Atlanta beat the Indians in six games.
Featuring a fastball that routinely reaches the high nineties, a wicked slider, and a split finger pitch that makes batters flail and miss, John Smoltz has an impressive arsenal of pitches. This was never more evident than in 1996, when he captured his Cy Young Award. John Smoltz went 24-8 with 6 complete games, fanned 276 batters in 254 innings, and pitched to a 2.94 ERA. He went 4-1 in the playoffs, his only loss an epic Game Five in the World Series against the Yankees and Andy Pettite, by a score of 1-0. After a 15-12 season in 1997, John Smoltz went a sparkling 17-3 in 1998. His last World Series appearance came in 1999, as the Braves were swept by the Yankees. John Smoltz pitched predictably well in his game, allowing 3 runs but striking out 11 in Game Four.
Elbow problems caused John Smoltz to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2000, and he missed the entire season. When he came back in 2001, Atlanta decided to move him to the bullpen late in the season to become their closer. He threw in just 20 games that year, but showed he was capable with 10 saves. John Smoltz then proceeded to set the NL record for most saves in a year in 2002, when he converted 55 chances, a record since equaled by Eric Gagne of the Dodgers. John Smoltz saved over 40 games in each of the next two years before returning to the starting rotation out of necessity to help the Braves. He went 14-7 in 2005 and has gone 12-6 so far in 2006. At the age of 39, John Smoltz shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
John Smoltz holds the Braves’ record for wins in a season with 24 in 1996, saves in a season with 55, most strikeouts in a season with 276, and most saves in a career with 154 in just three-plus seasons. A solid hitter for a hurler, John Smoltz won the Silver Slugger for a pitcher in 1997. John Smoltz also received the Roberto Clemente Award in 2005, honoring him for outstanding play and great work in the community. He helped to build a school in metropolitan Atlanta, and is active in a number of charities.
But perhaps the one statistic that defines John Smoltz is his 15-4 post-season record. It is the most post-season victories by any pitcher that has ever played. John Smoltz has thrown 206 playoff baseball innings, allowing just 168 hits, striking out 194, and has an ERA of 2.66 in 40 games. Whatever troubles the Braves have had in getting to and then winning a world title cannot be traced back to John Smoltz, who should one day be able to travel to upstate New York and see his likeness in the Hall of Fame.