COMMENTARY | My favorite story about former Atlanta Braves starting pitcher John Smoltz comes in the form of a legendary injury report. It's so legendary that Smoltz has vehemently denied its authenticity, calling it an urban legend.
The story goes that Smoltz, perhaps in a hurry or perhaps just not quite thinking straight, tried to iron a shirt that he was still wearing. He achieved predictable results, burning his chest, and was left needing to awkwardly explain to his team trainer the concerning lesion. Smoltz's explanation of what happened is unfortunately plausible, so maybe none of it ever happened.
Regardless of the veracity of the ironing story, Smoltz's career has proven his baseball intelligence by producing a career as unique as his legendary injury. Here are five reasons why he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
As Smoltz dominated, so did the Braves
Smoltz made his major-league debut in 1988, making 12 unremarkable starts before breaking out in 1989. From 1989-1993, Smoltz averaged 34 starts, nearly 232 innings pitched, 14 wins, an ERA between 2.85 and 3.85, and accumulated 20.9 fWAR. He was one of the game's greats for the five years leading up to the strike, and a key cog for the Atlanta Braves as they began their record-setting run of division titles. He scuffled, relatively speaking, during the shortened 1994 season and returned to form in 1995. Then in 1996, he produced his career year.
1996: A season for the ages
Over 253.2 innings, Smoltz had 24 wins to 8 losses, a 2.94 ERA, and an incredible 276 strikeouts to just 55 walks. It all added up to a WHIP of 1.001, and a spot in Atlanta lore. He managed to overshadow teammate and slam-dunk Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who was also putting up an outstanding season.
And thanks to an impressive win total, he crushed Kevin Brown in Cy Young voting. Brown was having a similarly awesome year, though he had just a 17-11 record to show for it. The final tally was 26 first-place votes for Smoltz, 2 for Brown.
Wrapping up a decade of dominance
From 1997 to 1999, Smoltz was still brilliant, though slightly less so. And as it turned out, he was playing injured. His 1999 season ended abruptly in order to undergo Tommy John surgery, which knocked him out of the 2000 season. Tommy John surgery was a bit more of a death sentence in 1999 than it is today, so Atlanta fans had to cope with the possible sudden end of a short and brilliant career. But Smoltz was far from done.
Three years as the best closer in the league
Smoltz was one of the early cases of a starting pitcher returning to productivity after Tommy John surgery by utilizing the bullpen. In 2001, Smoltz made five starts before moving to the bullpen. He eventually would be closing games, but maintained his eye on returning to the starting rotation. However, his time as a closer was far from a rehab assignment. For three years, John Smoltz was the best closer in the National League.
Smoltz averaged 48 saves and 81 strikeouts a year for his three incredible seasons as a closer. Only first-ballot Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley had ever had a 50-save season to go with an earlier 20-win season. But Smoltz always wanted to return to the starting rotation. So after a 44-save season in 2004, Smoltz returned to the rotation in 2005, and hardly missed a beat.
Return of an ace
From 2005-2007, Smoltz was one of the top starters in the National League, serving as the Braves' ace. He averaged 33 starts and more than 220 innings for those three years, recording a 44-24 record for a team that no longer featured three Hall of Fame pitchers. Smoltz was the anchor for a 2005 team that brought in Tim Hudson and cobbled together 100 starts from a motley crew featuring Horacio Ramirez, Mike Hampton and Kyle Davies. The squad had no business making the playoffs, but managed to do so in what was the final year of their division title streak.
Smoltz continued to pitch well through the 2007 season. He came back for 2008, though he started to show his age as injury concerns returned. On April 22 of that season, Smoltz recorded his 3,000th strikeout, which would be his final signature moment. He hit the disabled list with shoulder inflammation not even a week later, and ultimately underwent season-ending surgery in June. Smoltz would throw 78 innings in 2009 for the Red Sox and Cardinals, and then retire at the end of the season.
Unique career totals
Smoltz is the only player that can boast 200 career wins and 100 career saves, with only Eckersley's 197 wins and 390 saves serving as a comparison. Smoltz is one of only 16 pitchers to record 3,000 career strikeouts. He finished a 21-year career with an accumulated 78.4 fWAR, good for 23rd all-time.
In a game that increasingly rewards laser-like precision and specialization, Smoltz proved that he could just flat out pitch. He's eligible for induction in 2014, a year later than his contemporaries Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Hopefully he will join them in Cooperstown as a first-ballot election.
And, hopefully, he gets his shirt pressed well ahead of time.
Patrick Richardson is a longtime follower of the Atlanta Braves who started playing t-ball right as Atlanta's record-setting run of division titles began. He is an amateur but enthusiastic sabermetrician.
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