See the 44 Greatest Atlanta Braves here.
Seasons With Braves: 1988-2006
Stats With Braves: 193-137, 3.27 ERA, 154 Sv
The Tigers drafted John, a local boy, in the 22nd round in 1985. Three years later he was in a big league rotation, which can’t be too common for a 22nd round pick. The Cube‘s minor league stats show him pitching at high-A Lakeland in 1986, then having trouble in AA and AAA the next year; I don’t know how to interpret this, and it would be unusual for a high-school player to start off in high-A, so I’m guessing there’s some mistake. Anyway, the Tigers were in a stretch run, so they sent off a struggling pitching prospect for veteran anchor Doyle Alexander, who pitched them to the division title in 1987. I hope Bobby gave whichever scout picked Smoltz as the man to get a raise.
John got in one start in Richmond in 1987, then went 10-5 with a 2.79 ERA there in 1988, earning a callup. His rookie season was nothing to brag about, but in 1989 he was great, going 12-11 (remember, this was a team that went 63-97 and was 11th in the league runs scored) with a 2.94 ERA; he made the All-Star team because someone had to, but it was a deserving pick. In 1990, he slid back to a little above-average, which still made him one of the best players on the team after Justice and Gant.
One of the remarkable things about the 1991 team is that for much of the season Smoltz, the team’s #1 starter (he was the opening day pitcher and clearly the best pitcher on the team coming in, his only competition being Leibrandt) was awful. At the end of July, he was 6-12 with a 5.47 ERA. There was a well-publicized visit to a sports psychologist; I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but Smoltz did his best Doyle Alexander for the Tigers imitation down the stretch, going 8-2 with a 1.49 ERA from August to October, and pitching a complete-game for the clincher. In the postseason, he won two games in the NLCS (and as a batter had a hit and a walk, and even stole a base) and of course pitched brilliantly in two no-decisions in the World Series.
In 1992 John pitched well from the get-go, going 15-12 with a 2.85 ERA. He’d thrown a lot of innings in these formative years, this time 246 2/3, third in the league. Bobby didn’t have a lot of faith in his bullpen compared to his starters at this time, and said starters got ridden hard. Glavine didn’t have any problems, but John faded a bit the next two years, and of course Avery was never the same. On top of the regular season load, Smoltz started three games in the NLCS, going 2-0 (the no-decision being the clincher) with a 2.66 ERA, and 1-0 in two starts in the World Series. At this stage, John was 5-0 with an ERA in the low twos in postseason.
Smoltz started having elbow problems at about this time, having thrown a ton of innings over the last few seasons and still being a workhorse. In 1993, he went 15-11 but with a 3.62 ERA, and he lost his first postseason game, on unearned runs, in the NLCS. In 1994 he had a bit of a lost season — but who didn’t, in 1994? — 6-10 with a 4.14 ERA that was a bit below the league average. Right before the strike, or right after it started, he had bone chips removed from his elbow.
He came back strong in 1995, 12-7 with a 3.18 ERA. The Braves, as you probably know, had a ridiculously good pitching staff at the time and particularly in 1995, when Maddux and Glavine were the two best pitchers in baseball and Smoltz by far the best #3 starter. The team allowed almost half a run a game less than the Dodgers, the second-best pitching staff. Smoltz for once didn’t pitch well in postseason, but Maddux and Glavine made sure it didn’t matter.
Smoltz could still have seemed something of a disappointment; he had never won more than 15 games in a season or received a single Cy Young Award vote. And then in 1996 he had what I call a misprint season, one completely unlike everything else in his career to date. 24-8, 2.94 ERA, 276 strikeouts, a Cy Young Award. He was back to his dominating ways in postseason, 4-1 in five dominant starts.
He didn’t get the run support in 1997, but still pitched exceptionally well, winding up with 15 wins, again, on a 3.02 ERA. But he had a bad start in the NLCS and didn’t get a chance to fix it. The elbow problems came back hard in 1998 and 1999, but he pitched very well when he could get out there. He went 17-3 the first year, which was really a fluke; the next year he was just about as good and pitched just about as much, but went only 11-8. He was due some luck, anyway.
But it was bad luck; John tried to pitch in spring of 2000 but wound up having Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2000 season. He tried to come back as a starter in 2001, but was shut down after being ineffective. When he came back, he was moved into the bullpen, and saved ten games down the stretch. In 2002 he set an NL record with 55 saves, though his ERA was inflated by one terrible outing against the Mets early in the season. That game might have cost him a Cy Young; he was still third in the voting. In 2003, John saved 45 games with a 1.12 ERA; this time he might have won the Cy Young if he hadn’t missed time down the stretch. And in 2004, he saved 44 games and moved past Gene Garber as the franchise record holder.
After the season, he managed to talk the Braves into moving him back into the bullpen. Unfortunately, to do this they traded Jose Capellan for Dan Kolb, but that’s not John’s doing. He succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest expectations, going 14-7 with a 3.06 ERA, eighth in the league, with the fifth-highest number of innings. The Braves didn’t want him to pitch that much, but they had to because he was holding the staff together. He couldn’t keep the staff together in 2006, as the Braves finally lost the division, but had another terrific season, 16-9 with a 3.49 ERA. The 16 wins were enough to lead the league, as were his 35 starts. If the bullpen hadn’t been so awful, he might have gotten his second twenty-win season.
So, the Hall of Fame. Barring another major injury, John should get his 200th win this season. Dennis Eckersley had 197, so John would become the first 200-win, 150-save man. He isn’t really comparable to Eckersley, but then again he isn’t really comparable to anyone. The people he comes up as similar to are mostly starting pitchers of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s who (other than Phil Niekro) came up short of Hall of Fame consideration. However (a) many of them were active in a slighly lower offensive era, and (b) none of them have a three-year run as a dominant closer. Also, Sim Scores look only at regular season stats and ignore this “season”:
207 IP, 40 G, 27 Starts, 15-4, 4 Svs, 2.65 ERA, 194 K/67 BB
That’s his career postseason line. 15-4 with a 2.65 ERA against the best teams in baseball.
However, John lacks one thing that the Hall voters go for, and that’s big seasons; he’s only won 20 games once. It’s a monster season, 24 wins and a Cy Young, together with four wins and an NLCS MVP in postseason. But it’s so good that it looks like a fluke next to the 15 win seasons. He’s never won an ERA title, or finished higher than fourth, though he does have two strikeout titles. He has only 34 Black Ink points, which is on the low side for a Hall of Famer. I think that if he get to 225 wins he’ll have a good shot.