Smoltz’s versatility wins out in becoming first-ballot Hall of Famer
ATLANTA — They were the foundation of the Braves’ record run of 14 consecutive division titles, and now, John Smoltz is joining Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Bobby Cox, this time in Cooperstown.
Smoltz was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first time on the ballot, it was announced Tuesday, joining a four member class along with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio.
It was the first time since 1955 that four players were picked and the only class to include three pitchers.
"I’ve never been at a loss for words, but today might be that day. It was pretty overwhelming to think about getting in the Hall of Fame, let alone getting in on the first try," Smoltz said during a news conference at Turner Field. "It has been a humbling experience."
Smoltz appeared on 82.9 percent of the ballots, putting him 7.9 percent over the required 75 for enshrinement in voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
"Those of you who know me know I haven’t spent too many days thinking about getting in the Hall of Fame," Smoltz said. "It hasn’t hit me. … This is something I never expected. But it’s something I’ll treat with the same dignity and integrity with which I carried myself [during my playing career]."
The winner of the 1996 National League Cy Young and at least 10 games in 10 of his first 12 seasons, Smoltz is second all-time with 15 postseason victories, trailing only Andy Pettitte (19).
But the right-hander’s resume that hinges on the unprecedented as he reinvented himself as a reliever, becoming the only pitcher in with at least 200 wins and 150 saves and joins HOFer Dennis Eckersley as the only men to have a 20-win and 50-save season.
Smoltz had a combined 213-155 record, 154 saves, 3.33 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 3.05 K/BB in 3,473 innings, was Relief Man of the Year in 2002 and claimed a Silver Slugger Award in ’97. In 41 playoff games (27 starts), he was 15-4, boasting a 2.67 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 209 innings and was the NLCS MVP in ’92.
Tommy John surgery forced the move to reliever as he missed the entire 2000 season after it was discovered that spring that he had a torn medial collateral ligament in his right elbow.
The change, though, was something Cox had designs on for years. He had considered moving Smoltz to the bullpen in 1995, saying when he first saw Smoltz he envisioned him as a reliever. Cox gave Smoltz his first taste in relief in Game 2 of the 1999 NLCS, inducing Shawon Dunston to fly out, Roger Cedeno to ground out and Bobby Bonilla to strike out to end the game for his first professional save.
"I didn’t know what was going on," Smoltz said at the time. "I didn’t know what to do — walk in, run in."
He stepped into the closer role in 2001, staying there until ’04 and saved 154 games with a 2.41 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 5.60 K/BB in 261 1/3 innings pitched. Smoltz’s saves would set a franchise record that stood until this past season when Craig Kimbrel passed him.
"I knew how hard it was to go seven or eight innings, leave with the lead and have that feeling be empty when the team lost and you didn’t have a chance to finish it off," Smoltz said.
Necessity pushed Smoltz to the bullpen in an attempt to ease the workload on his arm — he would undergo five elbow or shoulder surgeries throughout his career — and it was necessity that sent him back into the rotation in 2005 at age 37.
That December, the Braves acquired All-Star closer Danny Kolb in a deal with the Brewers. It meant Smoltz, who had made it known that he wanted to start again, was getting his wish.
"I still maintain (closing) was just a blip on the radar screen," Smoltz would say. "When something’s in your heart — when you really believe in something — it’s kind of hard to just cast it to the side."
He was an All-Star that season, going 14-7 with a 3.06 ERA over 33 stats, then the following year led the league in wins (16) and starts (35) with a 3.49 ERA and finished seventh in the Cy Young voting. In his first three seasons back in a starter’s role he ranked fifth in the majors with innings pitched (667 1/3) and eighth with a 3.22 ERA.
Smoltz found himself back in the closer role in ’08 at 41 when lingering shoulder discomfort, again had him trying to limit his innings to get through the season. But he would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, his 21-year run in a Braves uniform coming to a close on June 2 with one inning against the Marlins.
Once again he returned after the surgery but did so with the Red Sox, however, he was released after eight starts and signed with the Cardinals, making seven appearances.
Congrats to all of this years HOF inductees… Especially my boy Smoltzie… Welcome to the club my friend!!!
— Tom Glavine (@Tom_Glavine) January 6, 2015
Another great day for the Braves as John Smoltz gets into the HOF! Cherished every chance I got to play behind him. Congrats Chico!
— Chipper Jones (@RealCJ10) January 6, 2015
Congratulations Smoltzy on the HOF!! My favorite bald headed team mate. Enjoy Cooperstown.
— greg maddux (@gregmaddux) January 6, 2015
During the Braves’ run of Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz — who were together for 10 years — none of them threw no-hitter, instead it was Kent Mercker, coming April 8, 1994 at Dodger Stadium.
When asked nearly 20 years later what he remembered about that game, Smoltz didn’t hesitate, saying he could remember Mercker wasn’t supposed to go deeper than six innings and he was throwing a fastball that had plenty of movement on it.
Smoltz came close and it was among the few things missing from his career.
He lost a bid on April 14, 1996 in the seventh inning on a one-out, two-bagger by Tony Gwynn that popped out of Ryan Klesko’s glove at the warning track. On May 27, 1990 against the Phillies, after tossing eight hitless innings he went to the clubhouse to have a Zagnut bar, then proceeded to give up a one-out double to Lenny Dykstra.
"I’ve never had a Zagnut since," he said.
Had it not been for his injury and his detour in the bullpen, Smoltz may have challenged for 300 wins, a number that would have added the spectacular to his credentials. But with a class of Johnson and Martinez, two of the greatest pitchers of their eras, would that have been enough?
What Smoltz is, and what no one else can match, is his uniqueness: a dominant starter and reliever with almost unparalleled postseason success.
During last season’s Hall of Fame ceremony, while Cox, Maddux and Glavine sat on the stage, Smoltz was within view of the inductees as part of MLB Network’s coverage. Maddux took the opportunity to poke fun at his former rotation mate.
"The next seven years were spent winning division titles, watching the kids grow up, watching John Smoltz’s hairline recede."
Expectedly, it drew laughs from the crowd and Smoltz himself.
This summer, Smoltz will be front and center, claiming his place among those other mainstays from the Braves dynasty. It’s the culmination of his childhood days in Michigan spent throwing a baseball against a brick wall.
"In my mind and in my own cathedral, I played it out," Smoltz said. "Ernie Harwell was doing the announcing and I was doing the pitching. As far as I was concerned, it was a fun ride. Getting to do that for real was just unreal."
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney