John Smoltz: Two Half Hall of Famers?

By the admission of the player himself, John Smoltz had a unique career that doesn’t quite stack up against the traditional standards set by past Hall of Fame inductees. He had two careers, and “each doesn’t qualify a hall of fame type career,” as the pitcher said on a conference call after he was inducted on Tuesday.

By definition, his career is now a Hall of Fame career, but is it possible that he stacks up better against his new colleagues if you consider his career as two halves of two separate induction-worthy careers?

Since the Hall of Fame appreciates short peaks, a high peak early in his career may have given him a Sandy Koufax type of resume. But Smoltz didn’t have that kind of peak. He only once had a season that was worth more than seven WAR, while Koufax ended his career with a four-year stretch in which three of the years were two WAR better than the best Smoltz ever showed.

If you remove the four years in which Smoltz wasn’t starting, you only hurt his case from a cumulative standpoint. 8.5 WAR go out the window, and he doesn’t have the peak to overcome his 280 missing innings and lack of counting stat thresholds reached. No 3000 strikeouts, just 207 wins and a good ERA, one stand-out season and extra credit for his postseason. Maybe a little better than Rick Reuschel.

But let’s add those years back in, as if Smoltz was a starter. Take a look at his curve, and those years relieving certainly took a bite out of his overall numbers from a cumulative standpoint.

chart (47)

Of course, he was injured in 2000, so we can’t project him for a full slate in 2001. But he would have just had Tommy John surgery, and Jeff Zimmerman found that most pitchers have a 400-inning ‘honeymoon.’ He might have been able to get through the next three years relatively unscathed, health-wise. (Of course, that might have sped up the arrival of the health problems that he had late in his career, but we’re dealing in would-have-happened anyway.)

Pitchers also have up and down years, so you can’t just connect two dots there. Take a look at his career up against Mussina’s career for some guidance.

chart (48)

They’ve had similar careers as starters, and Mussina had 17.4 WAR during the four years when he was the same age as Smoltz, Reliever. Smoltz had 8.5. Even with some time missed due to Tommy John surgery, you could give Smoltz an extra eight WAR. He would move to 16th all time in that statistic… right behind Pedro Martinez.

What would his traditional stats look like? We’d have to look at ERA and ‘project’ him for those missed years in the rotation. I turned to Jared Cross, creator of Steamer, for advice on projecting John Smoltz, Starter in 2001.

In the three years before the relief stretch (meaning 97-99) and the three years after that all as a starter, Smoltz averaged a 3.13 ERA while facing 5214 batters. NL starters had an average ERA of 4.45 in those years. In the years 2001-2004, NL starters had a 4.40 ERA so if we adjust his ERA to the slightly lower league offensive levels we get a 3.09 ERA but then we need to regress it to the mean. If we add in 800 league average batters faced (since there’s a good amount of time between some of his data and the years we’re projected), that brings him up to a 3.27 ERA projection. We could probably do a little better by looking at components, taking his relief performances in those years into account and weighing years closer to the unknown years in question more than other years but he was pretty consistent as a starter and his FIPs weren’t wildly different from his ERAs so I don’t think any of that would change the big picture all that much.

So we’re talking about 3.75 more years of vintage John Smoltz here, at least by projections. His ERA wouldn’t be much different than his career number as a starter (3.39). He averaged 13 wins a year as a starter, so let’s give him 43 more wins (3.75*13-6). That would give him 256 wins — 14 short of Mussina, the same as Andy Pettite. But he’d also have more strikeouts, and 465 more innings with his career strikeout rate would give him another 410 strikeouts or so. We can also approximate his WAR total better now, using this post by Dave Cameron and some aging.

John Smoltz, full-time reliever, never really had a chance of happening. While Smoltz admitted that he was the one that pushed for the move to the pen in order to help the team (“that was not well received from my manager, but there was a philosophical shift in the front office”), he also remembers fondly the trade from his hometown Detroit because it gave him the chance to start (“I knew I’d get a chance to start more games as a young pitcher in Atlanta.”)

Projecting him out from four years in the pen is more difficult than going the other way, too. But as a reliever, he had a four-year stretch in his mid thirties in which he had a 2.65 ERA, struck out 9.5 batters per nine, and walked 1.7 batters per nine (in 71 innings, on average). He averaged 39 saves per year even if you count the year where he didn’t close all year.

There are five relievers in the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage. Let’s add in Mariano Rivera for kicks. They all played at different times, but if you change their components to indexed stats, we can compare then to Smoltz at the same age. (We had to fudge the years for Bruce Sutter, whose career didn’t last long enough to make the comparison.)

Pitcher, age 34-37 ERA+ K%+ BB%+ SV
Mariano Rivera 218 135 60 160
Dennis Eckersley 210 192 29 175
Rollie Fingers 199 160 68 80
John Smoltz 162 160 58 154
Hoyt Wilhelm 140 123 94 24
Bruce Sutter* 115 89 75 85
Goose Gossage 100 119 105 50

John Smoltz compares… favorably. He’s in the top three in every stat save ERA+, where he ends up fourth. He kept pace with the three best relievers, ever.

We can use this same approach to his career to adjust his numbers for the full-time reliever version. Compared to Smoltz the Starter, Smoltz the Reliever’s ERA was 28% better, his strikeout rate was 26% better, and his walks were 49% better. He got 35% as many innings as he did in his average season as a starter. By looking at it this way, we can piggyback on the ups and downs of Smoltz’s actual career, complete with his actual aches, pains, and aging.

Projecting saves is more problematic, but, even counting the year when he didn’t close, he got .54 saves per inning pitched. Hey, this universe never existed, and saves are a silly stat, what can you do. At least most of those Braves teams were of similar quality (other than the ones at the beginning, as Smoltz himself pointed out in the call). Maybe he wouldn’t have been a closer right away, so we give him three full seasons as a setup man, à la Mariano Rivera.

Add it all up, and here you are.

  ERA Innings Strikeouts Wins Saves WAR
John Smoltz, starter 3.36 3937 3494 256 1 87.5
John Smoltz, reliever 2.42 1378 1541 30 627 37.5

And for fun, lets find some comps for each version of John Smoltz. Using wins, ERA, strikeouts and WAR for the starter, and ERA, strikeouts, saves, and WAR for the reliever, here are a few players that Smoltz would have looked like in this alternate universe.

Starters ERA Innings Strikeouts Wins Saves WAR
John Smoltz, starter 3.36 3937 3494 256 1 87.5
Bob Gibson 2.42 3884 3117 251 6 91.1
Pedro Martinez 2.93 2827 3154 219 3 87.1
Curt Schilling 3.46 3261 3116 216 22 83.2

Right behind two Hall of Famers and in front of a borderline case. Smoltz, starter may not have gone in with such a high percentage of the vote, considering the fact that Curt Schilling has had to wait as long as he is. But Smoltz the Starter would have actually been a little better than Schilling. He looks a lot like the final numbers for Bob Gibson, even if their careers would have had different shapes.

Relievers ERA Innings Strikeouts Wins Saves WAR
John Smoltz, reliever 2.42 1378 1541 30 627 37.5
Mariano Rivera 2.21 1284 1173 82 652 40.2
Rich Gossage 3.01 1809 1502 124 310 30.5
Trevor Hoffman 2.87 1089 1133 61 601 23.0

Now you’re talking. Smoltz the reliever looks a lot like Mariano Rivera, future Hall of Famer. You’d think there would even be a chance for better health outcomes than we have assumed here, since he would have thrown fewer bullets, but we don’t know.

And in the end, that’s the point, we don’t know what could have happened. This was a rough exercise rounded in futility. But there is some plausibility to the idea that John Smoltz had two half Hall of Fame careers. And that real-life career is a career full of “strangeness,” as the pitcher himself put it upon induction.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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9 years ago

I was looking at that exact same WAR graph early this morning, but focusing on Mussina.

I’m really beginning to think that Mussina’s ridiculous consistency basically lulled many fans into forgetting that rolling out 5 WAR seasons over and over again is a sign of greatness. Or, put another way, a 7 WAR from a guy like Mussina would stand out less in our minds than a 7 WAR season from a guy like Smoltz, who’s had more ups and downs.

And by the way, I think this article is the perfect way to look at Smoltz’s combined career.

9 years ago
Reply to  tz

Totally agreed on Moose. He might have been the most boring 5+ win pitcher simply because he was so consistent at it and typically didn’t have flashy strikeout rates.