Smoltz simply not a Hall of Famer

While John Smoltz has had a solid big league career, he's far from a Hall of Famer in the making.

Originally Published: February 13, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Answering e-mail while waiting to see who the Dodgers hire for the single most important job in the entire organization (yes, more important than who's managing, or who's playing first base) ...

    Rob,

    I'm not at all convinced John Smoltz is going to the Hall of Fame or that he should. I am, however, fairly convinced from things I've read over the last year that he will get some consideration. When Dennis Eckersley got in, a lot of people wrote that it pointed to great things for Smoltz. Now I wonder, what will happen if Shawn Chacon turns into a great closer after being a starting pitcher his whole career? Smoltz was a very accomplished starter, much more than Chacon. If Chacon succeeds in the transition to closer (despite Coors Field), will this lessen Smoltz's accomplishments in the eyes of the voters and cost him getting into the Hall? I would think as more semi-successful starters (or worse) become decent one-inning specialists, more people are going to wonder how great these closers really are.

    Just as an aside, Smoltz is one of my all-time favorite players and the Hall could do a lot worse. But the Hall should be for the best and I can't honestly say he's among the best (while acknowledging his career is far from over).

    Thanks,
    Jeff

John Smoltz
John Smoltz was second in the majors with 45 saves last season.

On the face of it, this message might strike some of you as (at least) slightly absurd.

John Smoltz = Shawn Chacon? That's crazy talk!

Well, yes it is. The odds against Chacon are long, because of Coors and also because he simply isn't the pitcher that Smoltz was/is. But there's something here, isn't there? First off, what about that Eck/Smoltz comparison? Is there any basis for comparison? Let's look at the two big numbers for both.

        Wins  Saves
Eck      197   390
Smoltz   163   110

Jeff is right; people are already talking about putting Smoltz in the Hall of Fame, especially if he can put together a couple of more great relief seasons.

I'm sorry, but I just don't see it. Even if Smoltz saves 100 games over the next two seasons (and wins a few, too), he'll still be 30 wins and 180 saves behind Eckersley.

The counter-argument, of course, is that Smoltz was a better starter than Eckersley ... but was he? Smoltz spent 11 seasons as a starter and Eckersley 12, so they're easy to compare.

          W-L, ERA
Eck     151-128, 3.67
Smoltz  157-113, 3.35

Qualitatively, advantage Smoltz. He's got a better winning percentage and a lower ERA, despite pitching his entire career in the Steroids Era. On the other hand, Smoltz has pitched for better teams than Eckersley generally did, and Eckersley also had to face DH's for nearly all of his career.

How to reconcile all this? Let's look at a couple of sabermetric measures: Lee Sinin's Runs Saved Above Average and Bill James' Win Shares ...

         RSAA   WS
Eck       119  169  
Smoltz    191  181

I'm not sure why Smoltz has a huge advantage in RSAA and a small one in Win Shares, but either way he comes out ahead, especially when you consider that he's got one less year as a starter. This was something of a surprise to me, as I'd been fooled by Smoltz's generally unimpressive records. Most people would, I think, be surprised to learn that Smoltz has won more than 15 games only twice. Certainly, the guys who vote for the Hall of Fame would be unimpressed by Smoltz's career as a starter; if they went for great pitchers stuck with crummy luck, Bert Blyleven would have been elected years ago. Smoltz has been a wonderful starter, especially from 1995 through 1999, but he couldn't stay off the disabled list and he wasn't headed to Cooperstown.

And now, this. In 2003, just his second full season as the Braves' closer, Smoltz was putting together a season for the ages until a minor (knock on wood) elbow problem sidelined him for a month late in the season.

Getting back to the original question, is Smoltz a Hall of Famer? And if he's not, what else does he have to do?

He's not. Aside from his Cy Young season (1996), Smoltz didn't do enough of the things as a starter that voters like. While he pitched better than Eckersley and does have the one huge season, I think most voters will think of them similarly: pretty good (and occasionally brilliant) starter, great reliever.

John Smoltz
Relief pitcher
Atlanta Braves
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
IP W-L SV BB SO ERA
64.1 0-2 45 8 73 1.12

The difference, of course, is that Eckersley was a great relief pitcher for five or six seasons, and a good one for another five or six. I just think it's silly to compare Smoltz, with three seasons as a reliever, to a pitcher who played that role for 12 seasons. I would guess that Smoltz needs another two or three great seasons before we can even begin to discuss him as a viable Hall of Fame candidate. And considering that 1) he's been suffering various arm problems for a number of years, and 2) in three years and three months he'll be 40 years old, I just don't think he's going to make it.

I've probably spent too many words arguing something that's obvious to most fans who don't live in Georgia (or spend most of their summer evenings watching TBS). So let me devote a few words to the really interesting question ... Do relief pitchers belong in the Hall of Fame at all?

There are two arguments that they don't:

  • "Relievers are like punters: even the best ones don't do enough to be considered as valuable as the best of their teammates."

  • "Hell, anybody can become a great closer."

    Well, not anybody. But it's certainly true that a number of unsuccessful starting pitchers have become outstanding closers. Eric Gagne is the best current example, but there's also Eckersley, Jose Mesa, Tom Gordon, Derek Lowe, and (presumably) others.

    This leads to a fundamental question ... How many starting pitchers could be great closers, if only they were given the chance? And even more to the point, how many great starting pitchers could be Hall of Fame closers, if given the chance. Doesn't it seem likely that Roger Clemens would have been a great closer? Mike Mussina? Other, slightly lesser pitching lights? And if the ability to be a great closer is relatively common, should we adjust our assumptions about the "value" of this particular creature?

    All questions without answers, I suppose. But you know, the BBWAA has elected only two pure relief pitchers to the Hall of Fame. And perhaps, in a collective sort of way, they know exactly what they're doing.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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