Atlanta Braves Blog

The Atlanta Braves blog by David O'Brien, baseball writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Smoltz could join Maddux, Glavine as 1st-ballot Hall of Famer

It’s been 60 years since the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted in more than three players to the Hall of Fame, but John Smoltz is the reason I think the streak will end Tuesday when the 2015 HOF class is announced.

Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, who between them won eight Cy Young Awards and rank first and third all-time in strikeouts-per-nine-innings pitched, are certain to be elected in their first year on the ballot. And Craig Biggio is a virtual lock after falling just two votes shy of election in his second time on the ballot, tied for the closest anyone’s come without getting elected.

Joining that trio when the new class is announced should be Smoltz, who’s on the ballot for the first time and could go into the Hall of Fame just one year after former Braves starting-rotation mates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were inducted along with Bobby Cox in a July 2014 ceremony in which Cooperstown became Braves Country for a three-day weekend.

If Smoltz gets in, it'll probably be by a narrow margin. Players must appear on 75 percent of the ballots cast by voting writers.

The last time BBWAA voters selected a class with more than three players was 1955, when Joe DiMaggio headed a four-man class that also included Gabby Hartnettt, Ted Lyons and Dazzy Vance. That’s one of only three times in 70 elections that more than three players have been voted in.

But seldom has there been a better case for a four-man (or bigger) class than this year. Smoltz is the only pitcher in history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves, and he and Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley are the only pitchers to have both a 20-win and one 50-save season.

Smoltz finished with a 213-155 record, 154 saves, a 3.33 ERA and 3,084 strikeouts in 3,473 innings, and ranks as one of the greatest postseason pitchers in history with a 15-4 record and 199 strikeouts in 209 innings in 41 games (27 starts) over 25 postseason series. Baseball Reference ranks him 39th among pitchers in career WAR at 66.5.

He won a Cy Young and had five other top-10 finishes; won Silver Slugger and Rolaids Relief Man of the Year awards, and won several awards for his combination of performance, character and/or community work, including the Lou Gehrig Memorial and Roberto Clemente awards in 2005 and the Branch Rickey Award in 2007.

Here’s the other thing about Smoltz: He put up those numbers despite enduring at least five arm surgeries (elbow or shoulder) throughout his career. He was the toughest baseball player and most competitive athlete I’ve ever been around. Ever.

I was fortunate to have covered him for the last seven of his 20 seasons with the Braves through 2008, and also saw many of his games before that when I was covering the Marlins beginning in 1995, including his remarkable 1996-1997 seasons.

He won that Cy Young Award in 1996, going 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA, six complete games, and 276 strikeouts in 253 2/3 innings, leading the league in wins, innings and strikeouts. Then he pitched another 38 innings with 33 strikeouts in five starts in the ’96 postseason, winning four of those games.

That’s 28 wins, 309 strikeouts and 291 2/3 innings during the regular season and postseason, for those who bought into what broadcasters were telling you a couple of months ago -- that Madison Bumgarner did something that hadn’t been seen in many decades. No.

After that heavy load in ’96, Smoltz came back in ’97 to post another league-leading total of 256 innings in 35 regular-season starts while raising his totals in back-to-back regular seasons to 39 wins and 517 strikeouts in 509 2/3 innings over 70 starts. Along with another 52 strikeouts in 53 postseason innings during those two years.

The bearded Michigan native paid a price, battling injuries the next two seasons – he still went 17-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 167 2/3 innings in 1998 – before missing the 2000 season and part of '01 recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery. Smoltz closed games for part of the ’01 season after returning, then led the league with a franchise-record 55 saves in 2002 in the first of three seasons as a full-time closer, a period in which he totaled 144 saves in 157 opportunities.

He posted single-season totals of 55, 45 and 44 saves over those three seasons -- despite another elbow surgery after the 45-save season in 2003 -- before moving back to the starting rotation in 2005 and posting 14, 16 and 14 wins while totaling 667 1/3 innings over the next three years in his ages 38-40 seasons.


No one outside the Braves organization knew it at the time, but when Smoltz pitched seven innings against Houston for the Braves’ only win in their 2005 division series, he did so with an aching shoulder that was several shades of purple by the time he was finished. If the Braves had advanced, he wouldn’t have been able to pitch, though he planned to try to talk Cox into letting him.

He would eventually have the shoulder operated on. He had a 2.57 ERA in six games (five starts) during the 2008 season while pitching in severe pain, and after a DL stint he tried to come back again as a closer before conceding to season-ending surgery.

Despite being told it was unlikely he'd pitch again, wasn't ready to hang it up until the shoulder just wouldn't allow him to pitch anymore, after spending his final season with Boston and St. Louis as he tried to keep going at 42.

He pays a price today for not letting go earlier: The shoulder throbs after only a few holes on the golf course. But Smoltz, 47, still hasn't given up on his goal of someday playing on the PGA Champions Tour for over-50 golfers.

Again, toughest ballplayer I’ve ever been around. And the most competitive. No question.

But being tough as hell and a fiery competitor is only part of what made Smoltz the best postseason pitcher among the Braves’ Big Three. The other factor was obvious: his swing-and-miss stuff. Mid-to-upper 90s fastball, overwhelming slider, nasty split, and a changeup and curveball.

Oh, and who can forget when he unveiled a knuckleball one summer, a pitch that he threw because his elbow ached and he was willing to do anything – different arm slots, new pitches – to remain effective while pitching through pain.

Seriously, seriously tough dude.

And a Hall of Famer, no doubt. So much so that I don’t think he’ll fall short of the 75-percent of votes required for election this year in his first time on the ballot, despite the presence of three other certain inductees in this year’s class, not to mention a handful of others who’ll get a lot of votes including pitchers Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling and catcher Mike Piazza, who hit more homers than any other player at his position ever did.

If Smoltz does have to wait, surely it won't be for more than one year. But I've got a feeling he gets the call from the Hall of Tuesday.

For the record, the most elected at once was five – Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson -- in the first class in 1936. And that list is in order of votes received. Yes, Cobb received more votes (222) than Ruth (215), who had the same number as Wagner.

As inexcusable as it was not to vote for Maddux on the first ballot last year, or Hank Aaron or Willie Mays or many others before them, imagine being a voting writer that first year they had an election and deciding to leave Ruth – or Cobb, Wagner, Mathewson or “Big Train” Johnson – off your ballot. What the...?

As a voting body, the BBWAA has a history of egg on our collective faces because of the egregious voting record of those assorted contrarians, biased individuals (for whatever fill-in-the-blank reason), or just stubborn fools who’ve left some of the greatest players in history off of their ballots and allowed one of the more ridiculous records to remain intact: None of the 115 players elected to the Hall by the writers has ever been included on 100 percent of the ballots submitted.

The vast majority of participating BBWAA members are conscientious voters who put a lot of time and effort into filling out their ballots, a difficult task getting harder by the year as more players with PED connections or suspicions come onto the ballot and voters have to decide what to do with them. But it’s those with an agenda or a misguided purpose, those who would leave off a Maddux – or a Ruth, Aaron, Mays, et al – who really make the process about themselves and do it a disservice that is more glaring than ever in this age of closer scrutiny and voters making their ballots public and being asked to explain their selections and omissions.

Judging from conversations I’ve had with plenty of voters, and from the many ballots that some voters have already made public, it appears that Smoltz has a real good chance of being a first-ballot HOFer on Tuesday despite a crowded ballot of worthy candidates.

• Let's close with one from the late, great George Jones, which you can here by clicking here. (I was going to use a tune about toughness from one of Smoltz's fellow Michigan natives, but Eminem's "Till I Collapse" lyrics are a bit rough for this forum. Besides, this tune by the Possum works well.)


But just a few are chosen

To tear your heart out when they sing

Imagine life without them

All your, radio heroes

Like the outlaw that walks through Jesse's dream

Red-headed stranger

A Man in Black and Folsom Prison Blues

The Okie from Muskogee

Or Hello Darling

Lord I wonder, who's gonna fill their shoes

Who's gonna stand that tall

Who's gonna play the Opry

And the Wabash Cannonball

Who's gonna give their heart and soul

To get to me and you

Lord I wonder, who's gonna fill their shoes

Blue Suede Shoes and Elvis

Much too soon he left this world in tears

They tore up the Fifties

Old Jerry Lee and Charlie

And old Go Cat Go still echoes through the years

Still beats in Luke the Drifter

You can tell when he sings I Saw the Light

Old Marty, Hank and Lefty

Why I can feel them right here with me

On this Silver Eagle rolling through the night

Who's gonna stand that tall

Who's gonna play the Opry

And the Wabash Cannonball

To get to me and you

Lord I wonder, who's gonna fill their shoes



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About the Author

David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002.