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Should John Smoltz be in the Hall of Fame?

One of the more interesting cases, due to a unique career, Smoltz is not easy to peg as in or out.

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John Smoltz has a pretty impressive World Series resume, with 8 starts and a 2.47 ERA. He struck out 52 in 51 innings against what should have been some of the toughest competition he faced. The one blemish on that record was an ugly start, lasting just 2.1 IP with 4 ER. That game came in 1995, in Cleveland. Down two games to none, the Indians were desperate for a win and rocked Smoltz, chasing him early and staking themselves to a lead...which they could not hold. They'd eventually be down 6-5 through 7.5 innings, before tying it in the bottom of the 8th and winning it in 11.

While that may be your strongest memory of Smoltz in the World Series (it is certainly mine), don't let it detract from an elite post-season resume, which is a strong part of his Hall of Fame case.

The case against Smoltz as a Hall of Famer

Read carefully, because I am flipping the script a bit on this one and starting with the case against Smoltz. See, the thing is, Smoltz has basically no hall-worthy numbers. Starting pitchers typically need 300 wins or 3000 strike outs or both to make Cooperstown. Smoltz has 213 wins (209 as a starter) and 3,080 Ks, but only 2,800 as a starting pitcher.

The average SP in the Hall of Fame has a WAR of 73.4 and 50.2 in his peak. Smoltz 69.5 and 38.8. Only 11 Hall of Fame pitchers had a less impressive peak, and most of them pitched extremely early in baseball history or missed time due to fighting in wars or had other factors. Smoltz has a lower Peak WAR than Carlos Zambrano.

There are only five pitchers in the Hall primarily as relievers, and not one has under 300 saves - Smoltz has 154.

Basically, the strongest case against Smoltz is that he was not a Hall of Fame reliever, and he was not a Hall of Fame starter, and so he is not a Hall of Fame pitcher.

The case for Smoltz as a Hall of Famer

That said, Smoltz was a very good starting pitcher, with 481 starts, a 209-149 record, a 3.40 ERA and 2,800 strike outs. He pitched most of his career during a period of booming offense, and still manages to stand out as an excellent starting pitcher.

And he was a very good reliever, appearing 242 times, accruing 154 saves, while striking out 280 against just 50 walks. He was not a closer for long, but he was one of the best ever when he closed, locking down the 9th inning for the Braves.

And you get into an interesting place when you combine the two.

213 career wins is not a huge number. It ranks 70th since 1900, just below Tim Hudson and Rick Reuschel. 154 saves ranks 74th, tied with Stu Miller.  But among the XXX players to cross the 50 save threshold in their career, Smoltz 481 starts is the most - Charlie Hough's 440 are second.

And here is the complete list of people to crack 200 wins and 100 saves:

  1. Smoltz, John
In fact, only 3 pitchers even cross 200 wins and 50 saves, and none crossed 200/70.

He also has some other great credentials - he was an eight-time All-Star, a Cy Young winner, pitched (brilliantly) in five World Series, and is one of the all-time great post-season pitchers. He is second all-time in post-season wins and this is not pure volume - his W-L% is 8th all-time. And of those who have a better W-L%, only one (Curt Schilling is also in the top 10 in total wins. He is the all-time leader in post-season strike outs, despite being 5th in games started. And his career post-season ERA is 2.67.

My Two Cents

This is a hard one. Smoltz has all the accolades, the incredible post-season performance, and some truly unique career stats. But his only near comparable is Dennis Eckersley, who built a much better career as a RP and still finished just 16 wins behind Smoltz.

I think what makes Smoltz remarkably unique, though, is that he was both the best starting pitcher around for a year (at least according to Cy Young voters) and was the best reliever in baseball for at least a year (in 2002, when he had 55 saves and finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting).

The guy was capable of being an absolutely elite, best-of-the-best type SP and of being an absolutely elite, best-of-the-best type RP. Had he been a RP his whole career, he would have been in a class with Mariano Rivera, and a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Had he not given four years to relieving, he would have been much closer to 300 wins and far over 3000 Ks, and his case would likely be much stronger. To me, that is enough. If he doesn't get in, I won't shed a tear. But he has my vote.