Nearly all the news stories concerning the recent signing of John Smoltz by the Boston Red Sox have featured the tag, "Future Hall of Fame Pitcher." Is the tag accurate and deserving?
Many writers have recently reiterated that there are no "benchmarks" for getting into the Hall of Fame. Despite the reiterations, most still consider 300 wins, 3000 hits and 500 home runs as benchmarks. While there are exceptions (Koufax, Feller and others), many career starting pitchers begin and end their candidacy by how many wins they compiled in their career. As one writer described it, either a player is rewarded for longevity and statistics compiled (such as Don Sutton) or for a brilliant, but sometimes brief flash of excellence (Koufax).
For those who say the benchmarks are meaningless, why else is Burt Blyleven not in the Hall of Fame? Tom Glavine has reached the benchmark and has 305 career wins. He'll get in no problem. But will Smoltz?
The easiest comparisons for Smoltz are with his two teammates that made up such a strong rotation for the Braves for all those years. We can easily eliminate Greg Maddux as he was clearly the superior pitcher. How does Smoltz compare with Glavine?
First, they each had 8 years as starters with an ERA of 3.20 or better. Glavine pitched 56 complete games in 682 starts (8%). Smoltz pitched 53 complete games in 466 career starts (11%). Glavine's career ERA is 3.54. Smoltz comes in at 3.26. Glavine has a lifetime WHIP of 1.31. Smoltz comes in at 1.17. Glavine has given up .79 homers per nine innings, Smoltz, .72.
It appears that in head to head pitching statistics, Smoltz was a superior pitcher to Glavine, though Glavine had more big years win wise.
The one problem with Smoltz is his years as a closer. There is only one pitcher to compare him to with a similar career and that is Dennis Eckersly. Eckersley pitched his first twelve years as a starter and his last eleven as a closer. The Eck compiled 197 wins along with 390 saves. If you elect Eckersley to the Hall of Fame (oh yeah, they already did), you have to do so as a closer. Eckersley was an effective starter for the first six years of his career only. He had an ERA well over 4 in four of his final six years as a starter. Hardly Hall-worthy. And Smoltz followed his four years as a closer back in the rotation where he was again, very effective. One can't imagine Eckersley having done that.
Smoltz has a better career ERA than Eckersley and has started 14 years out of his 18. Of those 14 years as a starter, only two were below par in terms of ERA and WHIP. So Smoltz has superior statistics to Eckersley. But what do we do with those "lost" four years as a closer?
If you assign him 14 wins a year for each of those four years, you can add 56 career wins to his lifetime total of 266. That puts him in the category of Mike Mussina. Okay then, how does Smoltz compare with the Moose?
Smoltz has a better career ERA than Mussina (3.20 to 3.64) but they have nearly identical WHIP stats. Mussina pitched with a DH for his career and in the strong American League East. That would seem to make the two pitchers about the same.
What seems to push Smoltz over the top is his post season performances. Smoltz dominated in the post season and has a 15-4 career record plus 4 saves to go with a 2.57 post season ERA.
The conclusions after all this analysis are that either Smoltz is as much of a Hall of Famer as Glavine or Eckersley or none of them were really good enough to get in. Eckersley is rightfully a HOFer for his unique career. Glavine will be for a long and successful career. If those two statements are true, then John Smoltz is a HOFer too.