Why is John Smoltz a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame?
Let’s get this out of the way first: this is not me arguing against John Smoltz as a Hall of Famer. I think he’s above the cut line. I just don’t see why one would include him on their ballot without also placing checkmarks next to the names of Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina.
213-155, 3.33 ERA, 125 ERA+, 3,084 K in 3,473 IP - Smoltz
216-146, 3.46 ERA, 127 ERA+, 3,116 K in 3,261 IP - Schilling
270-153, 3.68 ERA, 123 ERA+, 2,813 K in 3,563 IP - Mussina
How do you draw a line in between those three careers?
By any objective measure, the other two were at least slightly better regular-season starting pitchers than Smoltz. The line above includes Smoltz’s 242 appearances as a reliever. As a starter, he had 209 wins and a 3.40 ERA, dropping his ERA+ down to Mussina’s level. Schilling also made 133 relief appearances, most coming as a middle reliever early in his career, but was worse in them (3.62 ERA) than he was as a starter (3.45 ERA).
Smoltz also pitched in the easier environment, throwing 99 percent of his career innings in the NL. Schilling pitched 77 percent of his innings in the NL, and Mussina was, of course, a full-time American Leaguer. Plus, Smoltz put in more innings before offense began to take off. He pitched 980 innings prior to 1993, compared to 371 for Schilling and 329 for Mussina.
Schilling also has one other significant edge on the other two: as such a big flyball and strikeout pitcher, he limited the chances for unearned runs behind him. giving up just 65 in his career. Smoltz allowed 107, and Mussina gave up 101. Going by RA, instead of ERA, gets us:
Smoltz - 3.60 (3.69 as a starter)
Schilling - 3.64 (3.63 as a starter)
Mussina - 3.94
Smoltz is the only one of the trio with a Cy Young Award, but the others fared better on the leaderboards overall:
Times in top 3 in league in ERA: Mussina 4, Schilling 2, Smoltz 0
Times in top 10 in league in ERA: Mussina 11, Schilling 9, Smoltz 8
20-win seasons: Schilling 2, Mussina 1, Smoltz 1
Times getting Cy Young votes: Mussina 9, Smoltz 5 (including once as RP), Schilling 4
Times leading league in strikeouts: Schilling 2, Smoltz 2, Mussina 0
Times in top 10 in league in strikeouts: Mussina 10, Smoltz 10, Schilling 9
Baseball-reference WAR has Mussina at 82.7 (24th among pitchers), Schilling at 80.7 (26th) and Smoltz at 66.5 (39th). Fangraphs WAR, which I’m less fond of for pitchers, has Schilling 17th, Mussina 18th and Smoltz 22nd.
And yet, Schilling was named on 29.2 percent of HOF ballots a year ago in his second year of eligibility. Mussina came in at 20.3 in his first year on the ballot. Right now, Smoltz has been named on 33 of 37 public ballots, as tallied up by Ryan Thibs.
So, why Smoltz? I spy three factors aiding his cause.
1. Excellent postseason record
Smoltz had a reputation for coming up big in October and was 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA in 27 starts and 14 relief appearances during his postseason career. It led to only one World Series victory, but I think the narrative there is that it’s because Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine weren’t as good in the postseason as during the first six months; Smoltz is the one who “stepped up.”
(Schilling also has this, going 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 starts and winning three World Series, for all of the good it’s done him so far. Mussina was 7-8 with a 3.42 ERA in 21 starts and two relief appearances in the postseason, never winning a World Series.)
2. His three years as closer
Dennis Eckersley cruised right into the Hall of Fame, too. The voters like their narratives and Smoltz’s time as an ace reliever differentiates him from pitchers with similar qualifications.
3. He was part of a “Big Three” with two guys already in the Hall of Fame.
I think it’s the last that seals it. Maddux and Glavine were just inducted into the Hall last year, with Glavine making it on the first ballot by a surprisingly easy margin. I think everyone realizes that Smoltz was the third best pitcher in the group, but the momentum is still carrying him. They’re a package deal.
In the grand scheme of things, Smoltz getting in the first ballot would be a very good thing for both Schilling and Mussina. They’d enter next year as the top starting pitchers on the ballot with Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez also quickly graduating. Next year’s class of new entries will include Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner, but no starters worthy of consideration (Mike Hampton is the best of the bunch) and only one lock among the hitters (Ken Griffey Jr.). Plus, I would think it’d become increasingly difficult for voters who marked Smoltz on their ballots not to go for the other two when their credentials are so similar.
Still, it frustrates me that so many voters aren’t giving Schilling and Mussina their due now. By the standards of the Hall of Fame, both are clearly worthy.