Saturday, August 10, 2013

Favorite Braves List - #2 Starter

(Previous information on this series can be found here.)

Favorite Braves List (so far)
Ace Starter - Greg Maddux
Catcher - Brian McCann
First Base - Fred McGriff
Second Base - Marcus Giles

Favorite Braves List - #2 Starter
John Smoltz

Time to add to the Walk-Off Walk Favorite Braves roster with a starter capable of following Greg Maddux. While back in the day, a trusty left-hander seemed to be Maddux's counterpart in the rotation, my choice for #2 starter is a right-hander who once he was able to control his ridiculous stuff, he became one of the best pitchers of the 90's and one of the greatest pitchers in franchise history and the 23rd best pitcher in baseball history according to fWAR.

John Smoltz was a 22nd rounder out of Waverly High School in 1985.  He probably would have gone to college, but he was able to sign with the Tigers and the Detroit-born right-hander could stay close to home.  Smoltz probably was less-than-thrilled with the decision the Tigers made on August 12th, 1987.  At the time of the trade, Detroit was 1.5 games behind the Jimy Williams-led Blue Jays.  They knew they had a pair of solid starters in Jack Morris and Frank Tanana, plus Walt Terrell was decent.  However, the bottom of their rotation struggled and they acquired the well-traveled Doyle Alexander to change their fate.  Alexander was in his second stint with the Braves and had played for six other teams during his career.  While his numbers were average for a bad Braves club in 1987, he played out of his mind down the stretch for the Tigers.  He finished 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 games and even finished fourth in the Cy Young and 13th in the MVP voting.  However, he was destroyed by the Twins in the ALCS and didn't get the Tigers to the World Series.

Smoltzie wasn't an established minor league prospect at the time of the trade.  He was in his first full season in the minors and getting lit up for AA Glens Fall.  In 21 games, he had a 5.68 ERA, 81 walks, 86 K's, and a 1.63 WHIP.  He didn't produce much better in three starts with AAA Richmond to finish the season.  He returned the next year and pitched much better.  In 20 starts, he had a 2.79 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP while improving his K/BB rate from 0.99 the previous year to 3.11 in 1988.  He logged an additional 12 starts in the majors, but wasn't very good.  Smoltz spent the next two seasons refining his game and was an All-Star in 1989.

At the age of 24, Smoltz became a household name despite 20 wild pitches in 1991.  He was especially good in the playoffs with his masterful toe-to-toe battle with Morris in Game Seven.  The following season, he became a strikeout artist, notching his first of two strikeout titles with 215.  He also threw three shutouts, a number that only Tom Glavine (1989 and 1992), Denny Neagle (1997), and Maddux (1998) have bettered as a Brave since Smoltz's arrival in the bigs. Further, he reached 5 WAR for the first time in '92.  He would pick up his second 200 strikeout season in 1993, but still struggled with his control and reached triple digits in walks for the first time.  Over the next two years, his numbers were muted by both nagging injuries and strike-shorten seasons.

Smoltz exploded for his breakout Cy Young season in 1996.  His FIP was a microscopic 2.64 and he paced the Braves with an 8.2 WAR, which is quite difficult to do considering how good Maddux (7.6 WAR) and Glavine (5.0 WAR) were that year.  He struck out 276 to just 55 walks.  The former is a modern record, beating Phil Niekro's 262 strikeouts in 1977.  His K/BB rate from 1996 is the 8th best in modern franchise history.  Since 1900, only Maddux (five times), Javier Vazquez (2009), and Kris Medlen last year had a better K/BB rate than Smoltz's 5.02.  He was two votes away from an unanimous Cy Young as Kevin Brown was pretty good, too.  Still, he grabbed his only Cy Young and finished 11th in the MVP voting.

His follow-up campaign was solid, though not nearly as dominating.  He did strike out another 241 batters and set a career-high with 256 innings pitched.  Maybe that wasn't a good thing as injuries would shorten his next two seasons and completely wipe out his 2000 season, however he did have his best offensive season in '99, slashing his way to .274/.333/.387 with his second homer of his career.  He tried to come back in 2001, but quickly went down with injuries again and came back later in the season as a closer, saving the first ten of 154 in 2001.  In 2002, he pitched out of his mind, finishing third in the Cy Young and setting the franchise record with 55 saves.  The following two seasons would place second and third in saves in franchise history at the time.  Craig Kimbrel broke up Smoltz's monopoly of the top three spots in 2011 with 46 saves, second most in franchise history.

With 154 saves and three healthy years, Smoltz moved back to the rotation in 2005 and over the next three seasons, he posted WAR's of 4.9, 5.2, and 5.2 in 2007, his last healthy season in the majors.  Injuries limited him to six games and 28 innings in 2008.  He left the organization the following season, playing with the Red Sox and Cardinals with little success.  He did appear out of the pen for the Cardinals in the '09 NLDS, striking out five in two innings to give him 199 postseason K's in 209 ING.

Smoltz was easily one of the most likable members of the Braves, solidly part of the Big Three and a true standout from them.  He could bring the heat and his splitter ranks among's the game's very best.  His slider may have been even better, though, a tremendous pitch that buckled knees from Tony Gwynn to Barry Bonds.  When people want a power guy on the mound in a Game Seven atmosphere, Smoltz is that guy.  He probably never received the press he deserved, pitching in a rotation with Maddux and Glavine and constant other great complimentary guys over the year.  It wasn't until later in his career that he truly became THE GUY in Atlanta.  He wasn't one to withhold his opinions, nor was he against scowling at an umpire for a call he didn't like.  At his best, he was one of the most intimating pitchers on the mound, a tough match-up in the first inning or ninth inning.  At his worst, he was damn good.

2 comments:

  1. I think you're showing a lack of historical perspective here. Maddux is a clear number one in Braves history, and Smoltz and Glavine are both HoF material -- but you didn't even bring up Warren Spahn, and I'll take him as a #2 starter over Smoltz and Glavine any day.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment. As I mentioned in the original article to this list found at http://walkoffwalk.blogspot.com/2012/06/favorite-braves-list.html , this list is not a "BEST" list, but a favorite list decided by actually watching the Braves. I only started to do that in 1991 so only players from that year-on will be eligible for the list. Plenty of great blogs have done a best list (my favorite was Mac's Best 44 Braves at bravesjournal) and I feel there is little I can add on there. But I like the idea of revisiting my favorite players because it allows me the opportunity to kick a player off the team for a new one.

      But I should make that clear at the beginning of every post to the Favorite Braves Team to avoid confusion.

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