Here comes John Smoltz.
(What he’s going to do when he gets there is the question. Where does he fit in? Truth be told, I think it might be time to give Dice-K a couple of weeks in Florida to “work things out.” Plus, I guess it’s 50/50 that Brad Penny gets moved in the next few weeks. I’m thinking if Smoltz pitches well, he stays in the rotation and the Sox will be happy worrying about too many starters.)
I tend to tie Smoltz in with Curt Schilling a lot these days. Clearly, the expectation level upon Schilling’s arrival in Boston was far different than it is for Smoltz (Schilling was still one of the three or four best pitchers in baseball in 2004. I think any reasonable fan would sign for an 8-6 record and a 4.00 ERA from Smoltz this season.) today. But the idea is sort of the same, isn’t it? Respected veteran with impeccable postseason record comes in to provide some leadership mixed in with 95 MPH fastballs.
What strikes me is just how similar the careers of Schilling and Smoltz have been:
--Both guys were already established as solid up-and-coming stars when they became known nationally with brilliant postseason performances. (Smoltz in 1991 and Schilling in 1993.) And both the Braves and Phillies failed to win the World Series despite the efforts of Smoltz and Schilling.
--Career records? Schilling: 216-146 with a 3.46 ERA and 3,116 Ks. Smoltz: 210-147 with a 3.26 ERA and 3,011 Ks.
--Career ERA+? Schilling 127, Smoltz 127.
--Smoltz was acquired by the Braves in a 1987 trade with the Tigers for Doyle Alexander, one of the all-time steals. Schilling was part of three trades that could be grouped in the “steal” category. He was dealt to the Phillies straight up for Jason Grimsley in 1992, to Arizona for Omar Daal, Nelson Figueora, Travis Lee and Vicente Padilla in 2000 and, of course, to Boston for Michael Goss, Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon and Jorge de la Rosa in 2003. Has another player in history been the prize in three such lopsided deals?
--Both would be on any serious list of the 10 best pitchers in baseball from 1990-2005.
--At the absolute peak of their careers, both were probably among the three or four best pitchers in the league, but were not the top pitchers on their own teams.
--Schilling leads all postseason starters in career ERA (minimum 15 starts), Smoltz is fourth.
--Career playoff winning percentage? Schilling first, Smoltz second all time (minimum 10 starts.)
OK. We get it. So here’s a question: Who’s had the better career?
(And if it comes out as a push at the end, I have decided to use “Times Verbally Abusing Butch Stearns” as the tie-breaker.)
Peak Value (Best stretch of at least four years)
Not really close here, big edge to Schilling, who peaked from 2001-04. Smoltz has a pretty clear peak as well, a four-year stretch that started with his Cy Young season of 1996. Take a look at the averages from each guy during their runs:
Wins: Schilling: 18.5, Smoltz: 16.8
ERA: Schilling: 3.11, Smoltz: 3.01
Strikeouts: Schilling 251.5: Smoltz: 211.5
Walks: Schilling: 34.8, Smoltz: 50.5
Schilling led the league in 11 categories (wins twice, winning percentage, innings pitched, complete games and WHIP once each, BB/9 once and SO/BB four times) and finished second three times in Cy Young voting. (Bad luck, really. Both his 2001 and 2002 seasons would have won the Cy Young more often than not. But Randy Johnson was the correct choice both seasons.) Smoltz led the league in seven categories (wins once, winning percentage twice, innings pitched twice, strikeouts once and SO/9 once) and finished first once (1996) and fourth (1998) in Cy Young balloting.
If you want to call the wins and ERA a push, then you are looking at a plus-40 in K’s for Schilling with 15 less walks per season (of the eight combined seasons between the two, Schilling has four of the top five in WHIP). Schilling’s second-best four-year stretch (also from 1996-99) is pretty close to Smoltz’s best, but falls just a little short. Others who had their best four years from 1996-99? Alyssa Milano, Teri Hatcher, Jewel, Antoine Walker, Drew Bledsoe, WCW and The Farrelly Brothers.
I just assumed that Schilling’s 2001 season (22-6, 2.98 ERA, 293 K’s) would be his best. Turns out it was, but not by much. Probably his second-best season was 1992. He was just 14-11, but with a 2.35 ERA and a WHIP of .990 (which led the league. Here’s a double-double from Schilling in 1992 that you’ll never see again. He made 16 relief appearances and had 10 complete games. How unlikely is it to happen again? Since 1992 nine pitchers have led the league with double-digit complete game totals. Total combined outings out of the pen? Zero.)
Smoltz’s best season as a starter (we’ll get to the closer stuff later) was his Cy Young winner in 1996. Nobody has won more 24 games in a season since (Randy Johnson won 24 in 2002). Oh, also throw in four playoff wins and an All-Star Game victory. His 276 strikeouts in 1996 led the NL and set a career high by 35.
(Not hugely important, I guess, but Smoltz was not the right choice for the Cy Young in 1996. Kevin Brown finished second in the voting that year, but was clearly the better pitcher that season. I know why, of course, this happened: Smoltz won 24 games and Brown won 17. That is pretty much as far as most voters needed to look, I’m sure. What RBI are to MVP voters wins are to Cy Young voters. Brown had an ERA over a run lower than Smoltz’s -- 1.89 to 2.94 -- and led the league in WHIP. Not dissimilar to Pedro/Zito in 2002.)
I think Smoltz takes this one, though this is another that I could’ve lumped in the “both of these guys” opening. Maybe four or five seasons combined between the two that I’d even term “average”. But almost all of those belong to Schilling, who early in his career would occasionally mix in a season that you never saw from Smoltz (take 1994 -- a 2-8 record with a 4.48 ERA.)
After a rough rookie season (2-7, 5.48 ERA as a 21-year-old in 1988), Smoltz had 14 more years as a starter. In 13 of those his ERA was between 2.85 and 3.85 (his one “off” season was a 4.14 ERA in 1994, a number that was still better than the league average.) He was good when he was young and kind of had hair and he’s been good as an old man and co-captain (Jim Furyk) of my “Athletes that I always forget are bald until they take their hat off” team. Schilling only really had one other season that I would term an absolute whiff—his 2005 effort (5.69 ERA). Okay, he was 38 years old, we can give him a pass, right? Well, sure, except that as a 38-year-old Smoltz had a 14-7 record with a 3.06 ERA (eighth in the league) and made his seventh All-Star team.
Here’s what takes Schilling and Smoltz from borderline to (in my opinion, anyway) lock Hall of Famers. Just look at the World Series alone. Smoltz had a 2-2 record in eight starts with a 2.47 ERA. (And his record could easily be 5-1. He had a pair of NDs in the 1991 WS, where he had an 0.64 ERA and took a loss despite giving up just one run in eight innings of Game 5 vs. the Yankees in 1996.) Schilling might have the best record of any pitcher in World Series history. A 4-1 record with a 2.06 ERA and a WHIP of .896.
But I’m going with Smoltz. Why? Really only just sheer volume. It’d be impossible to knock Schilling’s postseason record. I mean, you are looking at an 11-2 playoff record with an ERA of 2.23. But he pitched “only” 133.1 postseason innings. Smoltz finished (well, for now) with a 15-4 record and a 2.65 ERA. The numbers are a little short vs. Schilling’s, but he has 207 career playoff innings. Pretty close to a full season. Think about that for a minute. That is close to a full season, 207 innings. And all 207 (okay, 98 percent of them, a blowout or two mixed in) were in serious white-knuckle time, Act III stuff all the way. And 15-4 with a 2.65 ERA would win the Cy Young in a lot of seasons.
Sure, there’s a huge X factor kicking around. From 2001-04 (Schilling’s peak as a starter) Smoltz moved to the bullpen and was the closer for the Braves for three seasons. Was he the best closer in baseball from 2002-04? Probably not (I’d go with Mariano Rivera), but he was easily in the top three. And his 2003 season -- 1.12 ERA, 45 saves and more strikeouts (73) than hits, walks, runs and home runs allowed combined (67) -- is an all-timer, no question.
So this is where it gets a little tricky. Can’t compare a starter to a reliever, but you don’t just dismiss Smoltz’s four seasons in the ‘pen. Is it fair to assume that if Smoltz has started all those seasons he would have another 50-60 wins? Probably. But it just doesn’t feel right to give someone 60 extra wins, does it? There was a reason Smoltz was moved to the bullpen in the first place (Tommy John surgery, missed all of 2000.) Is it just as fair to assume that without those low-inning seasons that Smoltz may not be pitching today? I think it might be. For the sake of this matchup I’m looking at three really good years out of the bullpen as the equal of one really good year as a starter. It’s the best I can do. I do think Smoltz vs. Schilling based solely on work as a closer is probably not worth debating.
(Smoltz never felt right as a closer, did he? Even he seemed uncomfortable the whole time. It always felt like he was slumming, kind of a Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible III kind of thing. I kind of felt about Smoltz as the closer the way I feel when I hear a Bryan Adams song on WZLX. Always nice to hear “Run to You,” but 106.7 should probably be home base.)
And The Verdict Is…
It would be easy to call this a push. Depends on what you value most. Smoltz has turned in season after season of B, B+ kind of work. No incredible peaks (as a starter) and no crashes. In his career he has had 14 seasons with at least 20 starts. In all 14 he had an ERA+ of at least 100. His worst WHIP was 1.28 in 1993 (league average that season was 1.33.)
Schilling had 13 seasons with at least 20 starts. In 12 of those he had an ERA+ of least 100. So he’s a little short there. But what gives Schilling the edge over Smoltz for me is that the peaks are significantly higher. You could make a case for Schilling’s best four seasons being equal or superior to Smoltz’s best season.
Between the two here are the 10 best seasons:
1. Schilling 2001
2. Schilling 1992
3. Smoltz 1996
4. Schilling 2003 (a forgotten season with an 8-9 record. But he finished fifth in the league in ERA, second in WHIP and averaged 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings.)
5. Schilling 2004
6. Smoltz 1998
7. Schilling 2002
8. Schilling 1997 (319 Ks)
9. Smoltz 1999
10. Schilling 1998
So seven out of ten for Schilling. To be fair, I think after the first six or so there are a bunch of seasons from either guy that can be thrown in the mix. But there is no doubt that four of the first six are Schilling’s. And a couple of seasons as a closer and one or two more above average years as a starter aren’t enough to get it done for Smoltz.