There’s no one in baseball history quite like John Smoltz.
Literally. The Detroit native is the only player ever to record at least 200 wins and 150 saves. In 21 seasons–20 with the Atlanta Braves and one split between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals–he pitched a total of 3,473 innings with a 3.24 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 3,084 strikeouts.
Drafted by his hometown Tigers in the 1985 draft, Smoltz was traded to the Braves in 1987 and made his major-league debut in 1988. By the next year, his first full season in the Show, he was an All-Star, finishing with a 2.94 ERA and 168 strikeouts in 29 starts.
By the time the 90’s rolled around, Smoltz had established himself as one of the premier starters in the league, combining with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine to form one of the best pitching trios of all time. He was an All-Star in ’92, ’93 and ’96. He helped the Braves, who were one of the worst teams in baseball in 1990, to eight division titles in the 90’s, including five World Series trips and a title in ’95. He won the Cy Young award in ’96, leading the league in wins (24), innings (253.2), strikeouts (276) and strikeouts per nine (9.8).
It was a very kind decade to Smoltz, but the turn of the century marked a turn in his career.
After missing the entire 2000 season due to Tommy John surgery, he returned in 2001 with five ineffective starts and another trip to the disabled list. Many would have simply given up by that point, but Smoltz simply altered his path, making the move to the bullpen.
In three-and-a-half seasons of relief, he recorded 154 saves with a 2.35 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 280 strikeouts in 260.1 innings. The remarkable turnaround, which saw him finish third in Cy Young voting in 2002, was indicative of the perseverance he showed throughout his entire career.
Smoltz moved back to the starting rotation in 2005, squeezing out two more All-Star seasons and three campaigns with at least 200 innings pitched. As a 40-year-old in 2007, he had a 3.11 ERA with 197 strikeouts in 205.2 innings.
There was nothing Smoltz didn’t do. He started games. He closed games. He hit, winning the Silver Slugger award in 1997. He was clutch, amassing a 15-4 record and four saves with a 2.67 ERA in 209.0 postseason innings. He overcame injuries.
Former teammate C.J. Nitkowski put it best:
I say this about John; he is the most gifted athlete I have ever shared a uniform with. He can do more than just throw a baseball, as many people know. He is also a tremendous person, and I believe his strong passion to be great in that area rivals his passion to be a great pitcher.
That passion has bred unparallelled results, and now, it no longer matters whether you prefer to call Smoltz a starter or a closer. Simply call him a Hall-of-Famer.