It’s late July in Cooperstown, which must mean another star pitcher from the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s is about to be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. This year it’s John Smoltz who played in Atlanta for 20 years.
Like our Mike Mussina vs. Tom Glavine article from last summer, a comparison of Smoltz and Mussina comes with a couple caveats. With the exception of eight starts in the summer of 2008, Smoltz played his entire career in the National League. This means that Smoltz faced pitchers in the batting box 928 times. They produced a .248 OPS against Smoltz (.680 for non-pitchers) and Smoltz had a 14.2 strikeout to walk ratio against them (2.75 for non-pitchers). Mussina, as we’ve discussed before, faced a pitcher in the batting box only 45 times in his career (20 K, 0 BB, .095 OPS). Smoltz also played four more seasons than Mussina, adding a season at the beginning of his career (when he was 21) and three more at the end (between ages 40 and 42). Unlike Mussina and Glavine, Smoltz dealt with a few major injuries in his career. He lost all of his age-33 season in 2000 to Tommy John surgery. When Smoltz returned, he spent four years coming out of Atlanta’s bullpen as one of the game’s best closers. Mussina and Smoltz actually spent almost the same number of years as a starter (18 to 17). To make the comparison fair, I’m going to start by comparing Smoltz’s years as a starter to Mussina’s. Then I’ll consider how the 7.4 WAR Smoltz gained from 285 innings as a reliever impacts the comparison.
The first thing that stands out is that Mussina made 56 more starts than Smoltz, which is much more than one season.This is a plus for Mussina as it demonstrates how reliably healthy he was throughout his career. Coincidentally, both players made exactly 12 starts as a rookie, so there is no impact from an abbreviated debut season. Regardless of how good Smotlz was as a closer, starters are simply more valuable.
Smoltz has a lower ERA as a starter, but most of the difference is due to him pitching in the weaker hitting league (the ERA difference between leagues is traditionally around 0.25). I’d prefer to use ERA+, but I can’t seem to find Smoltz’s ERA+ from only his starts. He had a 2.41 ERA as a reliever, which dropped his career mark to 3.33 against a FIP of 3.24. Mussina’s FIP is 3.57, but that was obviously all from his career as a starter.
Some of those stats are frightening similar. Smoltz had one more complete game than Moose and they both had the same WHIP as a starter even if you take the stat out to the thousandth place. Smoltz was a little better at preventing hits and homeruns (facing pitchers nearly a thousand times helps). Mussina struck out fewer hitters (thanks to the DH in the AL), but walked about one less hitter every game and a half. Both Smoltz and Mussina averaged six and two-thirds innings per start.
Wins Above Replacement
This is where Mussina dominates. Smoltz’s Cy Young award-winning season tops his list of best seasons by WAR and it’s better then every Mussina season except Moose’s great 1992 campaign (Dennis Eckersley and his 2.9 WAR and 51 saves won that year). On the other hand, Mussina’s second, third, and fourth best season are better than anything else Smoltz ever did over a calender year. Mussina averaged 5.7 WAR during his 10 best seasons, while Smoltz averaged “only” 4.88. If you think that adding Smoltz’s years as a closer would help him, it doesn’t. If you add his 3.3 in 2003 or his 2.2 in 2004, Mussina still beats Smoltz in every season when ranked by WAR.
Some of this might be skewed by Smoltz’s years spent in the bullpen. It’s not really his fault that the Braves decided that that should be his role staring in 2001 when he was 34 years-old. It’s conceivable that those years cost Smoltz four strong seasons of high strikeouts, low ERAs, and 4+ WAR totals. It’s also possible that if Smoltz had thrown more than 285.1 innings from 2000 to 2004, that he wouldn’t have produced three straight 4+ WAR seasons as a starter between the ages 38 and 40 (when three of his top six WAR seasons occured). We’ll never know and it’s therefore a difficult distinction to unpack.
Despite only winning one World Series, John Smoltz had tremendous success in the postseason. I’m not one who gives much credence to “clutch” stats or the idea that players can somehow perform better in the postseason, but John Smoltz makes a decent case that doing so is conceivable. In 209 postseason innings between 1991 and 2009, Smoltz had a lower ERA, lower hit rate, and a higher strikeout rate than he did during the regular season. His postseason ERA is nearly a run lower (2.67 to 3.60). His career postseason record is 15 wins against only four losses. During those four losses he only allowed eight runs in 27.1 innings. He posted a 2.47 ERA during eight World Series starts. His postseason game log is simply amazing. He never allowed more than five earned runs in any start, and only allowed precisely five on two occasions. For his efforts in the 1992 NLCS he was awarded the series MVP. His worst postseason start probably came during the Braves lone World Series victory in 1995, when he lasted less than three innings during the Indians’ Game 3 victory (to be fair, the Indians’ needed extra innings for the victory).
Mussina was good in the postseason, Smoltz was something else entirely.
Fond memories of John Smoltz pitching in well in the postseason, combined with the unique achievement of having 200 wins and 150 saves, and a bubbly personality helped lift John Smoltz into the Hall of Fame. I’m not arguing that he doesn’t belong there, he definitely does, but a Hall of Fame with John Smoltz (on his first ballot) and no Mike Mussina (he came in 14th) is absurdly incomplete. Mussina’s career was simply better. If Mussina had won a couple World Series or been given a Cy Young Award when he deserved it, or had an accomplished some unique stat, he would be. Hall of Fame voters who made Smoltz a slam-dunk first ballot election, but named Mussina on fewer than 25% of the ballots are the reason this website exists.
Patrick’s Note: Popping my head in from the wedding planning, and I’d just like to throw this reminder out there to anyone who reads this (awesome) post, that we of course both feel Smoltz deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. So if you’re a Braves fan, please do not hate us.