FanPost

Smoltz isn't similar to Eckerlsey. He's better. Much better.

Now that John Smoltz’s pitching career may be over, the hot dog eaters of the punditry world will start debating something that doesn’t have to be debated, whether Shmok’em Shmoltz is a Hall of Famer. That’s easy; of course he is, because Smoltz was a much, much better pitcher than another Hall of Famer to whom he is too often compared, Dennis Eckersley.

Sure, it’s easy to make the comparison. Both Smoltz and Eck began their careers as starters and, later, became two of the best closers in the game. But if you make just a cursory examination of the careers of both men, unlike so many of the "analysts" who get paid to bloviate simply because they have stats listed on Baseball Reference, the differences between Eckersley and Smoltz are obvious. No, this will not be a lecture involving Bill James’ marvelous tool, the Similarity Score. I should use Similarity Scores, but many folks would stop reading right there, drop a couple of curse words on me, and tell me to go back to watching the evil Leprechaun movie marathon on the Sy-Fy Channel. Instead, let’s see how Smoltz and Eck were not similar without the Similarity Score, and let me say up front that I am not arguing that Eckersley wasn’t a good pitcher.

The Cleveland Indians of the mid-70’s were a lot like the Indians of the first half of "Major League" when Dennis Eckersley joined them in 1975. He was only 20 and almost immediately was a key member of the Indians pitching staff. As a rookie, Eck made 34 appearances and 24 starts and was very good, going 13-7 with a 2.60 ERA (adjusted ERA+ of 144). Eckersley was also good the next two years, but not quite as good as his rookie season and was traded to the Red Sox, where he proceeded to have his two best years as a starter.

Eck had the only 20-win season of his career in 1978, going 20-8 with a 2.99 ERA (139 ERA+) and finished fourth in Cy Young voting. In ‘79, he was even better with a 150 ERA+ (2.99 ERA again), though he finished seventh in Cy Young voting because his record was "only" 17-10 (more on wins versus pitching stats that actually matter later). 1979, however, would be Dennis Eckersley’s high-water mark as a starting pitcher. He would never again have an ERA lower than 3.73 as an American League starter, and during the 1984 season, Eckersley and Mike Brumley were traded to the Chicago Cubs for (hold your nose, Red Sox fans) Bill Buckner.

That trade, along with another in-season trade that brought Rick Sutcliffe to the Cubbies, would help Chicago capture the nation’s hearts and the National League East. Eck was an effective starter again after the trade, going 10-8, 3.03 (128 ERA+) in 24 starts with the Cubs. After a decent ‘85, during which he missed some time with injury, Eckersley fell off the wagon in ‘86, going 6-11, 4.57 and was traded to his hometown Oakland A’s before the ‘87 season. Cubs fans might want to stop reading right there, as Chicago received the legendary Brian Guinn, Dave Wilder, and Mark Leonette from the A’s, and within two years, Dennis Eckersley would be, arguably, the best closer in baseball.

After spending part of 1987 in the bullpen, Eck became the full-time closer in ‘88, the year the re-Christened Athletics, AKA the Bash Brothers, would win the first of three straight pennants. Over the next five years, Eckersley was about as dominant as a closer could be. His save numbers for those seasons: 45, 33, 48, 43, 51. His ERA’s: 2.35, 1.56, 0.61, 2.96, 1.91. In 1993, Eck turned 38, and though he continued to rack up saves he was, at best, only an average pitcher, his ERAs well into the fours during his last three years in Oakland. After two years in St. Louis and one more season with the Red Sox, Eckersley retired with 197 wins, 390 saves, a 3.50 ERA (116 ERA+), and 2,401 career strikeouts. In his first year of eligibility, Eck was easily elected to the Hall of Fame in 2004, named on 83.2 percent of the ballots.

The year Eckersley became the best closer in the American League, John Smoltz made his major league debut with the Braves, and a hell of a debut it was. On July 23, 1988, Smoltz went eight innings, giving up only four hits and one run, with one walk and (surprise!) only two strikeouts in a 6-1 win over the New York Mets. Smoltz, however, wouldn’t even come close to pitching that well the rest of his rookie season, finishing 2-7 in 12 starts with a 5.48 ERA. He wouldn’t have an ERA remotely close to that level until his (presumably) final season.

Smoltz was good, but not exactly great, for the next six seasons. His ERA+ from ‘89 to ‘94 were 124, 104, 103, 129, 112, and 102. That 129 year was 1992, and Smoltz was very good that season, going 15-12, 2.85 with a league-leading 215 strikeouts. Some folks were worried Smoltz was about to hit the skids after he went 6-10, 4.14 during the work stoppage year of 1994. But that is exactly when John caught fire, or whatever metaphor you feel like using there.

Smoltz’s ERA+ from ‘95 until ‘99 were 134, 149, 138, 143, and 140. He won the Cy Young in 1996, going 24-8 (like Eck, Smoltz had just one 20-win season), 2.94 and he led the league with 276 strikeouts. By 1998, though, Smoltz began to miss time with a sore pitching elbow. He made only 26 starts in ‘98, though he did go 17-3, 2.90 and was fourth in Cy Young balloting. After being limited to 29 starts in ‘99, Smoltz had Tommy John surgery, which cost him all of 2000 and the first month-and-a-half of 2001.

His first five starts of ‘01, for the most part, stunk, and when he was shut down again after a start on June 9, Smoltz was 2-2, 5.76. After the All-Star break, the Braves decided to experiment with Smoltz as a closer, leaving (horror of horrors!) John Rocker without a job. Smoltz was, to be sarcastic, pretty good as a fireman, allowing earned runs in only five of his 31 appearances, and saving ten games with a 1.59 ERA during the second half.

The next year, Smoltz would finish third in Cy Young balloting after setting a National League record with 55 saves, but he actually pitched better in 2003 and 2004, especially ‘03 (45 saves and a 1.12 ERA). After a 44 save, 2.76 year in ‘04, Smoltz wanted out of the bullpen. The Braves obliged, and Smoltz was a very good starter for the next three years, with ERA+ of 138, 127, and 140. But in 2008, at age 41, the arm trouble returned. Smoltz made five starts in April, and even though four of them were excellent, including a pair of ten strikeout games, the pain was too much and he was shut down. Just over a month later, Smoltz tried to come back as a closer for one game, but after blowing a save against the Florida Marlins on June 2, he decided to shut down for the season and again have surgery.

The Braves decided not to take a chance on Smoltz in 2009. He subsequently made eight mostly horrific starts for the Red Sox and was decent in seven starts with the Cardinals last year. If Smoltz is indeed retired, he leaves the game with 213 wins, 154 saves, a 3.33 ERA (125 ERA+) and 3,084 career strikeouts.

So how is Smoltz that much better than Eck, especially when Eck has so many more saves and Smoltz only has a few more wins? The answer is that numbers, especially career win and save numbers with pitchers, are very deceptive when showing whether or not someone was one of the best players of their era, which unless I am mistaken, are the players the Hall is supposed to be enshrining. Dennis Eckersley was, probably, the best closer in the American League…for five seasons. For another six-and-a-half years, Eck was a closer or a reliever, but was nowhere near being the best in his league. Yet during those six-and-a-half years, Eck racked up 167 of his career saves. Eckersley was a good or very good starting pitcher for six seasons. But he was only among the best starters in his league twice, in 1978 and ‘79 when he finished fourth and seventh respectively in Cy Young voting. In Eck’s five-and-a-half other seasons as a starter, he was average or, more often, below average, which is why he was moved to the bullpen.

You could make the argument that Smoltz was also moved to the pen after he failed as a starter upon returning from injury in 2001. However, beginning in 1992, with the exception of his poor ‘94, Smoltz was considered to be among the best starters in the National League, notwithstanding that he had to compete with teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. In fact, after 1994 and save for those five starts in ‘01, he was not even close to being an average or below average pitcher until last year. He won the Cy Young in ‘96 and finished in the top ten in voting four other times, three as a starter, the other as a closer. No, he didn’t have as many wins as Maddux or Glavine, but (a) he would have had more wins had he not spent three-and-a-half years as a closer, and (b) pitchers aren’t always in control of wins, and as we have demonstrated, Smoltz was well above league-average in ERA adjusted for ballpark and era, usually more so than even Glavine.

Smoltz doesn’t have as many saves as Eckersley simply because Eck was a closer for ten-and-a-half seasons compared to only three-and-a-half for Smoltz. But Smoltz’s time as Atlanta’s fireman was at least as dominant, or close to it, as Eckersley’s marvelous five-year run in Oakland. Also, I haven’t even mentioned Smoltz’s postseason numbers, which are among the best in baseball history (41 games, 27 starts, 15-4, 2.67, four saves, 199 K’s in 209 innings). Eck’s postseason numbers are okay, but not that close to Smoltzie's.

Dennis Eckersley was an excellent pitcher, and I have no problem with him being in the Hall of Fame. But if John Smoltz doesn’t pitch again, come 2015, the baseball writers will have absolutely no excuse to not enshrine number 29 next to him.


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