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Unparalleled John Smoltz a worthy Hall of Fame recipient

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John Smoltz was great, but in a couple of ways he remains unique. In addition to his tremendous success, he merits celebration for more than just a career of dominating opposing hitters.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

John Smoltz will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this Sunday, and it's an honor well-deserved. His accolades are essentially self-evident:

Smoltz's dominance is hard to overstate. He pitched for 21 seasons and 3,473 innings (that's about 2.4 full seasons for an entire team) in an era where hitters were creaming the ball, and did so with aplomb. By FIP, which is admittedly somewhat favorable to Smoltz given that he struck guys out by the bucketful, he was the 6th-most valuable hurler over his career span. The guys ahead of him are pitching luminaries: Maddux, Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Mike Mussina. (Mussina passed Smoltz in value by pitching more innings, but Smoltz has him beat on a per-inning basis.) On a runs allowed basis, only Glavine and Schilling are added to the ledger ahead of him.

When voters elected Smoltzie into the Hall, I wrote about some of the coolest things he had accomplished in his career, beyond the sorts of obvious things that made him ripe for inclusion. Recently, while thinking about his impending induction, I realized that despite all those fun factoids (seriously, losing a playoff game without allowing an earned run?), there were a couple of things about Smoltz that hadn't yet dawned on me. So, for your consideration, I present the following findings. I hope they deepen your appreciation of John Smoltz as they did mine. Both of them have to do with the adversity Smoltz faced as a result of issues with his elbow ligament, but like most things, the fierce competitor rose to the challenge and overcame it with aplomb.

Smoltz Unfazed by Tommy John Surgery

Here's something that might blow your mind: John Smoltz is the first Hall of Fame inductee to have undergone Tommy John surgery. This was reported at least somewhat when Smoltz was elected, but it's a little crazy. On the one hand, while TJS is ubiquitous these days, that was less the case a decade or two ago. On the other hand, a lot of good-to-great pitchers of yesteryear (some of whom are still ticking!) have gone under the knife for this procedure: Kenny Rogers, Kerry Wood, AJ Burnett, Tim Hudson, the list goes on.

Yet Smoltz stands out. There's a lot of conflicting research about the overall effects of undergoing TJS on a pitcher's chances of maintaining a given performance level, and issues like survivor bias and the difficulty in crafting an effective control group will cloud the issue even further. But if you scan the list of pitchers that have been subject to it, two things jump out: 1) post-TJS, a lot of pitchers lapse into continued or recurrent injury troubles; and, 2) there doesn't appear to be a consistent pattern of good pitchers picking up where they left off.

Before his elbow ligament troubles and subsequent surgery, Smoltz posted an 83 ERA- and an 80 FIP- (in other words, he was 17 percent and 20 percent better than the league by ERA and FIP, respectively). After his return to starting, he posted an 80 ERA- and a 76 FIP-. All this despite aging, despite taking time off from starting to be a highly successful closer, and of course, despite the surgery that knocked him out in the first place.

The injury robbed Smoltz of an entire season and a few years of serving as a starter (which, as you may recall, was voluntary on Smoltz's part to stabilize the bullpen as he worked himself back into the swing of pitching). But it didn't rob him of his effectiveness or his consistency. His 2005, 2006, and 2007 seasons (ages 38, 39, and 40 for those keeping score at home) were very similar to his 1998 and 1999 seasons, during which he was more than half a decade younger. Arguably, two of his best four seasons were 2006 and 2007, after the surgery and as he approached the age where most players hang up their cleats.

One more thing really gets me: it was a torn labrum (another brutal injury for pitchers) that hampered Smoltz's 2008 season. He was struck with inflammation a month into the campaign, took a DL stint, came back and tried to work through it as a reliever, and had season-ending shoulder surgery shortly thereafter. Some will say that after that surgery the writing was on the wall and he was done, pointing to a 6.35 ERA in his final season. But a closer look reveals that he was still throwing up an FIP under 4.00, with a strikeout rate comparable to his career average and somehow, a lower walk rate. The real culprit for his bad performance? A crazy-low 61% strand rate, combined with a crazy high BABIP-against in the .350s. Despite the TJS, the torn labrum, and being 42 years of age, he kept on ticking. Retirement was on the horizon, but I think he had enough savvy in his brain and his right arm to keep going for a while yet if he wanted to.

There and Back Again

Baseball is full of starter-to-reliever conversions. Some are because a guy's stuff plays better in the bullpen, some are a way to salvage a once-promising career marred by ineffectiveness or a lack of development, and some are necessitated by the effects of injuries. Eric Gagne, who obliterated batters during his peak as a begoggled closer for the Dodgers, was somewhere between dreadful and uninspiring during his first 300 or so innings as a major league pitcher, which came in a starting role. Dennis Eckersley, probably the greatest exemplar of this transition, went from a solid starter to a life-saving reliever to a dominating closer.

But how often have you heard of a pitcher that went from being a premier starter, to being a premier closer, and then back to starting, where he once again lived up to expectations and prior levels of success? I haven't done a comprehensive survey of baseball history, but I'll volunteer the hypothesis that this probably happened just once: when John Smoltz did it.

To do a quick check of this hypothesis, I looked at all pitchers with decently-lengthy careers that had both some decent accrued value (around 20 WAR) as well as a few handfuls of saves. I then went through this list, player by player. Pretty much everyone I examined, Smoltz aside, was the same story: moderately effective starter that transitioned to a reliever/closer at some point down the line. In fact, the only guy I found that really deviated from this pattern was Rick Aguilera (yes, one and the same who got into a fight with Houston police in the 80s), who went from mediocre starter to effective reliever, then managed to make a case for him to start again for one decent season before being shuffled back to the relief corps.

Now, it's possible that there have been some guys I've overlooked, as it's not easy to automate a search for pitchers that have transitioned roles like this multiple times. But in tinkering with the parameters to try to include only guys with somewhat notable careers, Smoltz appears to be not just at the head of the pack, but really, the entire pack.

It couldn't have been easy to come back from elbow surgery, hop into a new role, excel at it like nobody's business, and then slide right back in to your old job and do that just as well. But John Smoltz, the perennial contender and hyper-achiever, did just that.

As Eno Sarris pointed out, John Smoltz was, in effect, potentially two Hall of Famers rolled into one awesome guy. The fact that he managed this while recovering from a surgery that sunders careers and was able to get right back onto the horse of being a dominant starter in the twilight of his career is absurd in its awesomeness.

So here's to you, John Smoltz. I hope your induction this Sunday is everything you wanted it to be. You were my favorite player to watch, and even now that your career is over, you keep finding ways to impress me. Cheers. I'd wish you the best of luck in whatever you're headed for next, but I don't think you need it.