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Starting Nine: A study in No. 29, John Smoltz

From starter, to closer, back to starter, Smoltz created a one-of-a-kind resume on his path to Cooperstown

MLB: San Diego Padres at Atlanta Braves
John Smoltz is the the only pitcher in history with at least 200 wins and more than 150 saves.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

He rose as the Braves did, turning around a frustrating 1991 season to having the ball in his hands in two of the pivotal moments of that magical year, and would be the longest tenured in Atlanta of the three-headed pitching monster that defined an era.

John Smoltz was fire and emotion, the opposite side of the spectrum from his Big Three cohorts Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.

“[People] felt like I gave everything I had every time I pitched and that’s kind of what I felt like,” Smoltz told me for Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout. “I had fun. I learned to know the difference between having fun and being serious at the moment and people saw that. I was not afraid to show my emotions, but at the same time I learned how to handle my emotions. Easier said than done, because early on I didn’t do a very good job.”

He’d become an eight-time All-Star, a Cy Young winner, and like Glavine and Maddux, a Hall of Famer. This week’s Starting Nine continues the deep dives into the Braves retired numbers with No. 29, John Smoltz.

No. 3 Dale Murphy

No. 6 Bobby Cox

No. 10 Chipper Jones

No. 21 Warren Spahn

1. A trade and an upgraded arsenal

A Michigan native, it’s no secret what John Smoltz wanted out of his career: he wanted to play for the Detroit Tigers, who took him in the 22nd round of the 1985 draft. But after two seasons in the system — which included a 3.56 ERA with 47 strikeouts and 31 walks in 96 innings in Class A in 1986, and a 5.68 ERA the next year in Double-A — he was traded to the Braves for veteran right-hander Doyle Alexander. Despite Smoltz’s Hall of Fame future, the reality is, it worked out for both sides, as Alexander went 9-0 for the Tigers in helping them win the American League East. But it does make you wonder what could have been. The Braves had left it up to Detroit whether they’d receive Smoltz or lefty Steve Searcy in return for Alexander, and while Tigers GM Bill Lajoie wanted to send Searcy, he was overruled by team president Jim Campbell. Sent to the Instructional League after struggling at Triple-A Richmond, Smoltz was introduced to Leo Mazzone. The Tigers had tried to redefine Smoltz’s delivery, but Mazzone saw something very different. “We just need to upgrade your pitches,” he told Smoltz. “If we upgraded your pitches and improve your command, you’re going to be fine.” That included the four-seam slider that would become his calling card. It averaged 86 mph, came out looking like a fastball and broke away from righties, who hit a collective .216 against Smoltz. “I realized what a weapon it was and the luxury it had against right-handers,” Smoltz said. Would any of that had happened in Detroit? You can argue that talent finds a way, but the formula of Smoltz + the Braves + Mazzone makes you wonder if Smoltz would been what he became if the Tigers had sent Searcy — who lasted five big-league seasons with a 5.68 ERA — to Atlanta instead.

2. Smoltz’s place in the Big Three

Collectively, they combined to win seven National League Cy Youngs in the 1990s, and in an eight-year span, the Expos’ Pedro Martinez was the only pitcher who could keep the award out of the grasp of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux or John Smoltz. On their own in their time together, Maddux would lead in ERA (2.43), ERA+ (176), wins (145) and strikeouts (1,413), while Glavine was second in wins (135) and ERA+ (132) and Smoltz was No. 2 in ERA (3.24) and strikeouts (1,360), even with 52 fewer starts than Glavine and 48 less than Maddux due to a lost season and a move to the bullpen. There’s little debate that Maddux tops any debate on the trio, especially when you consider what he did before and after his time in Atlanta, and Glavine is the only one of the three to begin and end his career in a Braves uniform, but Smoltz was the longest tenured of the three with 20 seasons as a Brave, and the turn his career took in 2001 only elevates Smoltz’s place in this triumvirate and franchise lore.

3. Starter, then closer, then starter again

The 2000 season, missed with Tommy John surgery, proved to be the path to a resume unlike any other, as Smoltz transitioned into the bullpen and would become the only pitcher with at least 200 wins and more than 150 saves. He was a three-time All-Star in the closer role, setting a NL single-season record with 54 in 2002 and, eventually, the franchise record with 154 — which would be broken by Craig Kimbrel, and who pushed it to 186 before he was traded in 2015 — and then went back to the rotation in 2005, starting 33 games at age 38 and then made an MLB-high 35 starts the next season. “If I truly wanted to make the Hall of Fame, selfishly, I would have never left the bullpen,” Smoltz said. “I just would have stayed there and probably gotten who knows how many more saves? I was not about that.” We all know how that HOF comment played out, but what made him so effective in the role? The great Tony Gwynn penned a piece for ESPN saying, in part, “he has more than one quality pitch, he has to be the toughest one-inning pitcher to hit. Smoltz has four pitches — fastball, slider, splitter and change-up. His slider is his best pitch, but he also still throws the fastball at 98 mph and the splitty at 90. Then he even has the ability to make pitches up when he’s on the mound. It’s almost unfair trying to hit against him.”

4. Big Game John’s postseason excellence

Smoltz relished the big stage and provided some of the biggest moments. He kicked off the Braves’ dynasty with a complete game win over the Astros as Atlanta fulfilled the worst to first turnaround in 1991, then went on to shut out the Pirates in Game 7 of the NLCS to reach the World Series against the Twins. With 15 postseason wins, Smoltz is outranked by only the YankeesAndy Pettitte, and in 41 games overall with 27 starts, the Braves righty had a 2.67 ERA and 199 strikeouts to 67 walks. Boil that down to just the World Series and in eight starts, Smoltz had a 2.47 ERA, 11th all time among those with eight or more starts in the Fall Classic. But of all those starts, one is part of a duel that’s among the greatest ever in the sport’s championship. Which brings us to ...

5. The greatest World Series pitching duel ever?

Here’s where the Tigers storyline come in to play again. Smoltz’s boyhood idol growing up a Detroit fan was a key cog in those Tigers rotations: Jack Morris. And it was the future fellow Hall of Famer that Smoltz matched up with in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, the Braves’ righty tossing 7 2/3 scoreless innings to 10 scoreless innings by Morris as the Twins claimed the title. So disgusted was Smoltz that he flipped the ball to manager Bobby Cox on the mound, then watched Alejandro Pena lose the game in the 10th. Smoltz was photographed alone on the bench, watching as Minnesota celebrated. “I wanted to stay out there and, to be honest, it surprised me a little to come out of there,” Smoltz would say.

6. The man in the red shirt

On July 6, 1991, Smoltz gave up five runs and failed to make it out of the second inning en route to dropping to 2-11, the most losses in the majors, which set off a debate whether he should be moved to the bullpen or sent off to the minors. Cox stuck with Smoltz and his young gun responded with a second half in which he went 12-2 with a 2.63 ERA in 18 starts, due in no small part to a man in red. Smoltz began working with sports psychologist Dr. Jack Llewellyn, who whittled Smoltz’s work down to a video of six pitches — three to righties and three to lefties — that was the right-hander at his best, moments of success that he could mentally go back to as points of visualization for Smoltz whenever he got into trouble on the mound. And just as an added reminder, Dr. Llewellyn would sit behind home plate, wearing red to make it easier for his client to spot him. “The idea was for a focusing technique, and I can honestly say that I never, ever saw it, never looked in the stands,” Smoltz said of the doctor’s presence. “It became a good-luck thing with Jack.”

7. A man for all seasons

He has a platform and he loves to use it, but you’d find few figures so outspoken in their disdain for specialization in baseball, largely because Smoltz lived it. “I loved where I grew up. Seasonal changes meant seasonal sports. ... It is the reason I was able to play baseball as long as I did because I didn’t consume myself with one sport.” Smoltz was a standout in basketball for Waverly High School in Warren, Mich., and was an all-state selection his junior season and had talked to Michigan State’s Jud Heathcote (basketball) and Tom Smith (baseball) about playing both sports for the Spartans.” We’re still seeing John Smoltz, Athlete play itself out as he received sponsor exemptions to play in three PGA Tour Champions events in 2019.

8. “The next Lawrence Welk ...”

The highlight of Smoltz’s Hall of Fame induction speech was without question the wig. But in a heartfelt moment, Smoltz relayed his first dream wasn’t the game that would define him. It was pursuing what had brought his parents — John Sr. and Mary — together: the accordion. The two moonlighted their day jobs by teaching lessons on the instrument and John Sr. played it in the Detroit Tigers World Series victory party in 1968. Their son began playing at four and the Lansing, Mich., native won accordion-playing contests throughout the Midwest. His dream was to be the next Lawrence Welk. But by the age of seven he’d grown tired of playing and practicing and told his parents “I know what I’m gonna be in life and I’m gonna be a Major League Baseball player,’” he said in Cooperstown in 2015. “You loved me enough to give me room to go after my dream.” If you’ve never seen him, check out the embedded video above, because, yes, Smoltz is pretty legit.

9. So about that ping-pong shot

While we explored Smoltz’s multi-sport skills, his ping-pong play has come into focus of late after his daughter, Carly, filmed him trying — over, and over — to hit a long-range serve as the family tried to pass time amid the shelter-in-place orders we’re all dealing with. Smoltz failed — over and over — though to be fair, there is video evidence that his overall game isn’t nearly that bad, as he and colleague Sean Casey have waged some epic battles at the MLB Network headquarters. No, Smoltz isn’t Forrest Gump-level, but don’t his attempt Dude Perfect attempt fool you.