Written by Colby Wilson
I hate these ‘If my life depended on it, I’d do blah blah blah’ scenarios, because no one’s life has ever depended on finding the perfect French dip sandwich or being able to drive from Nashville to Memphis in less than two-and-a-half hours. It’s a very hack way of saying ‘I find this thing to be better than any other of a list of a similar things’, but the first way is more eye-catching, so that’s how most people say it.
Having said that, if my life depended on the outcome of a baseball game, I’d want John Smoltz to get the ball.It’s a bit of bittersweet kismet that Smoltz will always be considered the third banana of his Hall of Fame pitching class, taking a (figurative) backseat to Pedro Martinez – the best pitcher of the Steroids Era whom I will guarantee did not use steroids, or if he did he deserves a refund – and Randy Johnson, who has an argument for ‘Best Left-handed Pitcher Who Ever Lived’ status.
After all, Smoltz was often the forgotten man among more ballyhooed teammates (and Hall of Fame brethren) Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
And that’s unfair for a lot of reasons, mostly because Maddux and Glavine got most of the Cy Young Awards and Smoltz lost basically two full years due to Tommy John surgery (remember, he pitched the second half of 1999 with a frayed ligament) and spent the next three in the bullpen, crushing any 300-win dreams (and the mortal-lock Hall of Fame vote that accompanies that plateau) he may have had.
A quick rundown of his accolades: eight-time All-Star (including appearances 18 years apart); the only member of the ‘200-win, 150-save’ club; in his first full season as a closer, all he did was lead the league in saves; of the 14 years he made at least 20 starts, he won at least 10 games in 13 of them (for the record, Maddux was 20-of-22 and Glavine was 18-of-20); Smoltz’s 1996 campaign, which earned him his only Cy Young (24-8, 2.94 ERA, league-leading 253.2 IP, league-leading 276 strikeouts, league-leading 2.64 FIP, league-leading 9.8 K/9, 1.00 WHIP, .216 opponent’s batting average) is flat-out better than either of Glavine’s award-winning seasons and at least begins to approach the heights reached during Maddux’s hallowed 1995 season (19-2, led the league in practically everything, including 1.63 ERA, 209.2 IP, 2.26 FIP, 0.81 WHIP, 8.85 K/BB ratio, 260 ERA+, along with holding opponents to a .197 average).
There’s every chance that Smoltz – a maniacally competitive athlete by all accounts who hates losing the way other people hate terrorism – saw Maddux’s 1995 and felt compelled to go out and kick ass at every turn next season to prove he was just as good.
Smoltz’s credentials were nearly other-wordly; whereas Schilling will always have the bloody sock and an 11-2 record despite only getting to the postseason five times, Smoltz went nearly every year of his career and nearly always got his team a win – in seven of nine postseason’s as a starter, Smoltz grabbed at least one victory, although it must be said that no victories and a 6.60 ERA during the 1995 title run smudges that accomplishment a bit. Continually rising to the occasion when your team needs it is the mark of a true Hall of Famer (which is the same reason it remains baffling Schilling continues to be left out).
Smoltz continues a run of Braves entering the Hall of Fame, which should add another member in 2018 when Chipper Jones becomes eligible. It’s nice seeing those old highlights whenever another one gets in – a reminder of better days. Much better days, if we’re thinking of 2015 in terms of rebuilding.
Two years ago, I advocated acquiring Josh Outman at the trade deadline. Great baseball name, then and now. He bounced about since then, from Cleveland to the Yankees, where he posted a 2.04 FIP in nine appearances. Never underestimate the luck a guy can have moving from the AL to the NL; I like Outman as a solid pick-up next season. Same for Jason Grilli as the set-up guy; he stands a better chance returning to form in Atlanta after a disastrous stint with the Angels.
A.J. Pierzynski, I’m a little more bearish on.
Reading Mark Bowman and David O’Brien following Grilli and Pierzynski’s physicals, one gets the sense that Pierzynski is branding himself as ‘the aging veteran who can tutor the young stud catcher’ and seems properly contrite and accepting of his 38-year old limitations. And maybe he is.
And maybe he’s the same guy that has napalmed bridges in Minnesota, San Francisco, Texas and Boston – an ‘A.J. Pierzynski negative’ Google search pops up about 25,000 results. Maybe I’m funny, but I like my stabilizing veteran influences to have some kind of history of stabilization.
Oh, the tantalization that comes with a new year though. Maybe Grilli returns to All-Star form. Maybe Pierzynski can hold it together. Maybe Dian Toscano is this year’s Jose Abreu. Maybe Jose Peraza is ready now. Maybe Nick Markakis will be better following neck surgery. Maybe the rotation grows up all at once. It’s January; still a nice time for all those maybe’s.