The other night I was watching MLB Network's Hall of Fame discussion show when Marty Noble, longtime writer and columnist for Newsday and now a contributor to MLB.com, explained why his ballot this year would include only Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, saying something like, "You don't even have to think about those three or do any research. You just know they're Hall of Famers."
As it turns out, Noble has used this thought process before. Just last year, in voting for Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Jack Morris, he wrote, "The candidacies of Maddux and Glavine made this vote easy and enjoyable. No angst. They're automatic; there was no need for research or investigation. Morris never has approached automatic status, but he clearly deserves the benefit of the doubt."
You just know. Automatic.
OK. Can you tell the difference between these pitchers?
Pitcher A: 270-153, 3.68 ERA, 3,562.2 IP, 2,813 SO
Pitcher B: 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 3,261 IP, 3,116 SO
Pitcher C: 194-126, 3.46 ERA, 2,898.2 IP, 2,668 SO
Pitcher D: 213-155, 3.33 ERA, 3,473 IP, 3,084 SO
Pitcher E: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 3,256.1 IP, 2,397 SO
Pretty hard to differentiate among the five, right? Pitcher A has the highest ERA but won the most games and pitched the most innings. Pitcher B has the same ERA as Pitcher C but won more games -- and also lost more games. Pitcher B has about the same win-loss record and innings pitched as Pitcher E but has more strikeouts while Pitcher E has the better ERA. Pitcher A won 57 more games than Pitcher D while losing only two fewer. Pitchers B, C, D and E all played on World Series winners while pitchers A, B and D were the best performers in the postseason -- although Pitcher C was 8-3 in the postseason. Pitchers C, D and E all won Cy Young Awards, but Pitcher B has the highest total of Cy Young award shares (percentage of points available). Whew.
Pitcher A is Mike Mussina. Pitcher B is Curt Schilling. Pitcher C is David Cone. Pitcher D is John Smoltz. Pitcher E is Kevin Brown. Cone and Brown combined to receive just 33 votes in their one year on the ballot, their Hall of Fame cases quickly dismissed. Mussina and Schilling both received less than 30 percent of the vote last year.
But Smoltz? According to this tabulation at Baseball Think Factory that tracks all public Hall of Fame votes, as of Friday morning, Smoltz's percentage stands at 89 percent, meaning he'll easily sail into Cooperstown in his first year on the ballot.
Apparently, Marty Noble isn't the only one who just knows Smoltz is a Hall of Famer.
Call me confused.
Now, I'm guessing the percentages listed at Baseball Think Factory are higher than what the actual vote totals will be; active members/beat writers of the Baseball Writers Association who publicly list their ballots tend to have more "yes" votes than the inactive members who haven't covered baseball in years. That page lists Schilling at 58 percent and Mussina at 44 percent, both players doubling their percentage from a year ago, which seems unlikely.
So why Smoltz instead of the others? In terms of career pitching wins above replacement via Baseball-Reference.com, Smoltz doesn't appear to be the best of this group:
You can certainly boost Smoltz ahead of Brown based on Smoltz's postseason numbers, and I guess you can try to boost Smoltz ahead of Mussina based on the same logic (although Mussina was a solid postseason pitcher with a 3.42 ERA), but that doesn't work when comparing Smoltz to Schilling, considering they are two of the greatest postseason pitchers of all time. (Smoltz was 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA while Schilling was 11-2, 2.23 ERA. Schilling also won three World Series titles compared with just one for Smoltz.)
Now, I've left something out. Smoltz spent three years as a closer from 2002 to 2004, recording 144 saves (plus 10 more in 2001). Is that what's swaying voters? Ben Lindbergh of Grantland has an in-depth analysis of the Smoltz phenomenon and points out 14 of the 99 public ballots he had seen at the time of his article mentioned versatility as a reason they were voting for Smoltz.
Ben suggests this is a key factor for Smoltz's support:
The portrayal of Smoltz as a Swiss Army ace relies on shaky logic: Every elite starter has the ability to be a dominant closer, and Smoltz shouldn’t get extra credit for the fragility that temporarily forced his team to use him in a less valuable role. After all, Mussina wouldn’t be a better candidate if he’d taken a sabbatical from starting to pitch out of the bullpen for Baltimore.
While Schilling, Mussina, and Smoltz were all great starters, Smoltz’s story has a hook: As many voters mentioned, he did something unprecedented, becoming the first pitcher to win 200 games and save 150 more. And while he didn’t come close to the magic milestone of 300 wins, 200 plus 150 equals 350, which is greater than 300. That’s the kind of math that even the most WAR-averse voters don’t mind.
I don't know if that's what voters are doing, but if they are, they're certainly overrating the value of Smoltz's tenure in the bullpen. Just compare his three years in the bullpen with some other closers during those same seasons:
Eric Gagne: 13-7, 1.79 ERA, 152 saves (6 blown saves)
Smoltz: 3-5, 2.47 ERA, 144 saves (13)
Mariano Rivera: 10-8, 2.03 ERA, 121 saves (14)
Armando Benitez: 7-6, 2.19 ERA, 101 saves (16)
Jason Isringhausen: 7-5, 2.61 ERA, 101 saves (15)
Billy Wagner: 9-6, 2.19 ERA, 100 saves (13)
Keith Foulke: 16-8, 2.37 ERA, 86 saves (15)
Trevor Hoffman: 5-8, 2.49 ERA, 79 saves (7)
Francisco Cordero: 10-12, 2.39 ERA, 74 saves (17)
I'm not dismissing Smoltz's performance; he was arguably the second-best closer in that period behind Gagne. But you can see there are many other relievers who posted a similar stingy ERA. And those are just the years 2002-2004. You can find many other closers who had great three-year runs of dominance. It's just not a unique accomplishment.
I think there's something else going on, something more simplistic: I think voters are just overrating Smoltz. Think about it: The Braves won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005, not counting the 1994 strike season. Smoltz was there the entire time. The Braves won before Maddux joined the team; they won after Glavine left the team. They won after both Glavine and Maddux had left. Meanwhile, Smoltz remained. (Of course, they also won in 2000 when Smoltz missed the entire season and 2001 when he pitched sparingly, but you get the point: Smoltz was always there.)
So that's what it became: Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux. The Big Three. Interchangeable to a degree. Plus, Smoltz was better than those two in the postseason, clouding the perception of how good he was in the regular season. Here's what I mean. These are the best regular-season performances by Braves pitchers during that 1991-2005 run:
1. Maddux, 1995: 9.7 WAR
2. Maddux, 1994: 8.5
3. Glavine, 1991: 8.5
4. Maddux, 1997: 7.8
5. Smoltz, 1996: 7.3
6. Maddux, 1996: 7.1
7. Maddux, 2000: 6.6
8. Maddux, 1998: 6.6
9. Kevin Millwood, 1999: 6.1
10. Glavine, 1998: 6.1
11. Glavine, 1996: 5.8
12. Maddux, 1993: 5.8
13. Glavine, 1997: 5.5
14. Smoltz, 1991: 5.4
15. Steve Avery, 1991: 5.2
Maddux has seven seasons in the top 15, Glavine four and Smoltz two. (Smoltz also had a 5.9-WAR season in 2006 after the title run came to an end.)
We can do a similar comparison with our group of five pitchers listed earlier. Here are all their seasons with a WAR of 5.0 or higher:
1. Schilling, 2001: 8.8
2. Schilling, 2002: 8.7
3. Brown, 1998: 8.6
4. Mussina, 1992: 8.2
5. Brown, 1996: 8.0
6. Schilling, 2004: 7.9
7. Smoltz, 1996: 7.3
8. Brown, 2000: 7.2
8. Cone, 1993: 7.2
10. Mussina, 2001: 7.1
11. Brown, 1997: 7.0
12. Cone, 1994: 6.8
12. Cone 1997: 6.8
14. Mussina, 2003: 6.6
15. Schilling, 1997: 6.3
16. Schilling, 1998: 6.2
16. Brown, 1999: 6.2
18. Mussina, 1995: 6.1
19. Schilling, 2003: 6.0
20. Schilling, 1992: 5.9
20. Smoltz, 2006: 5.9
22. Cone, 1988: 5.6
22. Mussina, 2000: 5.6
24. Schilling, 2006: 5.5
24. Mussina, 1997: 5.5
26. Mussina: 1994: 5.4
26. Smoltz, 1991: 5.4
28. Mussina, 2008: 5.2
29. Cone, 1991: 5.1
30. Mussina, 1998: 5.0
30. Mussina, 2006: 5.0
"Great" seasons is one way to evaluate Hall of Famers, and Smoltz just didn't have quite as many Cy Young-caliber seasons as the other pitchers. Now, some of this is hidden in the numbers, which is why his ERA is a little lower than Schilling's or Mussina's. Smoltz pitched in the National League and in more neutral parks, whereas Mussina spent his entire career in the American League in two good hitter's parks in Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium. Schilling pitched in better hitter's parks in Philadelphia (old Veterans Stadium) and Arizona.
Schilling is also hurt, I think, by some of the interruptions and timing in his career. He was a postseason hero for the Phillies in 1993 but missed time in 1994 and 1995. He struck out 300 batters in 1997 and 1998 but played on bad Phillies teams and was underrated at the time. He then missed some time in 1999. In 2001, 2002 and 2004 with the Diamondbacks and then the Red Sox he won 22, 23 and 21 games ... but finished second in the Cy Young voting each year. In 2003, however, he was injured again and went just 8-9 (although he pitched well). He was injured again in 2005 and pitched poorly before finishing off his career with a World Series win in 2007.
As Dan Szymborski wrote the other day on ESPN Insider,
ERA, while a better stat than pitcher wins, suffers a great deal in many cases when context is added. Schilling played almost entirely in a high-offense era and retired before that era ended. In the parks and leagues Schilling pitched in, a league-average ERA over his career would have been 4.39. Contrast that with a pitcher like Don Drysdale, who pitched a lot in Dodger Stadium in the 1960s, resulting in a 3.53 ERA being league-average over the course of his career. ERA+ compares ERA to league average and Schilling's 127 meets Hall of Fame standards -- the other pitchers with more than 3000 innings and an ERA+ between 125 and 129 are Schilling, four Hall of Famers (Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Stan Coveleski) and Kevin Brown.
So even if the seasons all end in September, Schilling would have a strong argument for Hall of Fame induction. However, the postseason is an important part of Schilling's career highlight, and for all the great tools we have to support arguments these days, sabermetrics hasn't done a whole lot with playoff performance. Yet the story of Schilling's career is woefully incomplete without it.
All this isn't meant to knock Smoltz. In my book, he is a deserving Hall of Famer. But Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina are more deserving. If I had to line them up, I'd go:
I'll be happy if Smoltz is on stage in July next to the Big Unit and Pedro. I'd just like to see Schilling and Mussina with him.