John Smoltz sets NL single-season saves record

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

John Smoltz was one of baseball’s best starting pitchers throughout the 1990s, with four All-Star Game selections and the 1996 National League Cy Young Award to his credit.

But by the end of the 2002 season, Smoltz had added another title: The most successful single-season reliever the NL had ever seen.

On Sept. 27, 2002, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium, Smoltz recorded his 54th save of the season, working 1.1 scoreless innings. It marked the most saves ever for an NL closer and made Smoltz just the second pitcher ever to reach 54 saves, following Bobby Thigpen in 1990.

The previous NL mark of 53 saves was set by Randy Myers of the Cubs in 1993 and matched by Trevor Hoffman of the Padres in 1998.

“This is the first game in a while I’ve had a nervous bug going,” Smoltz told The Associated Press.

In his first season as a full-time reliever, Smoltz racked up save totals like few before or since. He had 27 saves by the end of June, 39 saves on Aug. 1 and 49 saves on Sept. 1. But with the Braves coasting down the stretch to an eventual 19-game lead over the NL East runner-up Expos, Smoltz posted only seven saves in September.

“The last three weeks, opportunities have been scarce,” said Smoltz after his 54th save.

But overall, the 2002 season provided many reasons to celebrate for Smoltz, who missed the entire 2000 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He returned during the 2001 season as a relief pitcher, and from 2002-04 Smoltz averaged 48 saves per year.

His final total of 55 saves in 2002 was matched in 2003 by the Dodgers’ Eric Gagne but still stands as the most saves ever by an NL reliever.

“Nothing against starters,” Smoltz said in 2001. “But it takes a different attitude to be a reliever.”

But by 2005, Smoltz yearned for another chance to start, and the Braves welcomed him back to the rotation. From 2005-07 – his age 38, 39 and 40 seasons – Smoltz won 44 games, averaged better than 222 innings per year and led the NL in victories in 2006 with 16.

By the time his career ended following the 2009 season, Smoltz had become the only pitcher in history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves. He also became the 16th member of the 3,000-strikeout club, finishing with 3,084 Ks.

Smoltz was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series