Dealt to the Braves when he was only a minor league prospect, John Smoltz soon established himself as a workhorse right-handed hurler for a young team on the verge of turning the corner.
In the midst of this prolonged success, a troublesome elbow forced Smoltz the starter to become Smoltz the closer for three-and-a-half years. But Smoltz would emerge from this uncharted path to become the only player in big league history with at least 200 career wins and 150 saves.
“My legacy will be however someone wants to view it,” Smoltz said as his playing career was coming to an end. “Certainly I’m proud of it. I don’t even know if I have a word for it. I mean, I literally gave everything I had every single time I went out there.”
Born May 15, 1967 in Detroit, Mich., Smoltz grew up in a baseball family with both a grandfather and his father having spent time working at Tiger Stadium. Smoltz was such a big Tigers fans growing up that after Detroit won the 1984 World Series, he and his father dug up a piece of Tiger Stadium sod and planted it in the family’s backyard.
Starring in both baseball and basketball at Waverly High School in Lansing, Mich., Smoltz’s initial plan was to attend Michigan State to play both sports. Instead, he signed with his hometown Tigers after being selected in the 22nd round of the 1985 MLB Draft.
After almost two seasons toiling in the Tigers’ minor league farm system, the 20-year-old Smoltz was acquired by Atlanta Braves general manager Bobby Cox for veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander on Aug. 12, 1987. At the time of the transaction, Smoltz was 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA pitching for the Double-A Glens Falls Tigers of the Eastern League, while Alexander, 36, was a 17-year veteran with a 5-10 record and a 4.13 ERA in 16 starts for the Braves.
“I was very disappointed,” Smoltz would recall years later. “I thought, ‘I’m going to the worst team in baseball.’ Then I switched my thoughts, realizing I can get to the big leagues quicker and help turn this franchise around, which has been a great story.”
In 1987, Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA during the final seven weeks of the season, helping Detroit win the AL East. But by the end of the 1989 season, Alexander's career was over.
By 1988, and after only a half-season at Triple-A Richmond, Smoltz was pitching in the majors. One season later, he was pitching in the All-Star Game.
Over his first five full seasons, from 1989 to 1993, Smoltz averaged 14 wins, 34 starts and 182 strikeouts with a 3.42 ERA. This stretch also included the Braves’ remarkable 1991 campaign, a worst-to-first season in which Atlanta won the NL pennant before falling in an epic seven-game World Series against the Minnesota Twins. The ’91 Fall Classic is arguably most remembered for Jack Morris’ 10-inning masterpiece in Game 7, shutting out the Braves, 1-0, where Smoltz tossed 7 1/3 scoreless innings while earning a no-decision.
Smoltz’s pitching repertoire included a trio of exceptional pitches: an impressive fastball, a slider that veered away from right-handed batters and a splitter that darted under the swings of left-handed batters.
Led by the “Big Three” of Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, the postseason would become quite familiar for Atlanta. Smoltz, who would became the only Braves player to be part of the franchise’s historic run of 14 consecutive division titles (in completed seasons) from 1991 to 2005, would appear in 41 postseason games, compiling a 15-4 record, a 2.67 ERA and a then-record 199 strikeouts. In five World Series, including the Braves' 1995 triumph over the Indians, Smoltz started eight games, finishing with a 2-2 record and a 2.47 ERA.
“I just relished it,” Smoltz said. “I could not wait for the big moment, the big game.”
Plagued by arm problems throughout his big league career, the first of a half dozen surgeries took place in September 1994 when doctors removed a large bone spur and some chips from the back of his right elbow.
Two years later, Smoltz captured the 1996 National League Cy Young Award on the strength of a 24-8 record (including 14 consecutive wins from April 9 to June 19), a 2.94 ERA and a league-best 276 strikeouts. Smoltz capturing the award ended Maddux’s Cy Young streak at four, giving the Braves four straight winners (Maddux had won his first Cy Young Award with the Cubs in 1992). And with Glavine’s wins in 1991 and 1998, Braves pitchers won six Cy Young awards in a span of eight seasons.
“Everybody felt I needed this to be on par with Greg and Tommy,” Smoltz said after winning the Cy Young. “At least winning the award takes the pressure off of that. I know down the road I’ll be honored to have played with those two guys.”
Despite having elbow surgery to remove bone chips prior to the season and a four-week disabled list stint with an inflamed elbow during the season, a resilient Smoltz finished 1998 with a 17-3 record. The following year, while spending time on the DL twice with a strained elbow, he tried to compensate for the pain by dropping down his pitching motion from overhand to a three-quarters delivery and finished 11-8.
The worst of Smoltz’s injuries came in 2000 when he missed entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March. A comeback in 2001 was derailed after five starts with time spent on the DL, but when he returned in July he was converted into a relief pitcher as the best chance to maximize his health.
After 159 wins as a stalwart starting pitcher for the Braves, the versatile Smoltz began anew as the team’s closer and the results were superb. Finishing out the 2001 season as the team’s new fireman, he had 10 saves in 11 chances with a 1.59 ERA.
In 2002, his first full season in the closer role, Smoltz set an NL record by converting 55 saves. Similar to his success as a starting pitcher, he would dominate his new role in the bullpen by saving 154 games in 168 opportunities in his 3½ seasons as an elite closer. Injuries continued to be a concern during this period as well, as he suffered from right elbow tendinitis in 2003 and had right elbow surgery in October 2004 to clean up scar tissue.
Preferring to be a starter, Smoltz was a workhorse after returning to the rotation in 2005, averaging 15 wins and 222 innings over the next three seasons. But two months after winning his 200th career game in May 2007, he was back on the DL with right shoulder tendinitis.
After five starts early in the 2008 season, one of which included him becoming the 16th big league pitcher to reach 3,000 career strikeouts, it was announced that Smoltz would need season-ending shoulder surgery.
Smoltz ended his career with stints with the Red Sox and Cardinals in 2009.
An eight-time All-Star, Smoltz finished his 21-year big league career with a 213-155 record, 154 saves, 3,084 strikeouts and a 3.33 ERA. The winner of 14-or-more games 10 times, he twice led the NL in wins (1996 and 2006), innings pitched (1996 and 1997) and strikeouts (1992 and 1996).
Smoltz was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015.