Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were born a year apart and made their Major League debuts for the Braves a year apart. They were teammates in Atlanta from 1988 through 2002, went their separate ways, and then retired a year apart. They’ll hit the Hall of Fame ballot a year apart, and should both sail into the Hall, possibly in the same year, though it seems both more likely and more fitting that they’ll be inducted a year apart.
With the exception of the rotations Bobby Cox set every April and most Octobers for the fifteen years they spent together, Glavine and Smoltz have rarely been pitted against each other. It looks like Glavine’s about to be inducted into the Circle of Greats this week. Could Smoltz be right behind? Should Smoltz make the Circle before Glavine does? Let’s take a look at their respective accomplishments after the jump.
At 18, Glavine was drafted by the Braves in 1984. He broke in with the big club late in 1987, pitching 50 innings in which he walked almost twice as many batters as he struck out. By the time Glavine pitched without Smoltz again, two different Georges Bush had moved into and out of the White House, with the first President Clinton interceding.
An 18-year-old Smoltz was drafted by the Tigers in ’85, traded in August of ’87 for Doyle Alexander, and debuted in ’88, throwing 64 innings with no more success than a rookie Glavine had the prior year. Glavine showed promise in ’88, pitching a half win above replacement level. He led the NL with 17 losses, but struck out more than he walked and finished with a respectable 4.56 ERA.
1989 was the first year Glavine and Smoltz were both in the Braves’ rotation. Let’s compare them year-by-year:
Glavine 186 IP, 3.68 ERA, 90 K, 40 BB, 1.0 WAR (all WAR in this section per baseball-reference)
Smoltz 208 IP, 2.94 ERA, 168 K, 72 BB, 3.7 WAR
Smoltz emerges as a power pitcher and ace of the future. Glavine begins his tightrope act of throwing strikes and tempting the BABiP gods (the league hit .248 on balls in play against him in ’89).
Glavine 214 1/3 IP, 4.28 ERA, 129 K, 78 BB, 2.2 WAR
Smoltz 231 1/3 IP, 3.85 ERA, 170 K, 90 BB, 3.6 WAR
Interestingly, both regressed a bit in the control department. Glavine, who (somewhat strangely) got the Opening Day start, boosted his strikeouts by over 40%, but walked almost twice as many as he had in ’89. Most damaging was the predictable (in the post-Voros era, anyway) BABiP regression, as the league hit .304 on balls in play against him. Smoltz lost a little control, but added durability, completing six games.
Glavine 214 1/3 IP, 2.55 ERA, 192 K, 69 BB, 8.5 WAR
Smoltz 229 1/3 IP, 3.80 ERA, 148 K, 77 BB, 5.4 WAR
Up to this point, there was no indication that Glavine might be a pitcher of Smoltz’s caliber. Smoltz started on Opening Day in ’91, and Glavine started game four, after Charlie Liebrandt and Steve Avery. By year end, Glavine was an ace, as evidenced by his Cy Young Award and his start in Game One of the NLCS. Smoltz, of course, pitched the legendary World Series Game Seven, throwing seven-plus shutout innings and losing only when Jack Morris went ten and Gene Larkin drove in Dan Gladden in the tenth. Of course, Cox had both the luxury of a good starter available practically every day and the challenge of a competitive division. Smoltz won a key game 161 in the regular season, helping Atlanta hold off the Dodgers by one game. Glavine happened to be next in line when the LCS started, and Liebrandt got the Game One start against the Twins after Avery and Smoltz shut out the Pirates in Games Six and Seven. Both Glavine and Smoltz pitched very well throughout the playoffs, though Glavine only came out with one win.
Glavine 225 IP, 2.76 ERA, 129 K, 70 BB, 3.8 WAR
Smoltz 246 2/3 IP, 2.85 ERA, 215 K, 80 BB, 3.6 WAR
Everything you need to know about the run scoring environment in Atlanta in 1992: Smoltz threw almost 250 innings with an ERA under 3, led the league in strikeouts, and only earned 3.6 WAR (fangraphs credits him with 5.0). Smoltz completed nine games, including three shutouts. Glavine was great too, finishing seven games with five shutouts and finishing second in the Cy Young voting (his 20 wins surely helped there). Glavine was a disaster in the NLCS, giving up three homers in 7 1/3 innings in two losses, while Smoltz again pitched well, striking out 31 in five postseason starts.
Glavine 239 1/3 IP, 3.20 ERA, 120 K, 90 BB, 3.3 WAR
Smoltz 243 2/3 IP, 3.62 ERA, 208 K, 100 BB, 2.3 WAR
Think the NL umpires might have started squeezing Braves pitchers by this point? This was Smoltz’s career high in walks, and Glavine’s second-worst season in terms of control. Smoltz threw more innings, as he has every year so far in this analysis, and struck out enough hitters to justify the walks. Glavine kept finding ways to get outs (.280 BABiP) and wins (an NL-best 22). Glavine pitched well in an NLCS win, while Smoltz struck out ten, but walked five and gave up two unearned runs in a loss. It’s worth mentioning that Greg Maddux joined the Braves in ’93, starting on Opening Day (followed by Smoltz, Jay Howell, and Glavine), and won his second of four straight Cy Young Awards.
Glavine 364 IP, 3.49 ERA, 267 K, 136 BB, 6.9 WAR
Smoltz 327 1/3 IP, 3.57 ERA, 306 K, 120 BB, 5.1 WAR
I combined the two strike-shortened seasons here, including an off-year for both Glavine and Smoltz and a solid comeback for each, ending in the only World Series either ever won. Again, Smoltz was better from a strikeout/walk standpoint, but he gave up 30 homers in this period, to Glavine’s 19. In three rounds of playoffs in ’95, Glavine threw 28 innings, giving up just six runs, while Smoltz only pitched well in his NLCS start against Cincinnati, yielding nine runs in eight frames in his other two playoff starts.
Glavine 235 1/3 IP, 2.98 ERA, 181 K, 85 BB, 5.8 WAR
Smoltz 253 2/3 IP, 2.94 ERA, 276 K, 55 BB, 7.3 WAR
As is the case with several of these seasons, fangraphs sees Smoltz’s advantage here as more stark, 8.2 WAR to 5.0. Smoltz won his only Cy Young Award this season, throwing more innings and striking out more batters than Glavine would in any season of his career. Both were lights-out in the postseason, especially Smoltz, who gave up five runs in 38 innings, winning every game he started until Andy Pettitte outdueled him, 1-0, in a pivotal World Series Game Five.
Glavine 240 IP, 2.96 ERA, 152 K, 79 BB, 5.5 WAR
Smoltz 256 IP, 3.02 ERA, 241 K, 63 BB, 4.8 WAR
It’s hard to see how Glavine’s season was worth .7 more WAR in 1997, as the 16 extra innings would seem to partially offset the eleven extra runs. Fangraphs gives Smoltz a huge edge, 6.7 to 3.6, forgiving the league’s .297 BABiP against Smoltz (Glavine matched a career-low at .248). Glavine gave up 11 earned runs in 19 1/3 postseason innings, while Smoltz pitched well until giving up five runs in six innings in an NLCS loss to Florida.
Glavine 229 1/3 IP, 2.47 ERA, 157 K, 74 BB, 6.1 WAR
Smoltz 167 2/3, 2.90 ERA, 173 K, 44 BB, 3.3 WAR
You know why the Braves won something like 226 straight division titles? Sure, they had three aces, and two Joneses who could hit and field. But more than that, these guys never got hurt. Smoltz’s 1998 (in which he went 17-3) was the first strike-free season under 210 IP for either of these guys in almost a decade. This is when Glavine starts to separate himself (or catch up, depending on the source). Their career lines through 1997:
Glavine (age 31) 2,196 2/3 IP, 37.4 rWAR, 36.8 fWAR
Smoltz (age 30) 2,060 2/3 IP, 35.6 rWAR, 41.5 fWAR
In terms of run prevention, they were almost precisely as valuable per inning pitched to this point. From a fielding-independent perspective, Smoltz had an edge of about half a win per year. Smoltz would actually extend that edge in ’98 and ’99 despite arm troubles that cost him about a quarter of his turns in the rotation. Glavine held his BABiP in check long enough to prove that it was more than a fluke, but Smoltz’s greatness was both more conventional and more scintillating.
Anyway, both pitched well in the ’98 postseason, though Glavine took two tough-luck losses to the Padres in the NLCS. But perceptions started to change here. After Smoltz started Game One of both postseason series in ’98, Glavine got the Opening Day start in ’99 and would go on to start 141 games over the next four years, to Smoltz’s 34.
Glavine 234 IP, 4.12 ERA, 138 K, 83 BB, 2.8 WAR
Smoltz 186 1/3 IP, 3.19 ERA, 156 K, 40 BB, 4.4 WAR
Perhaps Glavine’s worst full season as a Brave, but at least he was on the field all year. Smoltz was still the better pitcher in terms of striking out hitters and preventing walks and runs, but Glavine was sturdier, pitching well right into October, while Smoltz gave up 13 runs in three postseason starts.
Glavine 241 IP 3.40 ERA, 152 K, 65 BB, 4.9 WAR
Smoltz did not pitch
Smoltz had Tommy John surgery; Glavine kept being Tom Glavine (though he got shelled in his Division Series start against St. Louis).
Glavine 219 1/3 IP, 3.57 ERA, 116 K, 97 BB, 3.6 WAR
Smoltz 59 IP, 3.36 ERA, 57 K, 10 BB, 0.8 WAR
Glavine, now 35, was no longer an ace at this point, completing just one game and walking nearly as many as he struck out, but he kept getting outs, thanks in large part to a .274 BABiP. Smoltz struggled as a starter after returning from surgery, and soon took over as closer. He was more effective than Glavine when he pitched, but falls short in value due to a drop in volume (though fangraphs only favors Glavine by a 1.5 to 1.2 margin). Such is the role of the modern closer. Both were solid in October.
Glavine 224 2/3, 2.96 ERA, 127 K, 78 BB, 4.1 WAR
Smoltz 80 1/3, 3.25 ERA, 85 K, 24 BB, 1.2 WAR
In their last season together, Glavine and Smoltz were both effective in their respective roles. Glavine had his last of six seasons with an ERA under 3. Smoltz broke the NL record for saves with 55 in 59 attempts, striking out over a batter an inning. Smoltz gave up one run in two short relief appearances; Glavine gave up 13 runs in two short playoff starts. And that was the end of Glavine as a Brave.
Glavine was a reliable starter for the Mets into his early forties. He pitched between 183 and 213 innings each of the next five years, with ERAs between 3.53 and 4.52, totaling 15.3 WAR. He retired after a sub-replacement level year with the Braves in 2008.
Smoltz was a dominant reliever in ’03 and ’04, then came back as a very good starter from ’05 to ’07. In 2003, he struck out 75, walked eight, and gave up two home runs, good for a 1.12 ERA and a 1.54 FIP. In 2006, he pitched 232 innings, striking out 211 and earning 5.9 rWAR, the second best figure of his career. He started 30 more games with Atlanta, Boston, and St. Louis at 41 and 42, with mixed results. His tacked on 21.3 more rWAR after 2002.
A few ways we might compare Glavine’s career to Smoltz’s:
WAR, per baseball-reference: Glavine 74.0 (plus 7.5 batting), Smoltz 66.5 (plus 3.0 batting)
WAR, per fangraphs: Glavine 63.9, Smoltz 78.4
Wins Above Average, per baseball-reference: Glavine 39.1; Smoltz 38.0
Hall Rating, per Hall of Stats: Glavine 148, Smoltz 135
In my opinion, each of these metrics sells short Smoltz’s greatness. While it’s true that a relief pitcher can’t be as valuable in 80 innings as an effective starter throwing 220, and it is true that it was ineffectiveness over five starts upon return from injury that relegated Smoltz to the bullpen, John Smoltz was an excellent pitcher from 2002 to 2004. During these three years, Glavine added 10.5 rWAR with a 3.64 ERA. Over that same span, Smoltz gets credit for 6.7 rWAR with a 2.47 ERA. It’s easier to dominate in the ninth inning than to blow away a full lineup three times, but WAR doesn’t give Smoltz the credit he deserves for being a better pitcher than Glavine over that time. He proved himself as a starter before and after closing, and pitched brilliantly as a closer when that’s what the team asked of him.
Furthermore, each of these guys added about a full season’s worth of playoff appearances, and Smoltz had more postseason success. To wit:
Glavine 218 1/3 IP, 3.30 ERA, 143 K, 87 BB
Smoltz 209 IP, 2.67 ERA, 199 K, 67 BB
Compare those innings and ERAs to similar regular seasons and it seems Glavine added something like 3.7 postseason wins, to Smoltz’s 4.8, perhaps with a little boost for quality of competition. Adjust for context as you see fit.
I’m confident saying that John Smoltz was a better pitcher than Tom Glavine. In almost 1,000 fewer big league innings, I’m not sure Smoltz was more valuable, but he was close, striking out 477 more hitters while walking 490 fewer. Each is certainly worthy of the Hall of Fame, and probably worthy of the Circle of Greats, which will honor 112 of the greatest players born before 1969.
Personally, I’d put Smoltz in first. In a vacuum, I might be inclined to say that Glavine’s extra 1,000 innings tip the scales, but the circumstances surrounding Smoltz’s move to the bullpen don’t justify taking his WAR at face value. He was more dominant than Glavine when both were starters throughout their primes and more effective later in their careers. That he didn’t pitch in 2000 and only threw 285 innings, to Glavine’s 840, from ’01 to ’04, is certainly a strike against Smoltz. But the Circle of Greats is about greatness, and very few pitchers were greater than John Smoltz in the 1990s and 2000s.