Glavine vs. Smoltz

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:

1989

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).

1990

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.

1991

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.

1992

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.

1993

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.

1994-1995

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.

1996

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.

1997

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.

1998

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.

1999

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.

2000

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).

2001

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.

2002

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.

2003-2009

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.

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39 Comments on "Glavine vs. Smoltz"

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Dr. Doom
Guest
Thanks, Bryan. Nice write-up. Now, I know I’ve explained this on other threads, but I like to use a neutralized pitching record. I first take 100/(ERA+), which equals ERA- (more or less). Then I plug it into the Pythagorean theorem for the “runs allowed” component, using 100 as the “runs scored” portion [100^2/(100^2+ERA-^2). That gives a winning percentage. In this case, it’s .581 for Glavine, .610 for Smoltz. Then, I take the pitchers’ number of innings pitched, and divide by 9. This gives a number of decisions. 490 for Glavine, 386 for Smoltz. Take this number and multiply it by… Read more »
Dr. Doom
Guest

Whoops! In that first paragraph, it’s supposed to say 10000/ERA+, not 100/ERA+.

Ed
Guest

Glavine’s 7.5 batting WAR may partially explain why he won more games than “expected”. Of course Smoltz was also a decent hitter (3.0 WAR) so we can’t use that as an explanation for why he lost 20 more than expected.

Another factor….8.7% of Glavine’s runs allowed were unearned whereas for Smoltz it was only 7.7%. Those unearned runs, of course, don’t get picked up by ERA+.

GrandyMan
Guest
Fantastic post, Bryan. Here’s how I look at this: First off, I’ve never been to Fangraphs and don’t know anything about their mathematics, but I’m not sure I would like it – your post suggests that fWAR relies heavily on BABIP or FIP. I know those can be useful measures of luck, but I don’t think they’re reliable enough to add 1.9 WAR to an “unlucky” Smoltz’s value and subtract 1.9 from a “lucky” Glavine. Such large adjustments based on “luck” which isn’t always even luck seems tantamount to playing God. So, looking just at B-R numbers, I see that… Read more »
Jeff Hill
Guest

More K’s, fewer walks in less innings, better playoff performer.

I’ll take Smoltz

Greg
Guest

Out of curiosity, I decided to compare these two likely HOFers to a contemporary that dropped off the ballot after his first year.

WAR (BR): Glavine 74.0, Smoltz 66.5, Kevin Brown 68.5

WAR (Fangraphs): Glavine 63.9, Smoltz 78.4, Brown 73.8

WAA: Glavine 39.1, Smoltz 38.0, Brown 40.5

Hall Rating: Glavine 148, Smoltz 135, Brown 136

Kevin Brown probably deserved more recognition, huh.

Hartvig
Guest
However Brown has several things that work against him from the standpoint of public perception when comparing him to Glavine & Smoltz: 1} he played for 6 different teams in his career and had his greatest season for a team that the following year came to be viewed as possibly the biggest collection of mercenaries ever assembled. Couple that with a couple of really high profile free-agent contracts that he signed and you have the image of the ultimate gun for hire. 2) he was named on the Mitchell report 3) he ranged from outstanding to awful in the post-season… Read more »
Greg
Guest

I definitely understand why people wouldn’t vote for Brown. I never liked him much during his playing career, and people probably remember him best for the huge contract the Dodgers gave him and that time he injured himself punching a wall.

Something I found funny is that in two of his best seasons, Brown lost the Cy Young Award to an arguably less deserving pitcher: In 1996 to John Smoltz, and in 1998 to Tom Glavine.

Ed
Guest

I guess no one else noticed the typo in the 3rd paragraph?

“in which he walked almost twice as many runners as he struck out.”

Ed
Guest
“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.” With all due respect Bryan, that’s one of the strangest things I’ve read on HHS. WAR is giving him credit for exactly what he did. What is it you want WAR to do??? Anyway, while you’re confident that Smoltz was better, I’m confident that he wasn’t. Glavine was clearly better. 1) Durability: I think you’d agree that Glavine was better in this regard. The… Read more »
John Autin
Editor
Just my 2 cents’ worth on Smoltz’s WAR value as a closer: In an exchange with bstar a while back, I discovered that Smoltz’s WAR value for his relief seasons was notably less than that awarded to contemporary closers with similar stats. For example, in 2002, Smoltz saved 55 of 59 chances, and was 2nd in reliever WPA, behind Gagne, and threw 80 innings. Now look at the WAR values: – Gagne, #1 in WPA, 2.9 WAR. Great year. – Smoltz, #2 in WPA, 1.2 WAR. – The next 13 relievers in the WPA rankings averaged 2.8 WAR. No such… Read more »
Ed
Guest
John – I certainly agree that there’s work that needs to be done in terms of evaluating relievers. I don’t think WAR is purposely unfair to Smoltz…it’s just kind of how things worked out. We already know that a big problem with 2002 is the “meltdown” game he had early in the season in which he gave up 8 runs. In 2004, I see a game in which he came in with the score 6-0. He gave up 4 runs before closing the game out. Those 4 runs didn’t impact the ultimate outcome of the game. But as far as… Read more »
bstar
Guest
It’s because WAR doesn’t care about WPA or saves at all. It’s ALL RA9-based. If there’s one thing about Smoltz’s years as a closer that suggests he was merely good but not great, it’s probably his RA9. Smoltz’s RA9 in 2002 was 3.36. For a closer today, that’s not an impressive mark. For 2002, it was certainly nothing special. “We know the WAR formula takes a dimmer view of closer value than do those within the game” John, to me this sounds a lot like Bryan’s comment in his article that Ed took to task @12. WAR doesn’t play favorites… Read more »
John Autin
Editor
b — “Dimmer view” was a figure of speech, just trying to express the fact that closers’ WAR doesn’t correspond to the importance MLB managers put on that role. That’s neither a value judgment nor a criticism of WAR. My point was that while WAR may well capture the aggregate value of closers compared to other pitchers, it isn’t a great way of comparing closers to one another. Most of us take a “dim view” 🙂 of how that job has been defined, but the simple fact is that when a closer comes in with a 2-run or 3-run lead,… Read more »
deal
Guest
No Contest Glavine. And nobody will come up with a better reason than this one: I was once dumped for some arrogant jerk that looked like Smoltz. This happened 20 years ago and it is still the first thing I think of when I see Smoltz. On paper, I take Smoltz though – Like him for stepping in as closer, and coming up big in big games. 2 things I love about Glavine – 1) He’s a Hockey Guy 2) He had an absolute meltdown in last game of 2007 season with the Mets v Marlins – putting this generation… Read more »
Jonas Gumby
Guest

I disagree with your reasoning, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

birtelcom
Editor
After his twelfth season in the majors, Smoltz’s career diverged from Glavine’s as Smoltz missed a full year and then returned as essentially a reliever for four seasons. By the time Smoltz got back to starting, Glavine was on another team. But for the first twelve seasons of each pitcher’s career in the majors they played the same role, starter, for the same team, at the same ages (Glavine’s first 12 seasons were his age 21-32 seasons; so too for Smoltz). So for an apples to apples comparison you can’t get much better than those twelve seasons. So as a… Read more »
Jeff
Guest

Major League Victories:

Glavine 305
Smoltz 213

That’s why Glavine should get in first, but to me they both feel like they are deserving.

John Autin
Editor

Off-topic, but at least it’s about the Braves, who hit 3 HRs in the 8th off Kelvin Herrera: Did anyone report that Herrera had the longest active homerless streak, 81 IP and 75 games since last April 21?

mosc
Guest
I weight post season about 5 to 1 compared to regular season innings. Both of these guys had the benefit of playing on playoff teams routinely but small differences there mean a lot. I’ve long wanted a leverage index based on the team’s probability of winning the world series. Certainly some late regular season games would show up on there too. Based on that weighting, I give smoltz considerable value. Not that Glavine was bad but Smoltz was better. Also, as many have pointed out, the changing back and forth between starting and closing has been attempted many times but… Read more »
Phil
Guest

Were the Braves ever able to find another dependable starter to pitch alongside Smoltz and Glavine?

birtelcom
Editor

Ha! One might say they never found one of equal ability.

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