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.

39 thoughts on “Glavine vs. Smoltz

  1. 1
    Dr. Doom says:

    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 the winning percentage to get wins: 285 for Glavine, 235 for Smoltz. Subtract wins from decisions and get losses: 206 for Glavine, 151 for Smoltz. Take the difference between wins and losses, just for good measure (we’ll use it later). 79 for Glavine, 85 for Smoltz.

    Then, I use Bill James’ Fibonnaci Wins. That’s Wins*WinningPercentage+(Wins-Losses). It’s still probably the best way of looking at wins and losses on a one-dimensional scale. In this case, 244 for Glavine, 228 for Smoltz. That’s DERN close between the two. But it’s interesting.

    One other thing of note, I think. This method shows that Glavine lost about the “right” number of games, but that he won about 20 more than we’d have expected. For Smoltz, he, too lost about the right number of games… and won about 20 FEWER than we’d expect. This happens all the time to relievers, but it does make it almost look like Glavine “stole” 20 wins from Smoltz. Anyway, I found that interesting. Don’t know if the rest of you do, but I thought I’d share.

    • 2
      Dr. Doom says:

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

      • 9
        Ed says:

        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+.

    • 11

      Doom, I was purposefully light on wins/losses/saves in my write-up, but it’s true that win totals will heavily influence their Hall cases, particularly in Glavine’s case, since he eclipsed the magical 300 mark.

      Your calculation above seems like a good rebuttal to any pro-Glavine argument based on wins. Of course, it still gives Glavine 50 more, which shows just how much volume helps his case.

  2. 3
    GrandyMan says:

    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 Glavine has 7.5 more WAR than Smoltz, which is important to me. I also see that Glavine only has 1.1 more WAA, which makes me curious as to how much of their value was derived from performing at an above-average level:

    Glavine: 74.0 WAR/39.1 WAA = .528 WAA/WAR ratio
    Smoltz: 66.5 “””/38.0 “”” = .571 WAA/WAR ratio

    So, Smoltz derived a significantly higher portion of his value from being good rather than just being acceptable. This, along with Smoltz’s success in multiple roles, which I admire in a non-sabermetric way, makes up for the 7.5 gap in pitching WAR.

    To me, the difference is Glavine’s 7.5 bWAR to Smoltz’s 3.0. Sure, they both hit like pitchers, but they hit like good pitchers, and over about 3 full seasons of PA for Glavine and 2 for Smoltz, that really does matter.

    I think both of these guys are clearly COG worthy, but I will support Glavine vigorously until he gets in (which might be this time around). I think Smoltzy will start popping up on more of my ballots soon, though.

    • 14

      Grandy, I see BABiP and FIP as more than measures of luck and skill. FIP shows what a pitcher accomplished by himself. Take Smoltz off the Braves and put him in front of a bad defense or in a different park, and he’s likely to continue to dominate the way he did. Glavine may struggle pitching in front of the 2005 Yankees defense, but Smoltz would likely be fine.

      Of course, Glavine pitched for Smoltz’s Braves and found a way to get outs at a rate similar to Smoltz’s. Glavine’s .280 career BABiP was .03 points better than Smoltz’s, which is probably not a fluke over 4,400 innings. Glavine also gave up slightly fewer homers (.73 per nine to Smoltz’s .75).

      And hitting certainly provides value, though I’m not sure I agree that it tips the scales in a CoG argument. I want a CoG pitcher to be the type of guy you change your plans to watch in person whenever they visit your team’s park. Glavine and Smoltz both meet that criterion, but did anyone want to see Glavine any more becuase he hit .186/.244/.210 for his career, while Smoltz hit .159/.225/.207?

      • 18
        GrandyMan says:

        Certainly FIP is a useful measure, Bryan. I just have a hard time accepting that we can add or subtract nearly 2 WAR from a pitcher’s season total by ignoring events that happen with probably more than two-thirds of batters faced. I find FIP as practical, but perhaps overweighted by Fangraphs. Perhaps I’ll lean on it more as we approach the dead-ball era and defenses become worse, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

        As for my use of hitting to put Glavine over the top, I’m just splitting hairs because that’s what I think it really comes down to. If I could put both of them in right now I would, but there are between 3 and 6 other players who I also see as clearly CoG-worthy right now, so I really see it necessary to resort to things like taking Glavine’s .454 OPS (over about one more full season of PAs) over Smoltz’s .432.

  3. 4
    Jeff Hill says:

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

    I’ll take Smoltz

  4. 5
    Greg says:

    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.

    • 6
      Hartvig says:

      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 and overall was basically just fair.

      You’re right that based on the numbers he probably deserves more recognition. But honestly when you only have room for 30 to 35 pitchers and guys like Bob Feller and Jim Palmer and Dazzy Vance and Juan Marichal and Whitey Ford are on the margins and guys like Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean and Three-Finger Brown don’t even come close you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

      I know this isn’t exactly the kind of thinking that wins you many arguments on a website dedicated to sabermetrics and statistical analysis but if it comes down to deciding between Brown and say Juan Marichal who goes into the COG I’m voting for Marichal no matter what the numbers say.

      • 8
        Greg says:

        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.

    • 15

      Yup, Brown’s worthy of this discussion too. He’s gotten my CoG vote several times.

  5. 7
    Ed says:

    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.”

  6. 12
    Ed says:

    “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 nearly 1000 extra innings have to count for something.

    2) Peak: This may surprise people but Glavine had a higher peak than Smoltz.

    Here are Glavine’s top 10 WAR seasons followed by Smoltz’ top 10 (pitching only):

    8.5, 6.1, 5.8, 5.5, 4.9, 4.8, 4.1, 4.1, 4.0, 3.8

    7.3, 5.9, 5.4, 4.9, 4.8, 4.6, 4.4, 4.2, 3.7, 3.6

    Matching the seasons up, Glavine had the higher WAR in 8 of the 10 matchups.

    3) Hitting: Glavine was better (7.5 vs 3.0 WAR)

    4) Postseason pitching: Smoltz was better but not to the extent you’ve indicated above. You left out the fact that 14 of Smoltz’ 41 postseason appearances were as a reliever which allowed him to lower his ERA relative to Glavine (who never relieved in the playoffs). If we look just at the 91-99 period, when they were both being used as starters by the Braves, Smoltz gave up 3.02 runs (earned and unearned) per 9 innings whereas Glavine gave up 3.36.

    5) Fielding: We don’t have full numbers but what numbers we do have show that Glavine was a better fielder than Smoltz. From 2003-2009 Smoltz saved 7 runs whereas Glavine saved 29 runs. More traditional stats also support Glavine as being better. He had a better fielding percentage (.977 vs .964), was involved in more than twice as many double plays (67 vs. 30), and had nearly twice as many assists (856 vs 433) (though fewer putouts (262 vs 320)).

    6) Running game: Again Glavine appears to have been better at controlling the running game. His caught stealing percentage was 43% vs only 36% for Smoltz.

    7)Pitcher sloppiness: This is my own thing but I like to look at HBP, balks and wild pitches. Smoltz was a far “sloppier” pitcher than Glavine. In nearly 1000 fewer innings, he had more than twice as many wild pitches (145 vs. 65) and balks (16 vs. 7) and a similar number of hit batsman (57 vs. 66).

    Glavine was more durable, had a higher peak, was a better hitter and fielder, was better at controlling the running game and was a “less sloppy” pitcher than Smoltz. The only edge I can find for Smoltz is a small advantage in the postseason. Glavine was better. Period.

    • 16

      Ed, I see how that sentence is awkward. Let’s try again: I think WAR properly accounts for Smoltz’s value as a closer. I think it sells short his greatness as a closer. If Smoltz couldn’t cut it as a starter in 1987 and spent his whole career relieving, these two guys wouldn’t be in the same discussion. But the Braves knew Smoltz could have started in ’03 and ’04 and chose to make him the closer. He excelled in that role more than Glavine excelled in his role as a starter for the Mets. A measure of Smoltz’s value doesn’t reflect his talent.

      Your 5th and 6th points are important. Glavine’s superior fielding probably helped keep his BABiP down, and his control of the running game helped keep his RA down despite a lesser FIP.

      That said, I’m not sure you can accumulate your seven points and give Glavine the crown based on a 6-1 advantage. Start with durability. During the period (2001-’04) in which Glavine was a healthy starter and Smoltz was hurt or in the bullpen, Glavine earned 15.4 rWAR to Smoltz’s 6.7. That 8.7-win edge is more than Glavine’s career advantage (7.5), which suggests that durability accounts for all of Glavine’s advantage in pitching value. Fielding, keeping runners in check, and pitching unsloppily only served to chip away at Smoltz’s enormous advantage in strikeouts and walks.

      If your argument is that Glavine’s durability made him the better pitcher, we’re only disagreeing on the definition of “better”. I think Smoltz was the better pitcher when on the mound, but he took the mound less often because of one major injury and a managerial decision.

      • 20
        Ed says:

        Bryan – Thanks for the well thought out response. A few points:

        1) I agree that a few of my points were “add-ons”. I mostly threw them in because I wanted to prevent the opposite from happening. For example, I had no idea if Glavine was a better fielder until I looked at the numbers this morning. And I didn’t want someone to try and negate my first few points with something like “yeah but you didn’t look at fielding and Smoltz was the better fielder”.

        2) I’ll have to defer to you on Smoltz being available to start in ’03 and ’04. I’m not even sure what I had for breakfast yesterday. 🙂

        3) That being said, I’m definitely not on board with the broader idea that you seem to be arguing…that the Braves cost Smoltz value by using him as a closer in ’03 and ’04. We simply don’t know. Maybe he needed those full four years in the bullpen to fully get his arm strength back. Maybe he would have suffered another serious injury had he been used as a starter in ’03 or ’04. (in addition to missing all of 2000, he missed starts in ’98, ’99 and possibly ’94). Lots of players could have done lots of great things if only they were given the opportunity. But we really can’t deal with that…all we can deal with is what actually happened. BTW, Smoltz has the 5th highest WAR all time from ages 38-40. Maybe that’s because his arm was so much better rested than other 38-40 year olds.

        4) Again, better durability, higher peak, better hitter. What am I missing?

        • 24
          bstar says:

          Ed, you’ve saved me a lot of keystrokes with your comments here. Well done.

          To me, looking at walks and strikeouts solely is a really incomplete evaluation of a pitcher, especially someone like Glavine whose abiilty to suppress runs (that’s the pitcher’s job, ultimately) is not quantified properly by FIP.

          Basically if you use FIP-WAR for Glavine, you’re completely leaving out the skill that made him so special–his ability to strand runners.

          I’ve said it before: No pitcher in MLB history was as skilled at leaving runners on than Tom Glavine. Fangraphs has a metric that measures this. It’s called LOB-wins, and it says Glavine has 12.9 of those wins for his career. If you’re scoring at home, that’s approximately 130 runs saved.

          And you can’t really say that it was the Braves’ defense here and not Glavine, because Smoltz was pitching in front of the very same D all those years.

          I just don’t see how omitting 130 runs saved is in any way a fair analysis of a pitcher’s career.

          So I think an RA9-based approach to WAR is the way to go, and when we do that, Glavine beats Smoltz by 12 wins (81 to 69). Smoltz had one heck of a postseason career, but to me that doesn’t close the 12-win gap sufficiently enough for me to call him better than Glavine. No way.

          • 26
            Ed says:

            No problem Bstar. I knew what your position was…I actually was agnostic when I read Bryan’s article but after doing my own analysis it seemed pretty clear to me that Glavine was better.

            BTW, as I’m sure you know, Tom Tango has made it clear that FIP based WAR should NOT be used to evaluate careers.

          • 29
            bstar says:

            Ed, I’ve said that repeatedly on here about FIP and long careers.

            Five years? OK. (But with Glavine, as with Tim Hudson and Matt Cain and possibly Jeremy Hellickson today, five years of outperforming your FIP should be enough for us to call it a skill and not luck). Eight, ten years? That’s about the limit.

            Any more than that, and you throw FIP out the window and just look at runs allowed.

      • 21
        Doug says:

        We aren’t talking about Dennis Eckersley, but I think it’s relevant to mention him in relation to Smoltz as a pitcher accomplished in both starting and relieving.

        Both were starters converted to closers (Smoltz of course went back to starting).

        Here are their lines as starters and relievers. First, Eckersley:

        Split W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP HR BB SO WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
        as Starter 149 130 .534 3.71 361 361 0 100 20 0 2478.1 268 612 1609 1.214 5.8 2.63
        as Reliever 48 41 .539 2.85 710 0 577 0 0 390 807.1 79 126 792 0.998 8.8 6.29
        Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
        Generated 4/16/2013.

         
        Now, Smoltz:

        Split W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP HR BB SO WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
        as Starter 209 149 .584 3.40 481 481 0 53 16 0 3211.2 271 960 2804 1.192 7.9 2.92
        as Reliever 4 6 .400 2.41 242 0 204 0 0 154 261.1 17 50 280 0.976 9.6 5.60
        Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
        Generated 4/16/2013.

         
        Notwithstanding that Smoltz pitched for much better teams, I think there’s no question he has the edge over Eck as a starter. While Eck had 3 times as many relief IP as Smoltz, Smoltz more than held his own in results, with a considerably higher Save per IP rate than Eck.

        Unfortunately, Smoltz suffers in comparison to other starter because he “only” has 3200 IP, and he “only” has 200 wins, and didn’t get to 3000 Ks starting, etc. In other words, it’s an “if only he had a bit larger body of work starting”. Of course, comparing him to other closers, the argument basically starts and ends with having “only” having 260 IP as a reliever. So, through no fault of his own, he comes out short as a closer and as a starter, even though he excelled in both roles.

        Compare that to Eckersley who was only an above average starter, but was the pre-eminent closer of his time because he did what Smoltz did for 3 times as long. In the end the equation looks like:

        – Eck: 11 seasons above average starter + 6 seasons dominant closer + 6 seasons average closer = HOF
        – Smoltz: 14 seasons dominant starter + 3 seasons dominant closer + 2 seasons poor starter = what???

        I’m with you Bryan – Smoltz gets the nod even with the unfortunate career split that hurts his comparisons as both a starter and closer.

        • 22
          Ed says:

          Doug:

          In his 14 “dominant” seasons as a starter Smoltz averaged 4.3 WAR per year. In his 11 “above average” seasons, Eckersley averaged 4.2 WAR per season. Hmmm…..

          Eckersley looks like he had a higher peak than Smoltz as a starter but also was a lot less consistent, missed more time, had more so-so seasons.

          I’d probably take Smoltz over Eckersley as a starter but I don’t think it’s fair to call one dominant and the other above average.

          • 23
            Doug says:

            Good one, Ed.

            I was just looking at Eck’s 111 ERA+ and calling that “above average”. And, it was 12 years, not 11 (my mistake), so Eck’s average drops a touch.

            For Smoltz, it was 121 up to 1999, and 135 for 2005-07, so that seemed like dominant – on a par with CC, Matt Cain, Jered Weaver, etc.

          • 32
            Ed says:

            Doug – I had counted 12 seasons for Eck as well. But since you said 11, I assumed that you dropped his negative WAR season. Putting that back in drops, Eck’s average to 3.7 WAR for the 12 seasons. So definitely behind Smoltz but not too far.

    • 25
      John Autin says:

      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 anomaly in 2003, but it was back in 2004. Smoltz saved 44 of 49, and ranked 4th in reliever WPA, just ahead of Mariano. But his 2.2 WAR ranked 17th among relievers. Mariano was #1 with 4.2 WAR. Gagne, who ranked 3rd in WPA, had the same WAR as Smoltz.

      We know the WAR formula takes a dimmer view of closer value than do those within the game, and I’m fine with that. But when I see Smoltz for 2002-04 overall ranking 2nd in WPA and in saves, with a superb save percentage, but only 10th in WAR, it seems a little odd.

      Of course, the “discrepancy” is just 2 or 3 WAR, but still. I don’t really know the WAR formula (shame on me), but I think its ERA component may be a bit too high when it comes to closers. Byung-Hyun Kim in 2002 had an ERA about a run lower than Smoltz, and scored almost 3 more WAR. But they both had the same role, and I just can’t see how Kim did a better job.

      • 27
        Ed says:

        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 I know, reliever WAR is ill equipped to handle situations like that.

      • 28
        bstar says:

        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 re: closers vs. other pitchers. There’s no “dimmer view”. It is what it is. Closers are given a hefty leverage boost already, so I prefer keeping WAR RA9-based and having WPA as a separate number.

        I think we have agreed to disagree in the past on the usefulness of WPA as an evaluative tool. I think it’s meant to be more of an in-game story-telling stat instead of a metric for evaluating pitchers.

        One of the main reasons Smoltz scores so high in WPA in 2002 is because of the abnormally high number of save opportunities he had (59!). That, to me, suggests more circumstance than skill.

        Smoltz was just not that great at preventing runs in 2002.

        • 31
          John Autin says:

          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, his job isn’t to strike out the side in a scoreless inning, but merely to get the save. And for the guys who run up big save numbers there isn’t a huge variance in the number of tough saves or cheap saves.

          In his 3 full years closing, Smoltz’s RA/9 was all over the map — high in ’02, brilliant in ’03 and average in ’04. Taken together, he had a 173 ERA+ for those 3 years, which ranks 7th out of 23 guys with 50+ saves in that span. And that’s exactly where his WAR ranks in that group, which was roughly your point. But his WHIP and SO/9 ranked 4th in that group, and of course his save conversion rate was fantastic — and all 3 of those were better than Mariano, and in 30 more innings.

          Now, I’d still rather have had Mariano than Smoltz, but it seems obvious to me that Smoltz was an *elite* closer. WAR can’t reflect that. I would have much, much, MUCH rather had Smoltz in that time than Armando Benitez, Francisco Cordero and even Billy Wagner’s amazing ratios, who all scored more WAR.

  7. 13
    deal says:

    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 of Phillies into the Playoffs.

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN200709300.shtml

  8. 17
    birtelcom says:

    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 first step, let’s look at the stats they each compiled over those twelve seasons. For Glavine we are looking at 1987 to 1998, for Smoltz it’s one year later, ’88 to ’99.

    Glavine first 12 seasons: ERA+ 121, IP 2,426, OBPA .311, SLGA .354, ERA 3.31
    Smoltz first 12 seasons: ERA+ 121, IP 2,414, OBPA .295, SLGA .354, ERA 3.35

    Things get much more complicated in trying to compare them after their respective first 12 seasons, but for those first 12 you can’t get much closer in terms of results. Of course they had different styles even in those first twelve years — Smoltz more K’s, Glavine fewer HRs allowed, etc.. But bottom line is they were extremely close in pitching performance, both in quantity and quality. And in terms of b-ref pitching WAR over each guy’s respective first 12 seasons: Glavine 43.5, Smoltz 43.4 (if you prefer Wins Above Average it’s 24.4 and 24.3).

    I would argue then that if you are going to find any real daylight between them, it will have to be in their later careers, when comparisons get dicey given Smoltz’s extended change in role.

  9. 30
    Jeff says:

    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.

  10. 33
    John Autin says:

    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?

  11. 34
    mosc says:

    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 very rarely is it successful. Basically you’re saying “Bobby Cox added some WAR because he could chose how to use Smoltz for that year, giving more flexability on how his roster was constructed, leading to a better starter/closer to go along with smoltz”. Do I buy that? Not really no. But I think circumstance is important. We penalize steroids, boost missing games to wartime, and once we go back a few years I’m sure we’ll get into integration related issues as well.

    Answer? People will remember the braves for having 3 aces, each dominant in a different way. 3 aces should go in.

  12. 35
    Phil says:

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

    • 36
      birtelcom says:

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

    • 37

      Love this. For what other team would a comparison of its second- and third-best starters for a decade be remotely interesting? Maybe the Indians in the second half of Feller’s career, with Lemon and Wynn (and, briefly, Score)?

      • 38
        birtelcom says:

        Interestingly, during the period that Wynn, Lemon and Feller were all on the Indians (1949-56), the top 5 in pitching WAR for Cleveland looked like this:
        Wynn 33.1
        Lemon 30.8
        Garcia 29.2
        Score 12.9
        Feller 8.9

        Feller’s total over this period takes a hit with one of the most negative WAR seasons ever (-2.9) in 1952.

        Also see Mets 1971-1977:
        Seaver 47.6
        Matlack 26.5
        Koosman 23.3

        • 39

          Good call. Feller earned 17.1 WAR in the last three years before Wynn’s arrival and 8.6 in the first three years with Wynn, all of which preceeded the bomb in 1952.

          Even in today’s increasingly defense-oriented world, it’s hard to believe 191 2/3 innings with a 4.74 ERA was ever worth 2.9 wins below replacement level. 23 unearned runs didn’t help, of course. Fangraphs gives him +1.8 WAR, thanks to a respectable 3.77 FIP. Must have been some ugly defense behind Rapid Robert that year.

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