A superb big-game pitcher, Smoltz was routinely tabbed by manager Bobby Cox to pitch playoff openers ahead of teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. His development from skinny prospect to a staff workhorse was a primary factor in the Braves’ dominance of the ’90s. By the end of the decade, Smoltz had collected more post-season wins than any pitcher in baseball history.
A power pitcher with a fine arsenal of offspeed pitches, Smoltz was the nastiest of any of the heralded Atlanta Braves starters. His fastball consistently hit the mid-90s and would sometimes reach as high as 97. His changeup was above-average, but it was his devastating slider which broke away from right-handed batters that made him so difficult to hit. Righties rarely cracked the .210 barrier against him. The one blemish in Smoltz’s repertoire was his control, but he conquered that by 1995.
The Atlanta front office was heavily criticized in 1987 after trading Doyle Alexander to the Detroit Tigers for Smoltz. While Alexander went 9-0 for Detroit and heavily contributed in their division title run, the new Brave was coming off a 4-10, 5.68 record with Detroit’s Eastern League farm club. Smoltz went 2-7 while learning to pitch at the major league level but by 1989, was monikered “the new Tom Seaver,” a tribute to his potential.
Joining Glavine to form a youthful dynamic duo atop the Atlanta rotation, Smoltz put together a fine second season in ’89 at the age of 22. Playing for a mediocre Braves team, he won just twelve games, but struck out 168 batters and posted an impressive ERA of 2.94, while holding opposing hitters to a .212 batting average.
Smoltz suffered through a dreadful first half of the 1991 campaign. Just 2-11 at the All-Star break, he took the advice of General Manager John Schuerholz and went to see a sports psychologist. Remarked Smoltz at the time: “Everybody is going to look at going to a psychologist and say ‘Geez, he’s gone crazy.’ But when you are going bad, you try everything…I’m starting over.” He went 12-2 the rest of the way.
Smoltz continued to develop in 1992, leading the National League with 215 strikeouts and finishing near the top of the National League in innings pitched (246 1/3), whiffs, and ERA (2.85). He and Glavine were joined by reigning Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux prior to the 1993 season, and the trio soon formed the core of the Braves’ dynasty in the ’90s.
Undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow on July 31, 1994, Smoltz finished the year just 6-10. Once again, his team gave him virtually no run support, a pattern that would plague him throughout his career. He recovered fully in the offseason and bounced back in ’95 with a typical Smoltz campaign, striking out over a batter an inning and posting a solid 3.18 ERA. He credited much of his success to finding inner peace. However, he was often overshadowed by the exploits of rotation mates like Maddux, who was in the midst of an unprecedented run of four consecutive Cy Young Awards.
Smoltz made sure that nobody would overshadow him in 1996, as the Michigan native brought home his first Cy Young Award, leading the National League in wins (24), winning percentage (.750), innings pitched (253 2/3), and strikeouts (276). All his statistics except for his 2.94 ERA were career-bests, and he pitched brilliantly in the playoffs as well. He went 1-1 in the World Series against the New York Yankees, losing a heartbreaking Game Five 1-0 to Andy Pettitte.
Smoltz led the National League in innings once again in 1997, and while his win total dipped to 15, it was largely due to run support — his ERA hardly rose at all. He struck out 241 batters, trailing only league leader Curt Schilling and Montreal Expos‘ developing ace Pedro Martinez. The following year, he posted a career-best .850 winning percentage.
Unfortunately, Smoltz’s elbow problems had been painfully lingering for four years by now. While his new three-quarters delivery helped relieve pressure on his arm, it only delayed the inevitable. After giving an outstanding effort in the 1999 World Series, Smoltz’s elbow was in dire need of repair. Though he attempted to work through it the following spring, the righty came to grips with reality, and underwent “Tommy John surgery” in April 2000, missing the entire season.
After struggling when he returned to Atlanta’s starting rotation the following May, Smoltz was sent to the bullpen to pitch his way back into form. In August the Braves adopted a novel approach to his rehabilitation, using the All-Star starter as the club’s closer. Flourishing in a short-relief role that played to his power-pitching strengths, Smoltz notched 10 saves in 12 chances over the final two months of the season.