John Smoltz has quickly become one of the top color commentators in the game of baseball. The 2017 World Series is the second year in a row that he’s served as the primary analyst for the Fall Classic. Of course, for everyone who remembers Smoltz during his playing days, most notably as one-third of arguably the greatest pitching trio in baseball history; his success as a broadcaster is not the least bit surprising. During his playing days, Smoltz proved time and time again that he had a litany of talents, and he continues to do so.
Obviously, his talent as a pitcher is well documented. The numbers speak for themselves. He was an 8-time All-Star who twice led the National League in wins and twice led the National League in strikeouts, leading each category in 1996 when he won the Cy Young. He also accumulated over 3,000 strikeouts in his career and was an outstanding 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA in 41 playoff appearances.
“When John was on the mound, you always thought you were going to win a ballgame.”
Smoltz is most often associated with the Atlanta Braves rotation that included Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. It was the trio that led the Braves to nearly all of their 14 consecutive division titles. It’s sometimes easy to get overshadowed alongside pitchers like Glavine and Maddux, but longtime Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone has gone on record as saying that Smoltz “had the best stuff of all of them. Greatest slider I’ve ever seen from a right-handed pitcher.”
Of course, Smoltz was not just an accomplished starting pitcher. He made the unique, mid-career transition into being a reliever, a role in which he also excelled. In his first full season as a closer, he set the National League record with 55 saves, immediately finding success in a new role. Aside from Smoltz, Dennis Eckersley is the only major league pitcher with both a 20-win season and a 50-save season on his resume. However, Smoltz is also the only pitcher with more than 200 career wins and more than 150 career saves.
The fact that he was able to make the transition from starting to relieving showed another one of his talents: adaptability. He made the move to the bullpen after missing the entire 2000 season because of Tommy John surgery. But what is so often forgotten is all that Smoltz did everything he could to put off the surgery as long as possible. He altered his delivery, practically throwing the ball side-arm to ease the pressure on his elbow. Smoltz even experimented with a knuckleball in an effort to put off surgery.
“I basically taught myself how to pitch a whole new way. Nobody knew how hard it was. I was trying to fake it.”
Even after the surgery, Smoltz needed to show his adaptability. Pitching in relief did not fit his personality of needing to be in control and keeping a regular routine. Waiting around unsure of whether or not he would pitch was not easy for him. But Smoltz found a way to make it work, and until he convinced the Braves to let him move back to the rotation, he was one of the best closers in baseball.
Earlier in his career, Smoltz displayed the talent of perseverance. In 1991, he had a disastrous first half of the season that nearly derailed his career, going 2-11. But when Smoltz hit a wall, he found a way to get over it. He decided to see a sports psychologist who told him to watch tape of his best performances before every start. The tactic work, as Smoltz was 12-2 during the second half of the season, helping the Braves win their first of 14 consecutive division titles.
“My legacy will be however someone wants to view it. 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. In life, certainly, not everything goes smoothly, but this has been the time of my life.”
Finally, Smoltz had the talent of longevity, which is something not every great player has. He spent 22 years in the big leagues, holding on as long as he could with stints with the Red Sox and Cardinals, even making a playoff appearance with the Cardinals in 2009.
He was such a gifted athlete that he was able to remain an effective pitcher until age 42, outlasting both Glavine and Maddux and having to settle for entering the Hall of Fame one year after his longtime teammates. But for those who saw him pitch, there’s no denying the many talents he showed throughout his career, and so it’s not the least bit surprising to see Smoltz continue to showcase his many talents in retirement.