January 27, 2004
Is John Smoltz "The Next" Dennis Eckersley?
In addition to being a fantastic pitcher for an incredibly long time, Eckersley also had one of the more unique careers in baseball history. He debuted as a 20-year-old in 1975 and went 13-7 with a 2.60 ERA pitching primarily as a member of Cleveland's starting rotation. He spent the next 11 seasons as a starting pitcher for Cleveland, Boston and Chicago, making the All-Star team twice and finishing among the top 10 in the Cy Young voting two other times.
Then in 1987, after a dozen seasons as a starting pitcher, Eckersley joined the Oakland A's and made the switch to the bullpen. Once there, he became one of the most successful closers in baseball history, saving a total of 387 games in 12 seasons (he also had three saves before coming to Oakland). Eckersley made four more All-Star teams as a reliever, led his league in saves twice, and finished among the top 10 in the Cy Young balloting four times. In addition to that, he was the American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 1992, after going 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and 50 saves for the A's.
With Eckersley's induction into the Hall of Fame coming up later this year, I have heard many people talking about John Smoltz as "The Next" Dennis Eckersley. Certainly the similarities are there. Like Eckersley, Smoltz was a very successful starter for many years and, like Eckersley in 1987, he was moved to the bullpen in 2001. In fact, Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz are the only pitchers in baseball history to start at least 250 games and save at least 100 games.
Certainly Smoltz's Hall of Fame "case" is far from finalized. Still, I thought it would be interesting to see how Smoltz compares to Eckersley and to try to figure out whether or not he is on-track to someday join Eckersley in the Hall of Fame.
In looking at each pitcher's stats, the first thing that stuck out to me is the fact that they both started exactly 361 games in their career. Smoltz may yet add to his career starts total, of course, but I think it's unlikely. As it stands right now, Smoltz and Eckersley are the only two pitchers in major league history to have started exactly 361 games in a career.
Think about how amazing that is for a second. The only two pitchers in major league history with 361 career starts are also the only two players in major league history with 250+ starts and 100+ saves in a career. At the very least, that's one heck of a freaky coincidence.
Here's a look at how they each did in their 361 starts...
AS STARTING PITCHERS
GS IP ERA W L
Eckersley 361 2478.1 3.71 149 130
Smoltz 361 2439.1 3.37 159 115
Those numbers are also very similar. Smoltz pitched slightly fewer innings (a difference of about one inning per 10 starts) but had a significantly lower ERA. He also had more wins and a higher winning percentage.
Normally, comparing raw totals like that from different periods of time is difficult, but the offensive levels of the leagues they played in while starters were relatively similar. The adjusted league ERA during Eckersley's time as a starter was 3.87, while it was 3.98 for Smoltz.
So, as a starter, Smoltz's ERA was 15.3% better than league-average, while Eckersley's was only 4.1% better.
Now let's take a look at their numbers as relievers...
AS RELIEF PITCHERS
G IP ERA SV
Eckersley 710 807.1 2.85 390
Smoltz 168 178.2 2.17 110
Whereas Smoltz actually has an edge over Eckersley in their performances as starters, Eckersley is head and shoulders above Smoltz as a reliever. Of course, that's due in large part to the fact that Eckersley pitched until he was 43, while Smoltz just finished his age-36 season.
Still, a difference of 630 innings and 280 saves is a lot. Heck, aside from Eckersley and his 390 career saves, only 18 other pitchers in baseball history have saved 280+ games in their entire career. Or think of it this way: in order for Smoltz to equal Eckersley in saves and innings pitched as a reliever, he would essentially need to add Mariano Rivera's career (283 saves, 649.2 innings) to his existing totals.
Even if Smoltz pitches until he's 43 like Eckersley did, it is very unlikely he will reach Eckersley's 390 saves. He would need to average 35 saves per season for the next eight years, which just isn't going to happen.
Another interesting way of comparing these two pitchers is through Win Shares. Here's a year-by-year running total of their career Win Shares:
TOTAL WIN SHARES THROUGH EACH AGE
AGE Eckersley Smoltz
21 28 0
22 46 15
23 70 29
24 94 42
25 104 60
26 110 76
27 127 82
28 130 99
29 146 126
30 161 147
31 169 163
32 182 181
33 197 181
34 211 189
35 230 206
36 244 222
Eckersley got started at a younger age than Smoltz and had 45 Win Shares by the time Smoltz had his first one. Smoltz also missed his age-33 season with an injury. Despite all that, the two pitchers are fairly close through age-36. Smoltz trails Eckersley 244-222, which is a difference of about one very good season. The fact that Smoltz was able to nearly "catch up" to Eckersley despite a later start and a lost season is a tribute to his consistently great work as a starter from 1988-1999.
Despite the comparisons and the similarities between Smoltz and Eckersley, I think what all this shows is just how unique and amazing Eckersley's career was. Smoltz was better as a starter pitcher, but it is a relatively close contest. As relievers, it is highly unlikely Smoltz will be as valuable as Eckersley was and it seems almost impossible to me that Smoltz could ever match Eckersley's 390 career saves.
Eckersley almost literally split his career in half, pitching a dozen seasons as a starter and a dozen seasons as a reliever. Smoltz, on the other hand, pitched a dozen years as a starter, but has just three seasons under his belt as a reliever. And Smoltz was 36 years old last season, at which point Eckersley already had 188 saves to his name.
Of course, none of this is to say that John Smoltz is not a great pitcher. In fact, I think John Smoltz is one of the best pitchers of his generation and he looks to me like a borderline Hall of Famer even if he retired right now. I think it's even possible that Smoltz could end up having a more valuable career than Eckersley. He's just never going to pitch long enough to split his career in half like Eckersley did and, because of that, he's not going to reach Eckersley's level as a relief pitcher.
Dennis Eckersley's career-path is an extraordinarily difficult one to copy. He started very young, was good immediately, remained healthy throughout his career, played 24 seasons, and was great as both a starting pitcher and a reliever. Which is why he's a Hall of Famer, I suppose.
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