Thursday, June 25, 2009

Can Smoltz keep making history in his career's second act?

John Smoltz says hello to Boston tonight (well, actually, he'll do it in Washington). Photo from this site.

John Smoltz will join some rare and accomplished company when he throws his first pitch with the Red Sox tonight. (He’ll also prove me wrong, a decidedly less difficult feat) Smoltz is only the eighth player in history to play at least 20 years with one team and then join another. Remarkably, he’s the fourth player to bolt the Braves after at least two decades (the first three were Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro). And you thought Boston was the home of bad baseball breakups!

Six of the first seven are in the Hall of Fame, but only one of Smoltz’ predecessors played more two seasons after departing his longtime home. Ty Cobb hit .343 in two seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics but was just 27-for-51 in stolen base attempts. Aaron and Willie Mays, who were first and third on the all-time home run list for more than 30 years, each batted below .240 as they quietly closed out their careers with the Brewers and Mets, respectively.

Spahn (Mets and Giants in 1965) and Harmon Killebrew (Royals in 1975) played one season apiece while Phil Cavarreta, the lone non-Hall of Famer in this group, received a grand total of four at-bats in his second season with the White Sox in 1955.

Given his age (42) as well as his oft-repaired right shoulder, Smoltz is more likely to fashion a brief coda with the Sox than he is to follow in the footsteps of Niekro, who pitched for the Yankees in 1984 and 1985 and joined the 300-win club in his final start with the Yankees before he pitched for the Indians, Blue Jays and Braves over the subsequent two seasons.

Niekro went 50-44 with a 4.27 ERA and 1.51 WHIP over his final four seasons, numbers that were below his career norms yet also essential to his Hall of Fame candidacy. With 210 wins, Smoltz is unlikely to reach 300, yet as the only player in history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves, as well as a history of excellence in October, his resume is already worthy of Cooperstown.

But Smoltz, whose competitive fire and athleticism are the stuff of legend, has made it clear over the past several weeks that he expects to thrive with the Sox and enjoy the kind of success he had the previous three-plus seasons with the Braves, for whom he went 47-26 with a 3.20 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.76 before he underwent shoulder surgery last June.

“It will be a success,” Smoltz told reporters yesterday. “I came back with a mindset that it’s not about stories or saying I can do it again. It’s about pitching and getting hitters out. The end result is going to be that, and in three, four or five starts from now, I think you’ll see why I feel the way I do.”

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