As long as he is upending every other bit of conventional wisdom about his pitching career this season, John Smoltz figures he may as well correct this little bit of misinformation, too: He did not--never, ever (let’s be perfectly clear about this)--burn himself by trying to iron his shirt while he was still wearing it.
“That is the most false thing I’ve ever heard,” Smoltz says. “That got created six years ago, and it never left me. Ironing my shirt while it was on--that’s the most absurd thing. It was made up. But it got on Arsenio Hall, CNN, everywhere. And what do you do to stop it? I just read it again.”
For openers, you stop it by recording 12 consecutive victories. By winning your 12th on June 9, faster than any National League pitcher since the New York Giants’ Joe McGinnity won his 12th on May 28 back in 1904 on his way to 35 victories.
By staking out a role as the odds-on favorite not only to be the starting National League pitcher in the All-Star Game on July 9 in Philadelphia, but also to be the next in a long-running series of Atlanta Braves Cy Young Award winners. By becoming the 1996 season’s best pitcher. Do all of that, and people will listen when you try to upend eight years’ worth of conventional wisdom that says you aren’t a consistent, big-time winner.
Up until now, they haven’t been listening hard enough, even as Smoltz talked himself almost onto an analyst’s couch, trying to explain a career .523 winning percentage (90-82 until this year) despite some of the game’s best stuff. Trying to explain ERAs under 3.00 (1989 and ’92) and a career ERA of 3.53, but victory totals that have never been higher than 15 in any of his eight major league seasons. Trying to explain his much-publicized series of sessions with a sports psychologist during the 1991 season, during which Jack Llewellyn received as much media attention as Smoltz did. (Go back to the videotape of the ’91 World Series; try to keep up with the number of times CBS cameras found Llewellyn in the stands.)
Trying to explain how hard it is to throw a 90-plus mph fastball with a bone spur in your right elbow. And trying to explain the myth about using your chest as an ironing board.
Smoltz has explained it all. But, like the ironing story, not much of it got absorbed. Conventional wisdom says if Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine can win 20 games semi-regularly on the same staff, surely Smoltz--whose stuff is better, according to the experts--should.
“I handled it, outwardly, better each year,” Smoltz says. “But inwardly, I let too many things go on that could contribute to why I didn’t win games. I still maintain that there were a ton of games I could’ve won with any breaks, with one or two runs. But I was never going to complain. I was just going to try to find a better way to win. I’ll compare my numbers with anybody except Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson--career ERAs with anybody. But yet there seems to be guys with 30 more wins than me. Compute that however you want to compute it. I’ve constantly found myself having to break down numbers to show why these things are like this, but they’re not easily seen by somebody who doesn’t closely watch the game.”
So here Smoltz is, trying to explain a 12-1 record, a 2.54 ERA and a major league-leading 117 strikeouts through his 8-3 victory at Colorado last Sunday. And now he doesn’t have to break down those numbers to get to an explanation. It’s simpler than numbers. He’s healthy now.
In September 1994, doctors removed a bone spur and chips from his elbow. In ’95, he came back strong (12-7, 3.18 ERA and 193 strikeouts in the shortened season) as the Braves won the world championship. And in ’96, “There’s not even a close second-best pitcher in the game right now,” says the Baltimore Orioles’ Kent Mercker, a former Braves teammate.
Mercker says Smoltz is throwing more fastballs than he did in recent seasons, which Braves Manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone say isn’t true. Smoltz has heard that theory before and says only that the fastballs, along with the curves and the sliders, he does throw are going where he wants them to go far more regularly than they once did.
That certainly was one of his earlier problems. Even Cox says the Smoltz of seasons past “ruined a few catchers’ careers” by humming a 102-mph fastball in tight as his catcher set up outside far too often. One of his past curveballs might drop off the table, according to Cox, but his next one would roll right into a Barry Bonds wheelhouse. With two strikes, his devastating split-finger fastball more often than not winds up in the dirt--then and now.
Along with his ability to locate his pitches this season, Smoltz seems to be at peace with his place in baseball’s best rotation, which is no small matter if your name isn’t Maddux or Glavine. They soft sell the ramifications of pitching behind those two, but Smoltz, Steve Avery, Jason Schmidt, Mercker and anyone else who has taken a turn for the Braves since ’93 has been tempted to try to keep pace with the performances of their Cy Young-winning teammates. It can mess with your mind, if you start to think that good isn’t good enough.
“John has always had the ability to do this,” says Mercker, from the distance of Baltimore. “I think he just tried so hard and tried to do way too much. I think now that he’s started out so successfully, he can say, ‘Hey, I don’t have to try to keep up with these guys. I’m just going to go out and pitch my game and not worry about what people think.’
“I know when I was in that rotation, I put pressure on myself to go out there and keep up. You can’t get a no-decision or a loss in consecutive starts in that rotation. You’ve got to get a win in one of those, or else it’s hard to keep up. And if you try to do that, you start trying to do things you’re not capable of doing. Instead of going back to your game plan, you’re trying to pitch someone else’s game plan. Then it backfires. . . . And it snowballs.”
The Braves still have baseball’s best rotation; but so far in ’96, it’s Glavine and Maddux who are being teased with trying to keep pace with Smoltz. Last weekend in Denver, the Rockies roughed up Maddux and Glavine on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, Smoltz came closer than anyone to throwing the first ’96 shutout at Coors Field, lasting 8 1/3 innings before he gave up three ninth-inning runs. Of his 128 pitches, 91 were strikes; and, as Cox says, “When you do that, with the stuff he has, generally nobody is going to get any runs.”