Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Through the Years: Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux

It seems like I've spent an inordinate amount of time this year writing about Atlanta's "Big Three" - Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. When Maddux announced his retirement over the winter, I did one of my first "Through the Years" pieces on his career, chronicling his rise from a young Cub to the "best pitcher in baseball" after winning four consecutive Cy Young Awards. Then, when the Braves unceremoniously dropped Tom Glavine from their plans by not tendering him a major league contract back in June, I spent some time reminding everyone that "sometimes the end is unexpected" by looking at the final games of some of the greatest Hall of Famers of the last 25 years (Morgan, Seaver, Reggie, Rickey...). I even went back to Glavine's (and Smoltz's) first career start a few weeks later when discussing great (and not-so-great) pitching debuts.

And now that John Smoltz has been even more unceremoniously dropped by the Red Sox, I'm doing it all again. It's not like I'm out of line here, though. When the best trio of pitchers of the last 30 years all end their careers in the same season (potentially, at least), it should definitely be celebrated. After all, in eight straight years (six of which were together on the same staff), these three earned seven Cy Young Awards. It was a remarkable run and, fifteen years later, we should remember them for it.

With that in mind, I thought it might be a good idea to bring back the "Through the Years" feature, but with a little tweak. In this case, because we're interested in the group as a whole, I thought it'd be best to focus on the state of Atlanta's rotation as Glavine and Smoltz and finally Maddux joined the club, and beyond. In 1989, for example, when Smoltz and Glavine were both officially part of the rotation, what was everyone saying about the Braves' pitching staff? Was there a lot of hope for these young studs? And what about in 1993, when Maddux finally joined? Were we able to immediately recognize just how historically great that staff would be? How long, then, did it take for the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz combination to become what it did?

The story begins on June 4, 1984, when the Chicago Cubs drafted Greg Maddux with the third pick of the 2nd round. Sixteen picks later, the Atlanta Braves drafted Tom Glavine. It was the first - and far from last - time these two would be linked together. One year later, on June 3, 1985, the Detroit Tigers drafted John Smoltz in the 22nd round.

In August of 1987, the Tigers traded Smoltz in a one-for-one, prospect-for-impending-free-agent deal for Doyle Alexander. That same night, the Braves called up young Tom Glavine from the AAA Richmond Braves. From the Richmond Times the next day:
"Atlanta General Manager Bobby Cox made it quite clear this was no token call-up.
Atlanta decided to call up Glavine before last night's trade in which the A-Braves dealt veteran right-hander Doyle Alexander to Detroit for minor league pitcher John Smoltz, a 20-year-old right-hander who had a 4-10 record with a 5.68 ERA with the Tigers' Class AA Glens Falls, N.Y., farm.

Smoltz had a 7-6 record with a 3.56 ERA at Lakeland, the Tigers' farm in the Class A Florida State League, last year. According to Baseball America, he was the fifth best major league prospect in the league."
Again, the paths of these pitchers crossed each other much earlier than most realize. Glavine made his first career start five days later. The start did not go so well.

Smoltz would not make his debut until July 1988. By that time, it was evident that, while Glavine was a solid young arm, the Braves were going to need lots of pitching. From the 1988 Sporting News Preview Guide:
"Not since 1977 have a National League team allowed more runs than the Atlanta Braves did in 1987. And in 1988, the Braves are desperate for pitching.

No words could be more discouraging, but they are the essence of a team planning for 1990 and beyond but apparently destined for a fifth straight losing season.
Lefthander Tom Glavine, 22, showed enough promise in nine late-season starts to earn a spot in the rotation, but he needs to keep more runners off base - he averaged 15.7 per nine innings."
Smoltz's debut was much stronger than Glavine's, but the rest of his rookie season did not go that great (he won only one more game the rest of the season while losing eleven). It was par for the course for the Braves that year, though, as they went on to a 54-106 record while playing in front of only 848,089 fans. Meanwhile, a 22-year-old Greg Maddux was busy making his first All-Star team for the Chicago Cubs.

As the 1989 season began, TSN was projecting both Glavine and Smoltz to be part of the rotation. It would be the first of fifteen consecutive years as rotation mates. Not everyone was sold, though. From the 1989 Street & Smith's Yearbook:
"Glavine, only 23, is a skinny (6-0, 175 pounds) left-hander with some pop on his fastball. The Braves will give him every opportunity in the world to become a steady, starting pitcher. The Braves would give Venus de Milo every opportunity in the world to become a steady, starting pitcher."
That's not exactly a striking endorsement. Smoltz and Glavine both had strong years in 1989, with Smoltzie earning an All-Star selection. Maddux also had a great season for the Cubs, finishing third in the Cy Young voting. If he had been able to earn a few more victories (he had a 19-12 record), he might have been able to break through to the top, instead losing to ace closer Mark Davis.

The strong seasons did little to convince the world that Atlanta had turned a corner. Instead, it just opened up a debate about the Braves' future between the optimists and the pessimists. The 1990 Street & Smith's was squarely on the glass half-empty side of the argument:
"Ted Turner was invited to the 50th anniversary celebration of the making of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta. That will just have to do as his World Series for another decade or so. The Braves are a bad baseball team and unlikely to get much better despite rumors, most of them coming from Georgia, that some young arms on the Atlanta staff are ready for greatness. Why now?
Tom Glavine (14-8, 2.68) is the new Rick Mahler. He will take 30 pitching turns, win a couple more than he loses, keep his team in the game and never have a really big year. Pete Smith (5-14, 4.75), John Smoltz (12-11, 2.94), and rookie Gary Eave (13-3, 2.80 at Richmond) will give the Braves some competitive starters."
TSN, though, saw things a little more positively:
"Other than the 33-year-old Leibrandt, all of the likely Atlanta starters have yet to celebrate their 25th birthday. And the best of the bunch is the youngest, 22-year-old righthander John Smoltz.

Smoltz is considered the backbone of the Braves' pitching-rich organization. He won 12 games in 1989, his first full season in the major leagues, and is expected to surpass that this summer. His 2.94 earned-run average was the best by an Atlanta starter since 1978.

Next in line is Tom Glavine, who will turn 24 in March. Glavine developed into one of the league's finest lefthanders with a staff-high 14 wins and a respectable 3.68 ERA last year."
Neither Smoltz nor Glavine performed all that well in the 1990 season, as the Braves went on to lose 97 games. By the time the '91 season rolled around, the hope and optimism had returned. With a few years of big league experience under the belts of both Smoltz and Glavine, people seemed to truly believe that "this should be the year" for the Braves to "escape last place in the National League West." There was no way for anyone to know just how good the season would be, though. Besides the near-Series victory, the Braves would also be able to celebrate Tom Glavine's first Cy Young award (and Terry Pendleton's MVP). Needless to say, the 1992 preview guides were a little more positive. From the 1992 TSN Preview Guide:
"The Braves have the league's best starting rotation, a solid bullpen and a potent offense...
[The Rotation:] it's young and it's good. A Huck Finn look-alike won 20 games and the Cy Young Award, a quielty confident 21-year-old dazzled his way to 18 victories, a soft-tossing veteran won 15 games and pitcher with shaky confidence re-discovered his game after visiting psychologist.
Glavine returns as the No. 1 starter after a season in which he started the All-Star Game, won a World Series game and became the first Brave to win the Cy Young Award since Warren Spahn in 1957. Glavine owed his success to the development of a devastating changeup, which allowed him to throw his average fastball by unsuspecting hitters. The result was 192 strikeouts and a 2.55 earned-run average, both figures third-best in the National League."
Glavine was now a certified ace. It would be hard to ignore him or trivialize him anymore. Smoltz, though, still had some to prove after starting off the season 2-11, and Maddux was in his last season on the Cubs. And it was a great season. With a 20-11 won-loss record, a 2.18 ERA (166 ERA+), and 268 innings pitched in Wrigley Field, Maddux was the run-away Cy Young Award winner. It was the first of his four consecutive awards, and the only one in a Cubs uniform. Glavine finished second in the voting.

After the season, Maddux tested free agency and found himself reeled in by the Braves, even turning down extra money from the Yankees to pitch in Atlanta. With the last two NL Cy Young Award winners suddenly on the same staff (a staff which had already led the team to the World Series two years in a row), there was little room to doubt the Braves. From the notoriously pessimistic Street & Smith's:
"This year, with the addition of Greg Maddux, Atlanta should be even more dominating. This year, with a pitching staff that is as strong as any in recent baseball history, the Braves should be able to make it through the World Series as a winner.

Maddux (20-11, 2.18 with the Cubs) was romanced by the Yankees before turning south and signing with Atlanta. He said he wanted to win. The Braves have won two pennants in a row and should win a title this year as baseball's best on the strentgh of an exceptional staff. Maddux, Tommy Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery are all capable of 20 victories and 200 strikeouts. Maddux and Glavine have each won a Cy Young Award, and the other two cannot be far behind."
TSN went a little more detailed in their praise:
"If the Braves play their cards right, they could have the league's most dominant rotation for many years to come. The average age of their five starters (incluindg No. 5 starter Pete Smith) is 25, and last season they combined for a record of 73-42.
In Maddux, the Braves acquired a pitcher who has averaged 251 innings per year for the last five seasons and won a league-high 87 games over that stretch. He has been described as a righthanded Glavine, a pitcher who doesn't have an overpowering fastball but uses impeccable control and an outstanding changeup to keep hitters off-balance.

Glavine, the 1991 NL Cy Young Award winner, might have added a second Cy Young to his trophy case last season had not a cracked rib (suffered in August) sidelined him for several starts. He still won 20 games for the second consecutive year.

Smoltz won a career-high 15 games but continued his cycle of pitching well for a half a season, then disappearing. He won only five games after the All-Star break, none after September 7. It was the reverse of the previous year, when Smoltz started poorly and finished strong."
The Braves did not make it to their third consecutive World Series in 1993, but Greg Maddux did win a second Cy Young Award. Glavine finished third in the voting that year. Over the next five years, Maddux would win two more Cy Young Awards and Glavine and Smoltz would each win one. The Braves would also make it to two more World Series, beating the Indians in 1995. With Smoltz's Cy Young Award in 1996, he finally got the praise that he deserved (it's tough being the third HOFer in the shadows of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine). From the 1997 Street & Smith's:
"The current rotation accounts for the last six Cy Young Awards, although Greg Maddux won his first Cy, in 1992, with the Chicago Cubs. That's no big deal. He won his next three for Atlanta, before fellow righthander John Smoltz ended his reign last year. Either pitcher could well claim it this season, or lefthander Tom Glavine, a candidate every season, could snatch it.

Smoltz was 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA and 276 strikeouts, tops in the majors. He says he had his best season because at last he had a surgically repared, healthy elbo. Surely, there is no reason to think Maddux (15-11, 2.72) and Glavine (15-10, 2.98) won't pitch at least as well."
Atlanta's success did not end there, as they wouldn't miss the playoffs again until 2006. And it could not have happened without these three Hall of Famers anchoring the top of the rotation.

As with most every future Hall of Famer, they started off simply and understated. It was not immediately evident that any of the three - let alone all of them - would amount to anything special. But, as their careers progressed and their performances improved, people began to take notice. Before long, their natural talents, some quality coaching, and the foresight of a crafty GM (John Schuerholz) converged to create one of the most dynamic set of pitching arms ever.

It's a shame, fifteen years later, to see it all end. These things happen, though. It's most important, instead, to remember what they were like and the feats that they accomplished while in their prime. With hindsight, that's easy. It's much harder, as we find here, to notice all of it as it's going on. The Glavine-Smoltz-Maddux combo was just so good, though, that it didn't take too long for everyone to realize what they were seeing. That, as much as anything else, is a testament to their immortality.


Jorge Says No! said...


I never knew the reason for this, but maybe you could help me out on this:

why did Maddux reject the Yankees for the Braves?

Could you imagine those great Yankee teams having Maddux as well...

Bill said...

Just 20 years ago, and not only was 14-8, 2.68 not itself considered a "really big year," but you could look at a 23 year old who did that and say he would never have a really big year (and to the other guys, 2.68 was "respectable"). That's pretty amazing.

I'd kind of like those days to come back (the pitching-heavy thing, not the stupidly-equating-Tom-Glavine-with-Rick-Mahler thing), but I bet Bud Selig and about 30 other really rich folks wouldn't. :)

Great stuff, lar.

lar said...

To be fair, Bill, I think the guy writing the Braves sections of those Street & Smith's guides had it out for them. The little dig about Ted Turner and "Gone With the Wind" was not the only time the mag went out of its way to belittle Ted. In fact, reading those team synopses from '87 to '91 or so was rather disheartening. Imagine someone writing about the Nats these days, but with an open hostility towards the club. That's kind of what it felt like. But I didn't want to focus too much on that, so I just called them "notoriously pessimistic" ;-)

And, Josh, I'm not sure why Maddux rebuffed them. I didn't actually know about that at all until I wrote that first piece on Maddux back in December. Above, one of the magazines says that Maddux "wanted to win" and, not only had the Braves just gone to two World Series, the Yankees also stunk (remember, they got the #1 overall draft pick back in '91). I believe that Maddux didn't want to go there. I suspect, though, from what we learned of him as a guy over the course of his career, that he probably felt more comfortable in a place like Atlanta than New York City. I could be wrong, but it makes sense to me.

Ian said...

I seem to recall reading once that Maddux wanted to stay in the National League, so that probably factored into his decision not to join the Yankees as well.