On Hall of Fame weekend, there are dozens of anecdotes about John Smoltz from Braves bloggers, beat writers, and fans alike. It’s what the weekend is for – remember the careers of these standout individuals, particularly our favorite moments in those careers. For John Smoltz, my favorite singular moment is probably watching Greg Olson leap into his arms in the division clinching game in 1991. But the headline here promised you a great fact (or at least my favorite), and that’s what I must turn to.
John Smoltz could hit a little, managing a .226 OBP and 5 HR in his career. Not great, but not worthless. In his CYA winning 1996 season, he drove in 12 runs in 98 PA. In ’99 he batted .287/.338/.387. There was some offense there. But as I watched Smoltz in the regular seasons of his career, I never thought of him as a base stealing threat. He stole 3 bases in the regular season. Is that a lot for a pitcher? Honestly, I didn’t know, so I went to the play index.
The all-time record for steals by a pitcher is 36 by Wild Bill Donovan, a star pitcher in the 1900’s with the Brooklyn Superbas and later the Detroit Tigers. Adjusting the parameters to only those who have pitched since WWII, only two pitchers have reached double digits: Bob Gibson‘s 13 stolen bases are unsurprising for an athletic former Harlem Globetrotter, and Greg Maddux‘s 11 are also unsurprising, because, well, Maddux. Smoltz’ 3 are tied for 20th among pitchers in the post-WWII era. So, as far as pitchers go, Smoltzie had some wheels, it turns out.
Those wheels spun a little faster in October. In Game 3 of the 1991 NLCS, Atlanta was up 6-2 in the 6th inning. With two outs, Smoltz singled off lefty reliever Bob Kipper. Kipper wasn’t easy to steal on – in ’91, runners were just 6/10 in SB attempts of 2nd base against Kipper – and behind the plate was the 1987 NL Gold Glove winner, Mike LaValliere, a C who threw out 37% of baserunners for his career (league avg: 30%). This happened:
Ok, so Smoltz probably won’t make it into the Hall of Slides. But either way, it was impressive – he stole 2nd off a lefty reliever and good catcher who together didn’t really allow many steals of second. And League MVP Terry Pendleton was at the plate! It was impressive. Something that rarely happens, and Smoltz did it in the playoffs. Fun!
We fast-forward 363 days to Game 4 of the 1992 NLCS. Smoltz started the scoring in the 2nd with an RBI single, but by the 6th the Braves were clinging to a 4-3 lead with reliever Randy Tomlin on the mound. Again, with 2 outs, Smoltz singled. Tomlin, for his career, allowed just a 59% success rate on stolen base attempts. After all, he was a lefty, and LaValliere was often his catcher. On this night, LaValliere was once again the catcher. Surely the Pirates wouldn’t ignore Smoltz again, and surely Smoltz wouldn’t try it again…
After Nixon’s double, the Braves’ win probability jumped from 67% to 80%. By WPA, it was the 5th biggest play of the game. Atlanta won 6-4 and would win the Series in 7 games. Smoltz was named Series MVP.
Remarkably, Mr. Swipetober wasn’t done. Game 2 of the 1995 NLCS. The Braves are up in the Series 1-0, and the game is tied 2-2. It’s the 7th inning. 2 outs. Serious time in the game, guys. Smoltz singles to bring Marquis Grissom to the plate with Dave Burba on the mound. Burba would later gain a reputation as a passive, Maddux-like pitcher, but at the time, the steal rate against him was 70%, or league average. John “Smoke” Smoltz, if you haven’t noticed, does not care. And behind the plate? Oh, 3-time Gold Glove winner Benito Santiago, who Sports Illustrated in 1991 called the “Man With The Golden Arm“, the arm that “all other catchers covet.” Smoltz. Does. Not. Care.
Playoff steal number 3!
And now for my favorite John Smoltz fact:
John Smoltz has 3 postseason stolen bases. All other pitchers in MLB history combined have 3 postseason stolen bases.
Yes, you read that right. If you watched the videos, (seriously, watch the videos), you have watched half of all pitcher stolen bases in postseason history. The others belong to the previously mentioned Wild Bill Donovan (1908 WS), Billy Loes (1952 WS), and Cliff Lee (2009 LDS). Smoltz is actually tied for 109th among all players in postseason stolen bases, equaled by such players as Ryne Sandberg, Kirby Puckett, Juan Pierre, Jose Reyes, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Tim Raines. Yes, THAT Tim Raines. Smoltz stole more playoff bases than Charlie Hustle himself, Pete Rose.