We do not get Hall-of-Famers in Detroit baseball circles anymore. Members of the 1984 Detroit Tigers like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris are afterthoughts nationally and worthy Hall-of-Famer Bill Freehan has long since been forgotten.
So all of us Tigers’ fans have to be content with scoping out the Detroit and/or Tigers’ angles in this year’s ceremony.
When John Smoltz was rightfully elected this past January, along with Craig Biggio, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson (all deserving candidates), it got us to think if Smoltz would have made it to Cooperstown if he spent a majority of his career, or the whole thing, as a member of the Detroit Tigers.
I do not mean to bring up a Detroit bias, or a Detroit vs. Everybody mindset that many of us feel is the case with Tram, Lou, Morris et. al, but rather to look at how different a career he may have had if the Tigers did not trade the Michigander for a seasoned veteran that likely helped them win a division title. After that season, however, the franchise faced many dark days.
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So, in a special Motor City Bengals rewind, we again look at John Smoltz through Tiger-colored glasses on the day of his election in a snippet of an article that originally ran shortly after his Hall-of-Fame announcement on Jan. 9.
Smoltz was born in Wayne, Michigan and attended Waverly High School in Lansing. He was drafted by his hometown Tigers in the 22nd round of the 1985 draft and of course was famously, or infamously, traded to the Atlanta Braves in 1987 for aging Doyle Alexander.
After the Hall-of-Fame announcement was made, some Tigers fans complained about the trade saying they shipped a future superstar out of town. That is true, but without Alexander, the Tigers never would have won the 1987 AL East. So by that logic, it was a good trade for both teams when you consider Smoltz never would have had the same level of success here as he did with the Braves.
Consider this: Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts for the Tigers that year. Smoltz was 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA in 21 AA starts that season. Initially this was a lopsided trade in favor of Detroit.
That, of course, wouldn’t last.
Smoltz went on to a Hall-of-Fame career, leading the Braves to the postseason in most years, winning the 1995 World Series. The Tigers just–well they stunk for the majority of Smoltz’s career.
So it makes you wonder, if Smoltz had made his way up to the big leagues for the Tigers and spent the majority of his career in Detroit, would he have been a Hall-of-Fame pitcher?
This is to take nothing away from Smoltz. I am not saying that he was a borderline or questionable Hall-of-Famer. He had tremendous success starting games, tremendous success closing games and tremendous success starting games again. Not to mention his incredible 209 innings of postseason work, which yielded a 2.67 ERA and 1.144 WHIP.
That’s a no doubt Hall-of-Famer. With that impressive resume, would it have fit into Tiger Stadium/Comerica Park? I would have to say no simply because the supporting players in Detroit from 1989 to 2005 were mostly awful.
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The Tigers had powerful bats in the early 1990’s but horrendous pitching. From the middle of that decade through the middle of the last decade, the team lost 100 games thrice. I have no doubt that Smoltz would have been successful and easily the team’s ace until at least Justin Verlander‘s emergency in 2006-07, but just not Cooperstown successful.
During Smoltz 20-year career from 1988 to 2009, Detroit had seven skippers while Smoltz had three. Bobby Cox was his manager throughout his career in Atlanta and he finished his career split between Boston and St. Louis in 2009. Managers, and their choices for pitching coaches, all have different ways of doing things and unique philosophies. It’s a safe bet that Smoltz would have been adversely affected by all the upheavals in Detroit.
If you look at it in terms of what Smoltz’s value would have been through WAR, the only season it may have made a difference was 1991. The Tigers won 84 games that year, finishing in second place. His ’91 WAR was 5.4 and though it is hard to compare teams, had that number been the same as a Tigers’ pitcher, it may have pushed their win total to 89-90. That’s still one win less than that year’s champion in the Tigers’ division, the Toronto Blue Jays.
Smoltz’s best WAR was 7.3 in 1996, but that would not have made a difference for the 109-loss Tigers.
It is a fun argument to have, but with all of the Tigers’ struggles during that era, it is hard to imagine Smoltz staying in Detroit for the long haul. Even if he was the Tigers’ ace, he likely would have been traded for prospects at some point, and probably sooner than later.
For what it’s worth, Smoltz himself agrees with this argument, saying he would not have become the pitcher he did without the deal.