Yesterday, John Smoltz returned to the mound as a starting pitcher after nearly a four-year hiatus, during which time he registered 154 saves and, if you hadn't heard, was a closer.
Of course, Smoltz's move to the rotation is the latest effort by Atlanta manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone to challenge themselves. Revivifying near-dead ex-Rockie and ex-Indian pitchers was apparently an insufficient raisin d'etre when you've owned your division for every year dating back to the Coolidge administration.
So, after winning 20 games and then saving 55 games, could John Smoltz again become a 20-game winner? I mean, wasn't the move to the bullpen necessitated by his reconstructed elbow? It's like Rocky III when Rocky can't even see out of his left eye, Mickey is dead, and somehow Apollo Creed's chicken-racing lessons allow the fighter to again become a champion while being completely upstaged by Mr. T.
No pitcher has ever won 20 then saved 55 before—Dennis Eckersley won 20 and save 51—let alone again gone to win 20. If you lower your standards to 15 wins, 15 saves, and then again becomes a starter, you get the following men:
Gary Bell's 14 wins in 1966 is the highest in the group. If Smoltz again becomes a premier starter, he'll be doing something that's unprecedented.
Of course, we are limiting ourselves to the post-Joe Page era by throwing save numbers around. What if we just look at pitchers who first were predominantly starters, then were predominantly relievers, and finally returned to the rotation, what is the highest Win Share (pitching) total for these men and will Smoltz exceed it?
Let's look. Here are the top such candidates:
These numbers are based on the pitchers' top totals per role. Smoltz's high in pitching Win Shares as a starter was 25.7 in 1996. His high as a close was 17.2 in 2002. That gives him a 42.9 total for the first two roles. Let's say he matches his 1996 performance this year. That would give him 68.6, just third on the list above.
What does this tell us? Pitching roles were much more fluid—shocking!—a century ago then today. But given that El Tiante made the list in his odd, career-reaffirming season of 1972, relief pitchers also threw a bunch more innings prior to the last twenty, thirty years—shocking again—which made them more valuable.
Finally, what it tells me is that no other organization but the Braves would ever be in a position to try something like Smoltz's return to the rotation. Given his success in the pen, no other coaching tandem would be secure enough to even attempt such a stunt. If nothing else, it reaffirms that Cox is the best manager of his era. If Smoltz again becomes a twenty-game winner it could be enough to put two men, Smoltz himself and Leo Mazzone, in the Hall of Fame. Too bad it's got to happen on the damn Braves.