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The next Eck?

Smoltz compares favorably with former A's closer

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Posted: Thursday August 30, 2001 3:32 AM

  John Smoltz has become the Braves' closer of choice in the second half. AP

By Jacob Luft,

Tony La Russa once called them "the three toughest outs in baseball."

He wasn't referring to Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Stan Musial. La Russa meant the ninth inning, when the closer is called upon to put the lid on a hard-fought victory.

The former A's skipper found the perfect solution for his ninth-inning woes in 1987 when he converted an accomplished starter, Dennis Eckersley, into arguably the most dominant ninth-inning reliever in history.

Braves manager Bobby Cox has bullpen problems of his own this year, managing a ballclub that is among NL leaders in blown saves with 20. His answer might be similar to La Russa's as well.

Start to Finish
Closers with the most career games started:
Pitcher  Saves  Starts 
Dennis Eckersley  390  361 
Ron Reed  103  236 
Ron Kline  108  203 
Tom Gordon*  97  203 
Firpo Marberry  101  187 
Dave Giusti  145  133 
Ellis Kinder  102  122 
Jose Mesa*  172  95 
Stu Miller  154  93 
Rick Aguilera  318  89 
Dave Righetti  252  89 
* Active

John Smoltz, with 159 career wins as a starter, has converted three consecutive save opportunities, including one Wednesday against the Expos. He has a 0.49 ERA in his 17 appearances out of the bullpen this season.

Will Smoltz become the next Eckersley? Eck's shadow (Cy Young and MVP awards in 1992) is extensive, but the two pose an interesting comparison.

Eerily, they both made exactly 361 career starts before moving to the bullpen. Eckersley was 151-128 with a 3.67 ERA as a starter from 1975-86; Smoltz was 159-115 with a 3.52 ERA from 1988-01. They each had one 20-win season to their credit -- Eckersley in 1978 (20-8) and Smoltz in '96 (24-8).

In the past, closers were found sort of by accident. But most closers these days are developed much the same way as position players and starters. Heading into this season, five of the top 10 active leaders in saves had made zero career starts -- John Franco, Trevor Hoffman, Rod Beck, Troy Percival and Todd Jones.

There a few notable exceptions, however. The Cubs' Tom Gordon has saved 94 games since becoming a closer in 1997 after winning 91 games as a starter from 1988-96. Oakland's Jason Isringhausen has 68 saves after making 52 career starts to begin his career.

Two-Way Threats
Pitchers with the most combined wins and saves in history:
Pitcher  Wins  Saves  Total 
Dennis Eckersley  197  390  587 
Lee Smith  71  478  549 
Cy Young  511  17  528 
John Franco*  86  422  508 
Rollie Fingers  114  341  455 
Walter Johnson  417  34  451 
Jeff Reardon  73  367  440 
Goose Gossage  124  310  434 
Grover Alexander  373  32  405 
Rick Aguilera  86  318  404 
* Active

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