How did we get to “John Smoltz: first ballot Hall of Famer?”

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I’d have to say the most surprising development of this Hall of Fame season is the fast-tracking of John Smoltz’s candidacy.

He’s poised to enter Cooperstown on the first ballot today. And, for what it’s worth, I believe he is worthy of the Hall of Fame. He may be borderline for me if I were limited to ten votes, but I think he belongs. And (a) since I do not believe there should be a distinction between “first ballot hall of famers” and any other hall of famers; and (b) I happen to be a Braves fan who remembers the day Atlanta traded Doyle Alexander for the guy, this makes me quite happy.

But really, until the polls of Hall of Fame voters started coming out a few weeks ago, I never would’ve guessed that Smoltz would, in fact, make the Hall of Fame on his first try. I figured he’d debut a tad above 50% this year and eventually inch over 75% on his second or third go-around. Matthew handicapped it last year too and thought much the same thing.

My thinking was that some voters would consider him far below Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez which, to be fair, he is. And that when putting him head-to-head against the rest of the guys on the ballot there’d either be enough PED noise for the elites or tough calls for the non-PED guys to make things murky. That the “who is better? Mussina, Smoltz or Schilling” debate would break down at about 33%-33%-33% and none of those extremely comparable pitchers would create any daylight for themselves.

But here we are: Smoltz is going in easily and the only question will be whether he’s closer to the nearly unanimous Johnson and Martinez in the vote totals or whether he’s closer to Craig Biggio who, I suspect, will just scrape in.

I suppose there are a lot of reasons for that, tied up more in storylines that statlines. Well, his postseason performance is a statline, but people tend to vary the amount of weight they put on that depending on storyline considerations. His time as a closer imbues him with some of that magic pixie dust Proven Closers often get from the electorate on account of their belief that the ninth inning is a much harder inning to deal with than, say, innings 1-7.

Mostly, though, I think his teammates help him more than anything. At various times the Braves touted themselves as having “Five Aces” (Pete Smith and Steve Avery anyone?) or “Four Aces” (Avery? Neagle? Millwood?) but really, it was the Three Aces of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. The other pitchers and, Chipper Jones notwithstanding, all of the hitters came and went, but those three were always there. Or at least it seemed they were. A year after Maddux, Glavine and Bobby Cox went in, I think voters are, on some level, still making a point to memorialize a team that was really, really good for a really, really long time. They’ll close the book with Chipper Jones in a couple of years and that will be that.

None of which is good or bad. Narratives are not my preferred mode of understanding baseball, but I am probably a minority in this. And, of course, given that I think the player in question should be in the Hall of Fame anyway and that it doesn’t matter when he goes, it’s not really worth worrying or wondering about this all that much.

But really, Smoltz as a first ballot guy really surprises me. And I’m not sure I’ll fully believe it until his name is called in a little less than an hour.