Big Unit, Pedro, Smoltz highlight 2015 Hall ballot
Dominant aces to be joined by slugger Sheffield as first-timers
The 2015 ballot of candidates for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame will deliver another brushback pitch of reality that an era marked by home runs and slugging really was one flush with great pitching.
In the wake of legendary starters Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine becoming first-year inductees in 2014, next year's ballot will include another trio of transcendent pitchers who achieved greatness over two decades of play in the Majors -- Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.
Maddux and Glavine once popularized the phrase "Chicks dig the long ball" in a TV ad, a playful poke at the attention heaped upon the game's home run hitters. Turns out, history digs pitching, and the mound will be the focus of the 2015 ballot with such an accomplished trio as Big Unit, Pedro and Smoltzie.
There is some serious pop to go along with those mound masters as well, with Gary Sheffield representing the biggest threat for election among the hitters who will first become eligible for election five years after their playing careers ended. Nomar Garciaparra is among other notable names that will be new to the next ballot.
They'll join notable returnees to the ballot like Craig Biggio -- who was two votes shy of election to the Class of 2014 -- and Mike Piazza, who hit more homers as a catcher than any player in Major League history.
The biggest star, literally, in the 2015 galaxy of ballot newcomers is Johnson, the 6-foot-10 left-hander known as the Big Unit, and for his fiery fastball and intense attitude on the mound.
Drafted and developed by the Expos before starring for the Mariners, Astros, D-backs, Yankees and Giants, the Big Unit won the Cy Young Award five times, one in the American League and four consecutive in the National League (1999-2002). A 10-time All-Star, Johnson led his league in ERA four times and in strikeouts nine times, and he stands as baseball's all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings, at 10.6.
With 303 wins, a 3.29 ERA and 4,875 K's (second only to Nolan Ryan's 5,714) in 22 seasons up to age 45, Johnson's career highlight came in 2001, when he and Curt Schilling led the D-backs to the World Series title in seven games over the Yankees.
Martinez, meanwhile, established much the same level of dominance on the mound through 19 seasons, winning three Cy Young Award honors and putting together a few of the more impressive full seasons in recent memory.
Part of a wave of players from the Dominican Republic signed by the Dodgers, Martinez debuted with L.A. at age 20 and was traded to Montreal two years later, eventually moving on with the Red Sox, Mets and Phillies in eight All-Star seasons. He became a breakout star in 1997, his final year in Montreal, going 17-8 with a 1.90 ERA and 305 strikeouts to earn his first Cy Young Award. With free agency looming, he was traded to Boston that offseason.
With the Red Sox, Martinez became part of history in 2004 with Boston's World Series victory. But he was the team's ace for six seasons before that, winning the Cy Young Award twice (1999-2000) and leading the AL in ERA four times. His 1.74 ERA in 2000 stood as the lowest recorded in the Majors since new Hall electee Maddux went for a 1.63 ERA in 1995.
Martinez finished with 219 wins and a WHIP of 1.050 that ranks fifth in baseball history, bolstered by the 0.737 in 2000 that stands as the best on record.
Smoltz, meanwhile, brings a multifaceted pitch to the discussion that gives him hope he'll join longtime Braves teammates Maddux and Glavine in Cooperstown. An eight-time All-Star, Smoltz became the only pitcher to register 200 wins and 150 saves, beginning as part of the Braves' dominant rotation. After undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery, he served as a closer for four seasons before returning to starting in 2005.
A star on the 1995 Braves team that won Atlanta's lone World Series title, Smoltz went 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA in 1996 to win the NL Cy Young Award. Smoltz was traded at age 20 to the Braves by the Tigers in a one-for-one swap for veteran Doyle Alexander, and he wound up spending 20 years with the Braves before pitching for the Red Sox and Cardinals to end his career, finishing with 3,082 strikeouts (16th all-time).
The biggest hitter making his debut on the ballot in 2015 is Sheffield, a wonder kid who turned into one of the most consistent hitting threats in the game over two decades. He wound up with 509 homers and 1,676 RBIs, using a vicious right-handed swing to rack up eight seasons of 30 or more homers and eight with 100 or more RBIs.
After debuting with the Brewers at age 19 in 1988, Sheffield struggled through four seasons with Milwaukee before being traded to the Padres prior to the 1992 season. He proceeded to take a run at the NL Triple Crown into September that year, batting .330 with 33 homers and 100 RBIs, finishing two homers and nine RBIs short.
Sheffield's stay in San Diego was short, too, and in June 1993, he landed in Florida, where he was part of the 1997 World Series championship team. Traded to the Dodgers in 1998, Sheffield also played for the Braves, Yankees, Tigers and Mets, earning nine All-Star selections.
Garciaparra, who became a franchise icon for the Red Sox starting with his AL Rookie of the Year Award season in 1996, is among the other first-time candidates. All-Star performers such as Carlos Delgado, Jermaine Dye, Brian Giles and Troy Percival also figure to debut on the ballot.
The remainder of the list of 2015 eligibles, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Rich Aurilia, Aaron Boone, Paul Byrd, Tony Clark, David Dellucci, Alan Embree, Darin Erstad, Kelvim Escobar, Cliff Floyd, Tom Gordon, Eddie Guardado, Mark Loretta, Ramon Martinez, Doug Mientkiewicz, Kevin Millar, B.J. Ryan, Jason Schmidt, Julian Tavarez, Jarrod Washburn and David Weathers.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnSchlegelMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.