For most pitchers, reaching the latter stages of one’s career entails making concessions to Father Time. That fastball doesn’t hop quite as much as it used to, so it’s probably time to stop challenging hitters up in the zone so often. The slider doesn’t snap like it did in the good old days, so perhaps it’s time to try and add a new pitch to the ol’ bag of tricks.
That’s the deal for most pitchers. John Smoltz took that axiom and turned it right on its head. The 6-3, 220 pound right-hander crushed opposing hitters for years in the Atlanta Braves rotation, and he was still going strong at 32 years old with the Braves back in 1999 (186.1 IP, 3.14 Fielding Independent ERA). He had, however, become increasingly fragile, and his health issues came to a crescendo prior to the 2000 season when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Upon returning in 2001, Smoltz transitioned to the bullpen in an attempt to stay off the D.L. This kick-started a new era in his career, as he began a four-year run of dominance out of the ‘pen:
Win Probability Added totals, 2001-2004:
It’s not like Smoltz was forced to finesse his way through lineups in the ninth inning, a la Ryan Franklin. He was still dealing, sitting between 95 and 97 MPH with his fastball, snapping off wicked high-80’s sliders and high-80’s splitters that plummeted upon reaching the plate.
That Smoltz was still mauling hitters at age 37 was extraordinary enough. But he then went back in the rotation, topping 200 innings each season from 2005-2007 while posting FIP’s of 3.27, 3.44 and 3.21, respectively. His heater sat around 93, and the slider and splitter were still sharp. 2008 did not go nearly as well, as Smoltz suffered a shoulder injury that shelved him for most of the season.
He made a brief comeback as a reliever, only to blow a save opportunity and opt for season-ending surgery in June. When he was able to take the mound, Smoltz managed to punch out 36 batters in 28 frames, issuing 8 walks and surrendering 25 hits.
Over the off-season, the 42 year-old inked a one-year, incentive-laden deal with the Red Sox. He continued to mend the shoulder, taking an extended rehab assignment (27.1 IP, 21/4 K/BB between Greenville, Portland and Pawtucket) before making his Sox debut on June 25th vs. the Washington Nationals.
Upon first glance, Father Time appears to finally snatched away Smoltz’s ability to blow away hitters at the highest level. He made 8 starts for Boston, getting bombarded for an 8.38 ERA and a 2-5 record in 40 innings pitched. That’s the sort of line that would make Adam Eaton and Sidney Ponson giggle. The Red Sox designated Smoltz for assignment recently, ending the reclamation project of the former Cy Young award winner. Surely Smoltz is done, right?
I’m not so sure. Assuming that Smoltz wishes to continue his career elsewhere, he may still have something to offer. Despite the horrific ERA, John managed to strike out 7.43 batters per nine innings, while issuing 2.03 BB/9. However, a .390 BABIP, an inflated HR/FB rate (14.8%) and an uncharacteristically low 56.9% rate of stranding runners have conspired to make Smoltz look like a pinata.
Smoltz’s stuff, while not vintage, looked good enough to combat most lineups. His fastball sat at 91 MPH (down a tick from the previous few years), with an 85 MPH slider and splitter (he also tossed an occasional high-70’s curveball).
Smoltz’s plate discipline stats suggest that hitters still found that mix difficult to handle at times. He managed a 33.1 Outside-Swing% (30.6 O-Swing% since 2002). Opponents made contact with a few more pitches placed within the strike zone (87.9%, right at the MLB average and 3.8% above his overall rate since 2002). It’s not like batters were roping every pitch he threw: his 18.1% line drive rate was actually below his marks from 2005-2007.
The dichotomy between Smoltz’s actual ERA and his Expected Fielding Independent ERA (4.37) is massive. Taking only a cursory look at his numbers, Smoltz appears to have a fork sticking out of his the back of his jersey instead of his customary “29.” However, the long-time Brave still appears to have something left in the tank, if teams are willing to look past the grisly superficial stats.