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John Smoltz’s signing with the Red Sox this past off-season was supposed to supplement their rotation by providing them with another ace once he recovered from off-season shoulder surgery. However, for the former Atlanta Brave, the results were far from optimal, with only some initial success. Pitching for the first time in his career in the American League, and in the toughest division in baseball, Smoltz posted his worst ERA since his rookie year. To analyze what the future holds for Smoltz, we need to first analyze what happened during his stint with the Red Sox.
Not having the easy out (the pitcher in NL lineups) in the lineup, Smoltz posted his lowest strikeout rate since 1991 and the fifth worst strikeout numbers of his illustrious career. He also posted the worst home run rate and WHIP of his career. Part of that came from pitching in front of a Red Sox defense that is one of their worst in recent years. Poor defense contributed to him allowing an unlucky .391 batting average on balls in play. Another issue for Smoltz was that he posted his lowest ground ball to fly ball ratio of his career.
The AL East is home to ballparks more conducive to home runs than the NL East, and that was even true before the new ballparks in New York. If you allow more fly balls and in parks more conducive to the home run, you’re bound to have some trouble. Sure enough, Smoltz’s home run per fly ball rate was the highest it’s been in his career at 14.8%. He also posted his lowest first strike percentage since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking the stat in 2002.
While that may be the bad of the season so far for John Smoltz, there were some positives. Smoltz did not walk many batters, nearly 2 per 9 innings. Plus, his slider and change up were very effective pitches for him. Also, he was very effective in the first two innings and the first time through a lineup. Furthermore, numbers like his home run rate and BABIP should regress to the mean. This means he likely ran into some bad luck. Given his control and his strength against hitters the first time he sees them, Smoltz could very well perform well as a reliever. It would likely add some of his velocity back to his pitches, as well.
If you look at the compelling evidence, Smoltz’s best bet to contribute is to go back to the National League as a reliever, and not pitch in Coors Field. Being in the NL and relieving would likely increase his strikeout rate, allow him to face hitters when he does best and still puts up reasonable numbers against them, and allow him to regain some of his stuff. The guy has been a closer before, so relieving would be nothing new to him. Increased velocity would likely give him confidence to place a few more early pitches in the strike zone and get ahead of hitters.
The Marlins, Cardinals, and Dodgers are expected to pursue Smoltz when he officially becomes a free agent on Monday. If the Red Sox are on the hook for the cost, why not take a chance on a pitcher who could contribute more than most players who will fall through waivers?
(Thanks to Fangraphs.com and Baseballreference.com for the data)