John Smoltz is a baseball anomaly.
Everyone is well aware of the career that Smoltz had during his 20 seasons with the Atlanta Braves. He compiled 210 victories during his tenure in Atlanta while also racking up 154 saves.
While these numbers are very impressive, and no one denies the inevitability of Smoltz’s induction into the Hall of Fame, there have been others who have made the switch from starter to reliever as their career ages.
Red Sox fans are well aware of one such pitcher. Dennis Eckersley spent six-and-a-half seasons in the late '70s and early '80s as the Red Sox's top-of-the-rotation starter and recorded a 20-win season in 1978. He later returned to Boston in his final year in baseball in 1998 after spending the last decade establishing himself as one of the best closers in baseball.
Eckersley finished with 197 victories and 309 saves, with career bests of 20 and 51, respectively. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
But through his work with the Red Sox television network NESN, Eckersley will speak to the uniqueness of John Smoltz. Why?
While Smoltz is not the only player to have great success as a starter and then a converted reliever, he is the only player to have great success in making the conversion back to the starting rotation after spending time as a reliever.
From his rookie season in 1988 to 1999, Smoltz compiled very impressive numbers, like a 157-113 record with a 3.35 ERA in 356 starts and no appearances out of the bullpen. But after undergoing Tommy John surgery following the 1999 season, he missed the entire 2000 campaign and returned in '01 coming out of the bullpen.
In 2002, his first full season as a closer, he recorded 55 saves, breaking the then-National League record of 53. In slightly more than three seasons as a closer, Smoltz racked up 154 saves and a 2.65 ERA.
So far to this point, Smoltz's career almost mirrors Eckersley's. But following the '04 season, the Braves' need for pitchers fell more to the rotation than it did the bullpen. So Smoltz returned as a starter, and in the following 2006 season—at the age of 39, no less—Smoltz led the NL with 16 wins in 35 starts.
Shoulder injuries forced Smoltz to the disabled list last season and eventually to season-ending shoulder surgery. But in the three full seasons after his return from the bullpen, Smoltz put together a 44-24 record, for a .647 winning percentage, with a 3.22 ERA.
Although a significantly smaller sample, the numbers after his return are better than his numbers during his original stint as a starter (.647 winning percentage to .581).
After the Sox signed Smoltz, who just turned 42, to a one-year, $5.5 million contract, the discussion of what role he would play as a member of a new team for the first time in his career was somewhat rendered moot by the fact that he was still rehabbing from the surgery and was not going to be ready for Opening Day.
Well, Smoltz took a big step toward returning to the big leagues after tossing three scoreless innings for the Red Sox's single-A affiliate in Greenville. Smoltz threw 29 pitches and reported that while he was throwing about at about 85 percent, he touched 92 MPH on the radar gun with his fastball.
Smoltz’s target date during spring training was to return to the team in early June, and it certainly seems as though that was a good estimate.
Now that his return seems imminent, we have to wonder in what role Smoltz will be contributing this season. Certainly the bullpen, leading the AL in ERA, does not need help. They already are bolstered by flame-throwing prospect Daniel Bard, who replaces Javier Lopez. Also, Justin Masterson returns to the pen now that Daisuke Matsuzaka is back from the disabled list tonight against the New York Mets.
So the place that most needs Smoltz’s help and experience is the starting rotation, as the Sox's starters ERA is last in the majors. Tim Wakefield is the only starter among the Opening Day rotation that has pitched well, and some, like Brad Penny, have been very poor at times.
The question then becomes, whom does Smoltz replace?
Penny is likely the first starter to be given the axe because he was a gamble by the admission of the Red Sox front office. Wakefield is pitching well, so he will remain. The other three—Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Matsuzaka—all are tied to long-term contracts and supposed to be the Sox’s front of the rotation for many seasons.
So while Penny is a likely candidate to be replaced, it may be possible that if Beckett or Lester do not show signs of improvement—and Lester certainly showed some last night—then one of them might find himself on the disabled list a la Matsuzaka.
The Sox, and certain other teams like the Yankees, are getting a reputation for placing players on the disabled list with mystery injuries so that they are not embarrassed by getting sent down to the minors to work things out.
So, if things don’t improve for Beckett or Lester, they may come down with an “injury,” paving the way for Smoltz to contribute.
So, what do you all think? Is Smoltz a starter or reliever in 2009? (If you are thinking about a “both” option, bear in mind that he is 42 and his arm is not as durable as that of the 23-year-old Masterson, who can flip-flop back and forth easily.)