Anatomy of a player: John Smoltz

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John Smoltz’s delivery to the plate. (Icon/SMI)

John Smoltz has been one of the best pitchers of his generation. Arm injuries caused him to move from the rotation to the bullpen, but in 2008 he found himself starting again on a Braves team that was supposed to compete for the National League East crown. Smoltz’s season mirrored the Braves’, with arm injuries again cutting it short. He is contemplating a return next season, when he will turn 42.

Considering what Jamie Moyer did at 44 this year, we know that pitchers can succeed at that age but Smoltz is a decidedly different pitcher than Moyer. Can he still be successful?

Smoltz’s 2008 compared to 2007

John Smoltz is a four-pitch pitcher at this point in his career: fastball, slider, curveball, and split-fingered fastball. Here is a look at the movement of his pitches.

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Smoltz still has plenty of giddy-up on his four-seam fastball, averaging 93 mph with it. This is just a shade under the 93.5 he averaged in 2007, so even though he was pitching in pain due to his shoulder all season, his fastball didn’t suffer. Even if he loses two mph more next year, he still would be right at league average. Plenty of pitchers can get by with a fastball that good.

The concern here, however, is that Smoltz really stopped using his fastball in 2008, throwing it just 40 percent of the time (league average is around 60 percent) and almost never in strikeout situations. A fastball like his that not only has plenty of speed but also has 10 inches of vertical “rise” should get plenty of swings and misses. In 2007, he threw his fastball 32 percent of the time when the count was 1-2, but only 14 percent of the time last year. It is possible that Smoltz’s shoulder was acting up more when he threw his fastball, but if he does come back for 2009 he needs to get back to throwing it more when he is ahead of hitters even if it isn’t as good as it once was.

Smoltz’s slider is a hard one, averaging 86 mph with only about two inches of horizontal slide. While it would be nice if he could generate more movement with the pitch, it doesn’t seem likely at this point. He shouldn’t throwing that slider as much to left-handed hitters. In 2008, he threw his slider 30 percent of the time to lefties and threw only 33 percent fastballs to them. While his more three-quarters arm slot means his fastball tails away from lefties, I think that still is a better option than his slider. Also, as we will see, he has another off-speed pitch that would be a far better option.

Smoltz’s curveball is a little more slurvy than you see from most pitchers who throw as fast as he does. He generates four inches of horizontal movement with the pitch, but only three inches of downward movement. This pitch seems like it would be effective against right-handed batters, tailing down and away from them, but he almost never throws it against them, choosing to use it sparingly to left-handed batters. While the downward movement should make the pitch somewhat effective against lefties, the nice horizontal movement should make the pitch effective against right-handed batters as well.

Lastly, the pitch that has been a staple in Smoltz’s arsenal, his splitter. Smoltz has an excellent one, even now generating almost 10 inches of horizontal movement away from a left-handed batter with a speed that is only six mph slower than his fastball. The pitch looks like a fastball until it breaks down and away from a lefty at the last instant. This is the pitch that Smoltz is most effective with against left-handed batters and, while he is using it as his strikeout pitch, I’d love to see him use it more when the count was even and later in the count.

Looking ahead at 2009

As much as John Smoltz likes being in the rotation, I feel that if he wants to contribute in 2009 the best place for him would be the bullpen. If he does lose a bit off his fastball, moving into the pen would allow him to throw fewer pitches and throw those fastballs harder. It also would allow him to use his less effective off-speed pitches less as he doesn’t have to worry about facing a lineup three or four times a game.

If he focuses in on his fastball and splitter to left-handed batters and his fastball and either slider or curve to right-handed batters, there is absolutely no reason (other than health) that he can’t be a lights-out closer in 2009.

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