When John Smoltz takes the mound for the Red Sox for the first time tonight, the veteran right-hander will be adding yet another chapter to an illustrious career that will someday see him enshrined in Cooperstown. Now 42 years old and with 20 big-league seasons under his belt (all with the Atlanta Braves), Smoltz has 3,011 career strikeouts, and is the only pitcher in big-league history to log over 200 wins and 150 saves. An eight-time All-Star who captured the NL Cy Young Award in 1996, he possesses a sterling post-season record of 15-4. After Smoltz signed a free-agent contract with the Red Sox in January, he took the time to share some thoughts during spring training on the game that he’s played so well for so long.
John Smoltz: It was a dream come true, having grown up there. My grandfather actually worked on the grounds crew at Tiger Stadium for about 30 years or so, and I went to a lot of games growing up. I remember going to see them play in the World Series. To get drafted by them was… I can’t think of anything better. I loved Tiger Stadium. Unless you sat behind a pole, you had a great seat. I got a chance to play in an all-star game there growing up, which was pretty unique. It was pretty cool to be there, and dreaming of playing in the big leagues.
DL: Do you ever wonder how your career might have gone had you remained in Detroit?
JS: Yeah, I have. Obviously, I don’t know that I ever would have had 14 straight years going to the playoffs. My career would also have been delayed, as I probably wouldn’t have been called up any time soon. The Tigers’ organization was going in a different direction than Atlanta was at the time.
DL: You went to Atlanta in exchange for Doyle Alexander. How do you look at that deal now, 22 years later?
JS: Well, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, personally. I got an opportunity to pitch in the big leagues at a young age; I got a chance to get my feet wet. Then I got to play all those years for Atlanta, so it really carved the pathway to what I believe to have been a magical career.
DL: The threesome of Smoltz/Maddux/Glavine is a big part of Braves lore, but you seldom hear Steve Avery‘s name mentioned anymore. Just how good was Avery?
JS: Steve… if it wasn’t for the injuries, he would have been one of the most dynamic left-handers that we’ve seen in a long time. He was a dynamic presence on the mound, and his ability to throw a baseball under pressure was incredible. He had two of the greatest post-season games, in one series, that I think anyone will ever have. It’s a shame he didn’t stay healthy.
DL: What impact did Leo Mazzone have on your career?
JS: You know, he just kept me simple. Detroit was kind of retooling my mechanics, and I struggled with that. When I got to Atlanta, they had more pitching coaches available than Detroit did, and Leo is the one who said to me, “Throw a baseball. Okay, that looks good. Now let’s work on your pitches.” So he just helped me to focus on my pitches, and for that I became a better pitcher because I didn’t have to worry about all the mechanical stuff.
DL: How would you describe Mazzone’s pitching philosophy?
JS: His philosophy is to command the low-and-away strike, and if you do that you’ll be able to pitch in this league for quite some time. You have to have that pitch to be successful. Leo’s philosophy also was to throw more with less exertion, to throw more often, but not as hard. He wanted you to keep your arm fresh.
DL: How would you describe your evolution as a pitcher over the years?
JS: What’s interesting is that I’ve always thought of myself as a pitcher, but no one has coined that for me. They’ve always thought of me as a guy with stuff. But to go through what I’ve gone through, I’ve thrown every kind of pitch from every angle… I’ve gone through a lot. When I look at my evolution, I’ve maintained my velocity and stuff, but I’ve also been able to pitch under some pretty incredible circumstances.
DL: Who facilitated your conversion into the closer’s role?
JS: That’s an interesting story. Nobody facilitated it. It was brought to my attention that it was the only thing that would keep me in a Braves uniform. They wanted me to close; they didn’t really talk to me about starting at all. I had to make that choice, and the only place I would have considered closing was in Atlanta, pretty much.
DL: There was obviously a learning curve involved. Who helped you in that regard?
JS: We had a fortunate situation in our bullpen, with some former closers like Steve Reed and Darren Holmes. We had [Mike] Remlinger and [Chris] Hammond. We had a lot of guys who had been through it before, and that really helped me to go through that process in a magical way my first year.
DL: How do you view the relative value of a starter versus a late-inning reliever?
JS: Well, it’s like the chicken and the egg. I mean, you need a good closer to get you to the playoffs, and you need a good closer to win in the playoffs, but without great starting pitchers, a closer doesn’t mean a lot because you can’t get to him. We’ve got the best of both worlds here in Boston, which is what allows Papelbon to do his thing.
DL: What do you consider to be your best season in the big leagues?
JS: From a purely personal standpoint, it would probably be 1998, when I went 17-3. My shoulder was pretty much on fire, and I had to learn how to throw a new way. I had to throw sidearm and I went 12-1 in the second half. Nobody seemed to even know I had that kind of year. I finished second in ERA, third in the Cy Young, and it was like I was flying right under the radar. That season, I was able to make a mid-season transformation, in one bullpen, from throwing over the top to sidearm.
DL: Do you feel that your 2003 season was also underappreciated?
JS: Well, without sounding like… there are a lot of seasons that can go underappreciated when people think you should win 24 games every year or save every game, just because you have stuff. Another amazing year was when I came back from closing, to starting, and pitched 233 innings after having not started a game in five or six years. I think that was underappreciated, because everybody talked about what a fool I was, and how stupid I was to go back to starting. They thought I was going to end my career. So I’ve heard it and faced it all.
DL: How much have you utilized scouting reports over the years?
JS: I’m not a big guy on that. I try to feed off the tendencies of the hitter, based on how aggressive or non-aggressive he is. My advantage is that they don’t want to get too deep into the count, so they’re going to be more aggressive with me. I just have to be better execution-wise early on. They don’t want to get to two strikes too often, and I can use that to my benefit.
JS: They both liked to swing for the yard. Eric Davis had the capacity to spray the ball a little more to all parts of the field; he had a little bit of a hitch, but he still generated a lot of power. Sammy was usually looking to take it from center field to the left-field foul line. I had some struggles with Eric Davis. I feared Sammy, but I didn’t struggle with him, statistics-wise. I think Eric Davis went something like seven for his first 10 against me, so I never could quite figure out how to get him out.
DL: The reason I brought them up is that Davis went 14-for-34 with four home runs against you, while Sosa went 4-for-38 with no home runs. Can you point to a specific reason why you had success against one and trouble with the other?
JS: I think it depends on the numbers game, where you can’t always figure them out. Some guys have success, but I believe that if you face a guy long enough, certainly things are going to even out. When I got to be a better pitcher, Eric Davis wasn’t in the game and Sammy still was. So part of it has to do with maturity and me being a better pitcher. I faced Eric Davis in my first year when I went 2-7. My first two years I didn’t exactly have the same command, and the stuff I needed, but he was still a great player. He simply took advantage of it.
DL: How has the game of baseball changed since you threw your first pitch in the big leagues?
JS: There are so many things that you could write a whole book on it. There is the strike zone, the parks, the players, the mindsets. Starting pitching no longer is looked upon the same way. It used to be that you wanted to be an ace and a workhorse who was going to be that guy. The game has become more specialized. I think guys are pampered more, and because of that managers are kind of at the mercy of playing this game, and managing this game, in a shortened and condensed version where more guys are being used more often. Starters are only going five, six, seven innings, where they used to complete games.
DL: Pitcher usage aside, has the game lost anything over the past 20 years?
JS: I think it has lost its ability to take care of itself. Major League Baseball, or humans, try to tweak it, or come up with ways to make it better. They think they know the heartbeat of the fan. But the game always takes care of itself, from the in-game stuff to the outside-the-game stuff. You know, people rush too quickly to conclusions. The trends in this game will work themselves back. In seven, eight, or nine years it might be a hitters’ era, and then it gets to a pitchers’ run. I just think that, by the way they’re doing this QuesTec, and all these different ways to speed up the game and make it more… it’s taking out the individuality of the umpires to call the game the way they see fit. To me, that needs to be rectified so that we’re not dealing with a bunch of 14-10, 10-8 games. I don’t think fans come to the game… I think what has changed is that they don’t appreciate a good pitchers’ duel once in awhile. They just want to see the home run, the home run, and more of the home run. There’s more to baseball than just home runs.
DL: How would you define the era that you’ve played in?
JS: Wow. You could probably call it the cloudy era right now. There are too many things hanging over our heads that need to be changed, and there are the determinations of how we are going to fix them. In the middle of all of that, it’s a great era. There have been some great records, some great chases, some great races, and then, all of a sudden, the extracurricular news overshadows all of the things that could be good. On the flip side, I’ve survived this era in a clean way and kept my head above water. I’ve been very successful in a time where the statistics are probably more inflated than ever before, and… doing something the right way is going to be appreciated more than ever before.
DL: Any final thoughts?
JS: In this game, there is so little that you can control. I always thought that you could control a lot more of what happens, but the statistical things and outcomes can be skewed by a lot of variables, from the official scorers… in my opinion, every official scorer should be an ex-baseball player. It should be somebody who has played the game. The reason I say that isn’t because there aren’t competent official scorers, it’s just that the game is played, and decided, on so many different rulings, and the livelihood of so many guys are affected one way or the other by the outcome of a decision.
DL: One last question: How important are numbers in baseball?
JS: It’s interesting, because certain people put importance on things I never would. But you can justify just about anything you want. If a guy wins a lot of games but has a high ERA, you can say, ‘Well, wins are the most important thing.’ If a guy has a low ERA but a bunch of blown saves, and he doesn’t have a lot of wins, it’s certainly going to look like he didn’t have that good of a year. Those are variables that you throw in the hopper, and I know, from having lived through it, that you can have some pretty great years and people look at you and say, ‘Look at your stats. Those aren’t great years.’ But I would disagree, because there were things that led up to accumulating those. A call here or there is the difference between an out and a run over the course of the season, and that impacts your ERA. That’s what makes the game unique. It’s not perfect. You usually think that things work themselves out, that they even themselves out, but it’s something where I think… yeah, it’s just a blip on the radar screen, but I think more baseball people should be making those calls. That would help better reflect the numbers we’re dealing with.