Like many pitchers who came of age in the 20th century, Fox analyst and Hall of Famer John Smoltz is not a fan of the evolution of the game toward ever-shorter stints for starting pitchers.
“It cannot sustain itself,” Smoltz said during an interview with Newsday in which he discussed his new role as Fox’s No. 1 analyst. “The theory in baseball today is: There are plenty of arms coming, so we’ll just shuffle the deck.
“The analytic world, they’re right in this one respect: They are run-preventing better than ever before, so that model works. But it’s short-sighted, not long-term effective. The game to me will suffer by lessening the role of the starter and thinking that you’re protecting the starter, when in essence the injuries are harder and greater than they’ve ever been.
“And you’re not really getting the full capacity out of a guy who you’re giving $210 million. As long as they feel like arms are coming and they can shuffle the deck and everybody can be that power arm that doesn’t develop that second and third pitch, I think we’re stunting the growth of some greatness that we’re allowing just max effort, rpm, go get it, give me five, six innings, that’s all I need.
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“I just don’t think long term it’s good, for the sake of the game, for the sake of the viewers, the fans, that’s been my biggest concern,” Smoltz continued. “Will people want to keep watching nine or 10 pitchers per game to get through a game? If the answer’s yes, then I’ll be wrong and I’ll admit I’m wrong. But when it comes down to the absolutes and the people in the analytical world that think that they can take emotion and human things out of the game, there’s balance. Everything has a purpose.
“When you tell me why we are having more injuries than ever and we are pitching less than ever, I say there’s a reason and it’s an easy reason. But we’re not paying attention to it, because the development of these hard-throwing arms that don’t have second or third pitches and aren’t considered pitchers are the guys they think they can keep throwing in the pen and just make up for the loss of the guy’s they’ve had. They just utilize a three- or four-year window and then say, see ya. We’ll go on to the next guy.”
“It may seem like I’m a Debbie Downer of the game. I’m not, because the greatness of the arms has never been as good and as great. But is it a long-term solution, or is it a short-term fix that ends up becoming a big problem for the industry down the road?”
Smoltz added that there are creative ways to develop and use pitchers.
“I understand the Tommy John recipient and recovery,” said Smoltz, who won 213 games and saved another 154. “I’ve been through it and done that. I was 34 when I had it. You can take care of guys on the front end of the season. There are ways creatively to do this and not put everyone in a box and make everyone feel like, oh, everyone has to throw 180 innings. Not everyone is the same.
“So when you are adamant that this is the way I’m going to do it, and you’re not allowing yourself to be creative, a la the famous Washington Nationals with Stephen Strasburg, that’s the kind of stuff that’s going to hurt guys in the long run, if you’re not open to finding a way to get guys to pitch at the end of the season, period.
“If you have to baby them in April, no one’s going to care. You don’t lose a division or win a division in April. Well, maybe you can start out of the gate and be just horrible. … Why are there Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, guys who trained and pitched in an era that had a lot of success and a lot of evidence to what they did, and we’ve allowed a computer to spit out a model that now everyone is adopting?
“Again, it’s hard to defend some of the numbers, but is that a long-term benefit to our game? Are we doing our game a disservice by shrinking it down to a Strat-O-Matic six, seven pitchers to get through a game when we already know we’re trying to speed up the game? How do you expect fans to sit for 3 1/2 hours when the game is only going to get longer?
“The time we’ve saved right now is a wash because the time it’s going to take for a game to get through pitching changes and pitching coach visits, you watch, it’ll just keep getting longer.”
Might there come a time when there are nine pitchers per game, one for each inning?
“Believe me,” Smoltz said, “if the analytic people had their way that’s exactly the way the game would be.”