Change-UpMay 16, 2007
The Blueprint?
By Patrick Sullivan

Jay-Z is well known as one of the most versatile rappers ever, and his career has been constituted by numerous iterations. He was the up-and-coming contributor with Jermaine Dupree on Money Ain't a Thang and the iconic, legendary artist in his most brilliant form later on with The Blueprint. His loyalists revere him, the clubbers dance to him.

Well if you will allow me the liberty, I might submit that John Smoltz is his baseball equivalent, and his career path makes you wonder if he hasn't offered up a "blueprint" himself for power pitchers that encounter some arm trouble.

Smoltz started off his career as a dependable starter, became a Cy Young Award winner, eventually proved a little injury prone, converted to a dominant closer, and has emerged late in his career as an excellent starter once again. I am no physician (and certainly not a "medhead") and have nothing in the way of medical expertise, but this piece will ponder aloud whether or not Smoltz's career path offers an example for how to handle a power pitcher who encounters arm troubles.

Over the last 20 seasons, here is the top-5 list of pitchers sorted by innings pitched through their age-26 season (do I even need to thank Baseball Reference at this point?):

                    IP         ERA+
Greg Maddux       1,442        115
Alex Fernandez    1,346.1      114 
Javier Vazquez    1,229.1      109 
Mark Buehrle      1,224        128
John Smoltz       1,223.1      109

To the extent that he threw a boatload of innings and was above average while throwing them, Smoltz was a very good pitcher. Despite having bone chips removed from his elbow, Smoltz was also solid during the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, and then tremendous in 1995 when the Braves won the World Series.

He kicked things up a notch in 1996 and 1997, but may have done so at a cost.

Year   IP     SO   BB   ERA   ERA+     
1996   253.7  276  55   2.94  149
1997   256    241  63   3.02  139

Smoltz landed on the Disabled List multiple times between the 1998 and 1999 seasons and after proving the workhorse he had become to be, the mere 354 innings he tossed between the two seasons was a clear indicator that something was amiss. Smoltz had Tommy John surgery after the 1999 campaign and missed all of 2000. The Braves decided they would bring him back as a closer.

In his new role, Smoltz was nothing short of dominant. Smoltz saved 154 games from 2001 to 2004 and posted ERA+ campaigns of 131, 127, 371 and 157 respectively. He was 37 during the 2004 season and could have easily settled into his new role to ride out his career. Smoltz converted back to a starter, however, and didn't miss a beat. In 2005 and 2006 he was one of the very best in the National League and is once again experiencing success in 2007, this time at the age of 40.

Deducing causal relationships between disparate circumstances is a dicey game but one has to wonder whether or not Smoltz's time as a closer after his surgery helped to prolong his career and restore him to excellence as a starter. On the face it seems intuitive. The reliever incurs less incremental wear and tear from long outings than the starter. He also throws fewer pitches, but tosses more frequently. This allows him to hone his individual pitches and re-sharpen command, as the reliever can get by with a narrower repertoire than the starter can.

Over an IM chat the other day, Rich and I were talking about which other pitchers might/may have benefited from such treatment. A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon came to mind. Both are power pitchers and both have had stretches of excellence. Below are some of their career numbers:

                 IP      BB   SO   ERA   ERA+
A.J. Burnett     1036.7  443  916  4.21  111
Bartolo Colon    1908    654  1491 3.97  116

Burnett has averaged just 144 innings per season over the last six. Perhaps after his 2003 or 2004 seasons, Burnett might have ultimately benefited from a couple of years as a reliever. Similarly, coming off his injury-plagued 2006, perhaps the Smoltz-treatment would have done well by Colon.

John Smoltz is about to win his 200th game and has saved another 154. Other than Smoltz, only Dennis Eckersley has at least 150 wins and 150 saves. Smoltz's career has been tremendous and his career pattern in roles from starter, to reliever, back to starter hold him out as somewhat unique. In the future, Smoltz may be looked back upon not only as an excellent pitcher, but also as the treatment standard for easing injured power starting pitchers back to prominence.


Hey Patrick,
Great work.
Would you consider Matt Morris as a possible comparable? I know he hasn't achieved the same sort of success that Smoltz has, but he came up to the Cardinals as a young power pitcher at age 22, had elbow surgery after his age 23 season & was moved to the bullpen for a year by the Cardinals following his return (picked up 4 saves too!)? After the move from the bullpen in 2001, Morris was wonderful for 3 straight years & has settled into league-average out-muncher since... I guess maybe the comparison doesn't hold water since Smoltz (& Burnett & Colon for that matter) have retained their K rate, while Matty Mo's has been slipping like Dan Jansen for the past 4 years... Just a thought.
Thanks & keep it up!

Thanks Boomer. I would say Morris could be a very good candidate. I am not sure he possesses closer stuff but it might be appropriate to ease him back to an SP by making him an RP for a year or two. And if he excels, maybe you can make him a closer.

Is Smoltz a HOFer then?

Hard call, Hugh. I would say he slots well back of a Glavine but a bit ahead of Schill/Moose types. Three or four more excellent seasons as a starter and he is probably in though.

Looks like I misread Boomer's comment. Yes, it appears that Morris would have been an excellent closer/RP candidate.