Who is more valuable? A starting pitcher capable of winning 18 to 20 games, and possibly more, or an outstanding reliever, a closer with the credentials for 50 to 55 saves?
John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves, a right-hander with a smoking fastball, could provide the answer. After three pressure-full years of late relief, Smoltz has returned to the starting rotation with the blessing of field manager Bobby Cox and general manager John Schuerholz.
Obviously, Cox and Schuerholz believe Smoltz is a more valuable property as a starter. The offseason departures of Jaret Wright, Russ Ortiz and Paul Byrd thinned the Braves' rotation. The Braves responded with the acquisition of Dan Kolb from Milwaukee, an effective closer who will replace Smoltz, and starter Tim Hudson of Oakland, who has a 92-39 career record.
Smoltz, 38 in May, has had an outstanding 17-year big-league career. He was a starter in his first 13 seasons and won the Cy Young Award in 1996 when he was 24-8. Otherwise, he won 17 games once and 15 three times. His overall record as a starter is 159-115, a winning percentage of .580, 44 games over .500.
His bullpen numbers are dazzling: 144 saves in 157 opportunities, only 13 blown saves. You can't do better than that. He broke the then-existing one-season National League record in 2002 with 55 saves, since matched by the Dodgers' Eric Gagne. In his three seasons in the bullpen, Smoltz has been first, second and fourth in Rolaids Relief Man points.
If he continued in relief it is my minority opinion he would prolong his career and be working into his forties, assuming he would not pitch more than 70 innings per year. If he starts he would work about 220 innings, three times as much. But there is this to consider:
One inning in late relief, with the game on the line, the pressure is enormous. There is no room for error. It's do or die. One inning could be equated to three innings for a starter, who could give up three or four runs and still win. The closer does not have this luxury. One run and his team is likely to lose.
Veteran pitcher Mike Hampton, Smoltz's teammate, explained the difference. "Instead of throwing 92-94 miles (per hour when he was a starter) he was throwing 97 to 100 with everything he had for an inning or two. Starting would be easier on his arm."
Smoltz agrees and insists starting will extend his career. He has the advantage over most fire-balling relievers because he isn't a one-pitch pitcher. He also throws a changeup and slider and has been improving his curve.
But there is a downside. He must re-adjust his mindset physically and mentally. And he must retrain his arm. Starters work at a slower pace and throw about 120 pitches. A closer uses only 15-20 pitches, sometimes less. There is no comparison.
Smoltz told Gary Graves of USA Today that he is aware of the difference and realizes a starter doesn't have to retire every batter. Also, the starter works every fifth day and isn't criticized for an occasional loss. A closer is usually summoned three times a week. A late-inning loss is devastating. Perfection is expected.
When I think of Smoltz I am reminded of Bob Gibson of the Cardinals, a pitching great in the '60s. Gibson was a starter and especially against a weak opponent sometimes coasted through the first five innings, throwing nothing but junk. But in the seventh or eighth he brought out his heater and it was Goodbye, Louise.
Gibson was a terrific competitor. So is Smoltz. With runners on base, in a threatening situation, early or mid-game, Smoltz may not be able to hold back and continue relying on soft stuff. More than likely, to get out of a tough inning, he may forget about pacing himself and, in an adrenalin rush, would try to blow everyone away. If he does he might not have enough left to finish.
Another danger is that he may be sent to the bullpen between starts. Schuerholz mentioned this possibility early in Spring Training but seems to have dropped the subject, which is a good thing.
Smoltz may be willing, in tight situations, to assume this dual role. If asked to relieve once a month, about six times but no more than that during the regular season, he may be able to handle the burden.
Rare is the pitcher who has been effective in both roles in the same season. I thought Dennis Lamp, in 1985 with Toronto, did it but my memory was wrong. Lamp made only one start. According to the encyclopedias, Joe Black, when he was a rookie with the 1952 Dodgers, had 15 wins as a starter and 14 saves. It is not correct. Black made only two starts.
Jerome Holtzman is the official historian for Major League Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.