Major League Baseball
John Smoltz on Dodgers-Yankees, NL wild cards and a new pitching wave
Major League Baseball

John Smoltz on Dodgers-Yankees, NL wild cards and a new pitching wave

Updated Jun. 12, 2024 2:10 p.m. ET

As the only player in big-league history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves, John Smoltz knows a thing or two about what it takes to thrive as both a starter and a reliever.

The transition from the bullpen to the rotation is becoming more of a trend for some of Major League Baseball's top arms. Seth Lugo made the successful move last year, and recent full-time relievers Reynaldo López, Jordan Hicks and Michael King are doing the same in 2024.

As part of a new weekly conversation with Hall of Famer John Smoltz, the MLB on FOX analyst provided his thoughts on how to handle the former relievers thriving as starters this year, his takeaways from this past weekend's potential World Series preview between the Dodgers and the Yankees, the cluster of NL teams likely on the fence about buying or selling at the trade deadline and more.

Kavner: You were at a fun matchup over the weekend between the Dodgers and Yankees. It was a star-studded one that was maybe dimmed a little bit by Juan Soto's absence, but you still had a lot of possible MVPs taking the field. What were some of your takeaways from the series, particularly regarding New York's lineup without Soto? 


Smoltz: Both of these teams have looked the part when everyone's healthy. When the top four or five for the Dodgers are doing their thing, they look unbeatable. They need a little bit more depth in their lineup, but with the Yankees, of course, Soto is a game-changer. And without him, it's a little more average. Their pitching has exceeded everyone's expectations, but their offense is what's going to be dangerous when Soto and Aaron Judge are doing their thing. 

Both teams look like favorites to represent each league, but a lot can happen, and there are times when teams look vulnerable. I love the 162-game journey because at certain points we fall in love with teams, and then we fall out of love with teams. I think these two teams, a little past the one-third mark of the season, made for a pretty intriguing matchup. And, of course, the Dodgers had been playing mediocre of late until they got to Yankee Stadium and won the series. 

Dodgers DH Shohei Ohtani and outfielder Teoscar Hernandez 

You also got to see Yoshinobu Yamamoto up close. He was a more than $300 million investment, making him the highest-paid pitcher in the sport, and he's been really good since his forgettable debut. But I think this last outing in that environment — it felt like a playoff situation — that was the most dominant start we've seen from him. What growth have you seen from him over the past two months?

Well, the biggest thing against the Yankees is he had an elevator to his fastball velocity; he ramped it up. His ability to command the baseball and make hitters look silly has been really good over the last five starts or so. And I think what the Dodgers saw in Japan, they're now getting. The key's going to be keeping him healthy because he's a frontline, swing-and-miss-type pitcher. When you get to the postseason, that's what you need. 

The Dodgers, the last couple of years, the reason they didn't make the long journey to the World Series is because they didn't have the health and the rotation. I think they've put together a collection of pitchers that have the frontline traits and an overall staff that can go through the gauntlet once the postseason starts. Yamamoto certainly tuned it up in front of New York and its fan base, and the history of that franchise didn't bother him at all. 

I'm curious about your thoughts on a recent trend, and it's one I think you are uniquely positioned to talk about. There seems to be a reliever-to-starter pipeline developing. We saw it with Seth Lugo last year, but now you're seeing it in a bit more bulk with Reynaldo López, Michael King and Jordan Hicks, among others. With the successful emergence that you're seeing with that transition, how would you handle these guys? We're approaching the halfway mark of the season, so a lot of these guys are close to their career high for innings. 

A lot of this is the byproduct of de-developing greatness. And I've said it a lot: They put a lot of these guys in the bullpen to eat up what they consider, analytically, important innings. But these guys were starters by nature who served a different role. I call it de-development because they didn't have the opportunity to bring along their second, third and fourth pitches. Basically, you come in and provide a service by eating up some of these middle innings. But I've said it for a long time, when you try to take away the value of starting pitching and compartmentalize so many innings with the bullpen, this is what you get. 

As for the pitchers you mentioned, they're now getting a chance to do what they really were always meant to do. They're having to build their innings up again, so you're going to have to look at that in a very creative way and try to balance that great run that they're on, but still, how do you sustain it? This is an industry problem that has been going on for a long time, that we awakened to thinking that they were relievers that now became starters. It's the other way; they were starters who were put in the bullpen for, again, the reasons that analytics and the Department of Choices made. But these guys are just being able to now fully put together what they were going to do, originally. 

It started about seven, eight, nine years ago with the Milwaukee Brewers and having three starters in their bullpen in that infamous playoff series against the Dodgers. They had Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta. They were all relievers, but they were starters in waiting. So, now you see what those pitchers have had to go through with the injuries, and it just delays the greatness, I think, of a lot of potential pitchers who we just assumed could only eat up 60 innings. So, how would I handle them? As long as they're pitching free and repeating their mechanics, let them go. Let the eye test, without the absurdity of throwing 50 more innings than they did the year before, I think there's some balance in using that wisdom. 

Three of the 14 top qualified ERAs belong to guys that we just mentioned, so clearly it is possible to have success converting them back to starters. Do you think teams have a grasp yet on the best way to do this, or are we still in a trial period? 

Well, from my observation, in the last 10 years, we don't develop in the minor leagues. We bring guys up early because of the necessity of arms; there's so many injuries, and I just don't think they're ready. And so, organizations think the best way to accomplish the innings that they need is to put them in the bullpen, bounce them back and forth, and then have this kind of elevator system until they get to the point where they can maybe give them the starting nod. I think it's a little backward. But again, I don't have any say in it. Organizations are having to run out 30-40 pitchers per year on average to get through a big-league season, and a lot of it is because of what I just mentioned. 

I want to dive a bit further into the National League, where there's a huge group of teams hovering around .500 — the Cubs, Reds, Cardinals, Pirates, Giants, D-backs, Padres and Nationals. Which of those clubs do you believe in and like as potential contenders, and which ones do you expect will have to be honest with themselves and turn into sellers? 

It's such a logjam of the same kind of team. Many teams are going to have a hard time deciding whether to trade away their assets when they're really close to a playoff spot. I do like the Cincinnati Reds. I've liked them from the beginning of the year; it looks like they're getting back on track. Pittsburgh is so intriguing with their arms that if they were to somehow make the playoffs, good luck facing those arms, if they're able to kind of pitch at that time of the year within innings limits. 

You got some of these teams really not ready for the postseason because their time frame isn't being met with what their success is, so it's going to be interesting to see how they divert that. The Milwaukee Brewers have done it a few times, where they've been close and traded their greatest reliever in Josh Hader. They've never really shown the capacity to add. The pressure on them this year will be interesting. If you've got a seven-game lead, and you do nothing, that's not going to go over well with the fan base. I think the team that is very intriguing that will have to make decisions is the New York Mets. The Mets technically are still in the playoff hunt. They have a lot of teams they have to pass. They have a roster that probably could be very attractive to some teams that are looking to add. 

So, I just think this thing always has a way of working itself out. The teams that are honest with themselves, saying, "We realistically don't have a chance even though the standings may show that,' are going to be the teams that surprise a lot of people by making some moves. I think the Washington Nationals are closer than people will give them credit for because the roster has totally changed with the trades they've made, and they're playing great. There's going to be a surprise; there's no doubt. There's going to be a team that maybe gets close to .500 and makes the postseason that basically takes the model of the Arizona Diamondbacks and goes, "They did it, why can't we do it?"

You mentioned the Brewers, what do you make of that group? This is a pretty decent sample now. They get rid of their best pitcher in Corbin Burnes, and now you have Joey Ortiz looking like one of the best rookies in baseball. Somehow that pitching staff has made it go, and that offense has been great. Do you believe in what you've seen so far?

They know how to win, and they've adopted the underdog mentality — their leadership and Pat Murphy — they just don't see any reason why they can't be the team. It's a wide-open division, and I think they could end up taking it. Again, a lot depends on their health and whether they add or stand pat.

John Smoltz, a first-ballot Baseball Hall of Famer, eight-time All-Star and National League Cy Young Award winner, is FOX MLB's lead game analyst. In addition to calling the network's marquee regular season games, Smoltz is in the booth for the All-Star Game and a full slate of postseason matchups which include Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series assignments.

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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