Let’s get this out of the way first: the Red Sox have not entertained the notion of removing John Smoltz from the rotation, and Smoltz is not entertaining the notion of retiring. At this point, there is nothing to indicate that drastic change is in the offing.
That said, both the Red Sox and Smoltz are struggling to puzzle through a period of startling ineffectiveness. After he got battered by Baltimore for six runs on nine hits in just five innings in a 6-2 loss to the Orioles (RECAP), Smoltz now has a 1-4 record and 7.04 ERA. Sunday marked the second straight start in which the 42-year-old has allowed six runs (he also did so against Texas on July 20). He struggled to remember a time when his results had been so bad, and with good reason.
The last time that Smoltz gave up at least a half-dozen runs in consecutive starts was in July 15-20, 1997. The only other current member of the Sox who was in the majors at that time was Tim Wakefield.
“My frustration level is as high as it’s ever been…No matter what you say or feel like, it’s irrelevant when the results are the way they are,” said Smoltz. “Me saying I had good stuff and I felt great is irrelevant. I’m a stand-up guy and I’ve been through stretches like this – maybe not quite like this – in my career.
“From what I’ve seen, my stuff is not done. My results might put me in a category where (people) are going to talk about it,” he added. “I’m trying to stop the storylines, trying to stop the talk, because it’s an odd place to come in and try to be effective…I’d walk away from this game tomorrow if I didn’t think I could still do it.”
Given his horrific numbers – and the fact that the Orioles put on something of a laser show against the pitcher, amassing a homer and four doubles against him – it comes as something of a surprise to see at least some markers associated with pitching success.
Smoltz punched out six Orioles hitters and walked one in his outing on Sunday. In his 30.2 innings this year, he has a 28/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the fourth best in the American League (min. 20 innings). This is the sort of company he’s keeping in the top five in that category: Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Joe Nathan, Zack Greinke – all All-Stars.
His slider was, in the pitcher’s own words, “outstanding,” the sort of offering that can serve as a key for dominating opponents. His velocity sat solidly at 92-93 mph – not his mid- and high-90s peaks, but more than enough, at least in theory, for a pitcher with a four-pitch arsenal to succeed. Those markers of promise made Smoltz’ struggles all the more frustrating for the pitcher.
“Each time out my stuff has gotten better and better,” said Smoltz. “And each time out, there’s been some games I’ve shook my head and gone, ‘I can’t explain it.’”
So what gives? A closer look at the pitches that the Orioles crushed offers some answers.
Of the nine hits that Smoltz allowed, eight (including all five of their extra-base hits) were on fastballs. Smoltz threw 36 heaters on the afternoon, and the Orioles swung and missed just once. The Orioles went 8-for-12 on the pitcher’s fastball.
Struggles with a fastball that carried a hit-me sign were not limited to this start. In his previous outing, the Rangers went 4-for-11 with two doubles and two homers on his fastball.
“The life on my fastball and the location of my fastball is sometimes a little bit confusing,” Smoltz conceded. “My fastball, everybody has told me – unless they’re lying to me – is really good enough. I didn’t give it enough credit in my first couple games. I was probably giving a little too much credit to the league and unfamiliarity, just having to trick guys. I’m not going to do it anymore.
“Before, maybe there was an ability for me to amp up, throw a little harder and get away with it,” he continued. “I’ve got to find a way to get more location-conscious.”
The Sox remain convinced that improved location will unlock far better results for the pitcher. If fastballs intended for the corners stay there, rather than sailing back over the middle of the plate (as happened on most of the Orioles' hits against Smoltz), the pitcher is all but certain to see an improvement in his results. The club also feels that Smoltz – who has typically employed his fastball away throughout his career (a staple of the pitching philosophy of Leo Mazzone, who preached the fastball low-and-away as the best pitch in baseball) – would benefit from attacking both sides of the plate to prevent hitters from cheating and whacking fastballs that, while still possessing decent velocity, are down a tick from his Braves years.
“(The issue is) consistency of location. Today, just evaluating the pure stuff, I thought it was more crisp than at any time he’s been here this season,” said pitching coach John Farrell. “But yet the bottom line is what matters.
“What do we do from here?” Farrell wondered. “I think there’s the ability or the need to pitch in a little bit more. While his stuff is improved over the last outing, or the previous outings, hitters one time through the order can start to look in one area. I think that was what was a little bit the case today, and when he wasn’t very fine in his location or in very good quality locations, we saw the results.
“While his velocity is good enough to pitch at this level—clearly it’s good enough – it’s not the mid-90s where you have that margin of error that he might be accustomed to,” Farrell continued. “To combat that, commanding the baseball on both sides of the plate and not allowing hitters to look in one area solely, is where the improvement or adjustment lies.”
Smoltz remains resolute that he has the stuff to compete effectively on a team with postseason aspirations. His manager and pitching coach echoed that assessment. As such, Farrell said that the team has no plans to skip Smoltz in the rotation to allow him to iron out his approach.
“At this point, that’s not even being considered,” said Farrell. “If there was a drop-off physically just through either naked eye or what velocities are telling us, that would be a different situation. But that’s not the case. You look at the amount of swing-and-miss he’s able to generate, yet because of the consistency of command, he’s frustrated.”
For what it’s worth, the last time that Smoltz had a run of futility along these lines came in 2006, when he struggled to a 2-4 mark and 6.04 ERA over a six-start stretch in August and early September. In his next four starts, he went 4-0 with a 0.93 ERA.
Here are four other lessons from a day when Jim Rice gained baseball’s greatest honor, the Yankees pumped up their lead to 2.5 games in the A.L. East and the Orioles finally snapped an 11-game Fenway Park losing streak:
THE RED SOX’ OFFENSIVE FUTILITY IS BECOMING STRANGER BY THE DAY
Obviously, the Red Sox offense has had terrible results in the second half. The team’s two-run output on Sunday was barely below the team average of 2.8 runs per contest since the All-Star break. The Sox have scored more than three runs in just two of their nine games.
Even so, the team-wide futility on Sunday was particularly confounding. Orioles starter David Hernandez – who primarily featured a 95 mph fastball and only occasional breaking stuff – left the Sox scratching their heads about an inability to hammer him.
“He beat us with his fastball,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “We actually got some pretty good pitches to hit. We didn’t do damage with it. What we’re always trying to do is swing at good pitches because if we do we feel like we’ll do damage. We just didn’t do that.”
Hernandez had a rather remarkable line against the Sox. He lasted seven innings, but of his 21 outs, 17 came by fly ball, two via grounder, and just two came from punchouts.
It had been more than two years since the Sox had been shut down in this fashion. The last pitcher to limit the team to one or fewer runs in at least seven innings while striking out two or fewer batters was Joe Blanton, who did the deed on June 7, 2007 as a member of the A’s.
“It’s one of those things,” said shortstop Jed Lowrie. “Guys are hitting balls but just not getting hits. It’s not an epidemic of strikeouts (the Sox have 58 strikeouts in the second half, tied for fourth fewest in the majors) where guys are having bad at-bats. Guys just aren’t getting hits.”
The frustration for the lineup is mounting, resulting in players assuming additional pressure every time they step to the plate.
“We’re a better hitting ballclub than this,” said outfielder Jason Bay. “You go up there, you’re in a situation where you can drive in some runs. If you’re scoring 10 (runs) a night, you go up there relaxed and think, ‘It’s going to happen.’ If not, you go up there and ‘it has to happen.’
“When you get up there and you’re telling yourself you have to do something, it usually goes the wrong way,” he added. “You see guys gripping the bat harder, swinging the bat harder, wanting so bad to do it, where the reality is the easiest way to do it – I don’t want to say not try – but almost relax and let it happen, instead of having to do something. Easier said than done.”
IT MAY BE POSSIBLE TO HIT A SOLID .091
It would be difficult to have worse stats than Lowrie this year. The Red Sox shortstop is hitting .091 with a .135 OBP and .212 slugging mark. In five games since returning from the D.L., he is 2-for-15 with a double and a homer, hitting .133/.118/.400.
Against right-handers this year, his numbers become even more dismal, as he’s hitting .077 with an .071 OBP and .115 slugging mark. It would be difficult to look at such numbers and to find reason for encouragement. Yet Lowrie is able to do just that.
“It’s there. I just haven’t been able to get hits lately, but I feel like every at-bat that I’ve had has been a quality at-bat,” said Lowrie. “I’ve always believed that if I do that, the hits will come. I’m not going to change that approach. It sucks right now, but I’m just going to continue to do that and know that it’s going to work out for me.”
Sunday provided a case in point. Lowrie, batting left-handed against right-handed Orioles starter David Hernandez, went 0-for-2 in three plate appearances. He flew out a bit shy of the warning track in left on a mid-90s fastball in the first, hit a rocket of a sac fly that virtually everyone thought was a home run before it died in front of the warning track in the fifth and he lined to right on a 95 mph fastball in his final at-bat.
Lowrie made solid contact three times, and yet saw his average creep further below .100 (what lies beneath the Mendoza line?). The day typified Lowrie’s return, during which he’s actually hit the ball reasonably well, but has little to show for it. He has batted 17 times, with the following results:
8 Fly-outs to deep outfield (including Sunday’s sac fly)
2 Fly-outs to regular depth outfield
2 Fly-outs to infield
2 Strikeouts (one looking, one swinging)
In short, these are outcomes that would typically be associated with a player in the middle of a fairly solid run. Lowrie, however, has been left to grit his teeth while watching his numbers plummet. Nonetheless, he is making consistent, hard contact from both sides of the plate.
IT IS A STRANGE TIME OF YEAR TO BE MANNY DELCARMEN
Of all the Red Sox players, it would be difficult to imagine one who resides in a stranger place than reliever Manny Delcarmen in the days leading up to the July 31 deadline for trades not requiring waivers.
The Sox bullpen is extremely deep, and because of that, it is conceivable that the team could use one of its relievers as a trade chip. Delcarmen is young (27), affordable (he is making $476,000 this year, and will be eligible for salary arbitration for the first time following the season) and effective, as his 2.21 ERA this year suggests.
As a result, his name invariably gets brought up in the rumor mill, whether there is substance to such rumors or not. For instance, when news that the Sox had dealt for Adam LaRoche spread last week, there were suggestions (entirely off base, as it turned out) that Delcarmen might be a piece going back to the Pirates.
That reality would be complex enough for any player to deal with. But because of the Hyde Park native’s local roots, there are extra headaches and hassles created when he is thrown into the rumor spin cycle. Delcarmen’s phone lights up almost as soon as his name is whispered into the air on a potential deal.
“For me, it’s kind of funny because three of my buddies are really big sports fans. For some reason they find out stuff even before my agent does. So my phone’s blowing up,” Delcarmen said in an interview on the Mut & Bradford Show. “The other day, with the whole Pittsburgh thing, three of my buddies call me and then my agent called me so I was like, ‘Oh, something happened.’
“(The agent) told me I wasn’t going to Pittsburgh and stuff, but (the friends) are pretty much on top of it and it’s exciting. I’ve been here my whole career and hopefully I can end here, but sometimes there’s things you can’t control but I’m definitely prepared for it.”
That said, all things being equal, Delcarmen is a believe that the Sox should keep their current group of relievers – and for that matter, the club – intact. He sees little need for deals before the end of the month.
“Everybody in the bullpen’s been doing it and we have a special thing here,” said Delcarmen. “I know a lot of teams want what we have here in the bullpen. I just think you can’t break up a good thing and hopefully we just keep going.
“I think we’re always contenders and we always find a way and come September we’ll definitely be up there in the running. We start swinging the bats, we get the Jason Bay, the JD Drew, everybody on full cylinders with our pitching staff, I think this is going to be another special season for us,” he added. “There’s a lot of baseball left and, little by little, eventually we’ll all click together and it’s going to be pretty exciting. So I don’t think we need any changes.”
THE BULLPEN IS ON A BRILLIANT RUN
Another day, another string of shutout innings for the bullpen.
Red Sox relievers still have yet to give a run in the second half of the season. On Sunday, with Smoltz done after five innings, Justin Masterson trotted in and fired a pair of scoreless frames. He was followed by Takashi Saito (1.1 shutout innings – his first appearance of more than three outs since June 11) and Ramon Ramirez (two-up, two-down).