Smoltz close to joining Red Sox, but in what role?

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John Smoltz turned in another strong minor-league rehab outing over the weekend,
tossing six innings of one-run ball at Triple-A. He now has a 1.56 ERA
and 13/2 K/BB ratio in 17.1 innings spread over four rehab starts, and
reportedly could be just one more successful appearance away from
debuting with the Red Sox.

“He’s getting closer and closer, you can see it,” manager Terry
Francona said. “Even the way he talks about it, he’s not rehabbing
anymore. He’s attacking hitters and making pitches, which is good to
hear.” While he’s pitching well, it’s still unclear what the Red Sox
plan to do once they decide that Smoltz is ready to join the rotation.

There are some rumors that Boston has been shopping Brad Penny, who has a 5.85 ERA in 11 starts, but Rob Bradford of WEEI.com lays out a scenario
for keeping both starters around by skipping some of Smoltz’s initial
turns in the rotation or possibly even using him as a reliever. To his
credit, Smoltz sounds willing to take on whatever role the Red Sox
want:

I want to be ready every five days. We talked about it, there may be
a time where I have to miss a start. Those scenarios play out so many
different ways it does me no good trying to figure them out. I just
want to be ready. I’m in a position to be readily available to them, in
whatever capacity or role that means. I’ve done [relieving] my whole
career and I could do it again. But it hasn’t been brought up to me.

Of course, the Red Sox aren’t exactly starving for relief help either,
as the bullpen leads all of baseball with a 2.76 ERA. Lost in the
speculation about what the Red Sox will do with Penny and Smoltz is
that they also have Clay Buchholz waiting in the wings at Triple-A and
the 24-year-old right-hander is 4-0 with a 1.74 ERA, 57/12 K/BB ratio,
and .159 opponents’ batting average in 10 starts there. Not bad for a
No. 8 starter.

No one pounds the zone anymore

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“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.

Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:

Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?

There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.

As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.