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Six Men For the Rotation: How Smoltz Affects Each

06.17.09 at 11:40 am ET
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For a time, at least, the Red Sox are prepared to slot John Smoltz into the rotation on June 25, likely adding him to the mix of the current group of five starters, and slotting him between staff horses Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. Here is a quick glimpse at how a six-man configuration might affect each of the Sox starters:

JOHN SMOLTZ

It stands to reason that the 42-year-old Smoltz would benefit from a greater period of time between starts as he works to come back from surgery on his right shoulder a year ago. By his own admission, Smoltz is still trying to work his way back to his top form. He is trying to get from what he described as “three and a half” pitches to four — a fastball, slider, split and change — and he acknowledged the possibility that the best thing to have him in peak form down the stretch may end up being something other than a strict regimen of taking the ball every fifth game.

“This is about having the stuff to get big league hitters out and to be able to pitch in big games down the stretch and gain from the experience having gone through that what seems like 100 times,” said Smoltz. “Whether it’s making five starts in a row or making four-out-of-five or whatever it may be that’s going to make this run work. That’s what it’s all about because the goal here is not to win a division. The goal here is to win a championship and that’s what they’ve armed themselves with, no pun intended. They’ve got a few arms.”

Because he will be slotted between workhorses Lester and Beckett, the Sox are confident that they can avoid pushing Smoltz too hard, thanks to the knowledge that the pitchers around him will be able to offer the bullpen a reprieve should he not be able to pitch deep into contests in his initial couple of outings.

BRAD PENNY

Penny, who starts tonight, has shown his best stuff of the season in his last two starts. A move from the first-base side to the third-base side of the rubber, the pitcher said, has allowed him to get a better angle on his pitches, making his curve in particular a more effective pitch against right-handers. Moreover, Penny has looked stronger than at any other time this season, touching 98 mph in his six shutout innings against the Yankees last week.

Penny’s shown plenty of recent promise. Still, rival talent evaluators look at his 5+ ERA for the season as something of a blinking yellow. If Penny can cement his recent progress with continued dominant lines — an outcome that is particularly promising, given the fact that the Sox are in the midst of interleague play — Penny’s value (whether in a potential trade or as a member of the Sox rotation) would go up. A pitcher who was described as a No. 4 starter after his Yankees outing by a team monitoring the pitching market could end up pushing that description to a 2-3. If he does so, he will either become a highly useful trade chip or a valuable member of the Sox rotation, especially should another pitcher either get injured or, in one case, continue to falter.

DAISUKE MATSUZAKA

Matsuzaka is now 1-4 with an atrocious 7.55 ERA. His last start — in which he endured a 100-minute rain delay after the first inning — cannot be properly included in the evaluation of his performance, but even then, he is 1-4 with a 7.33 ERA.

By going with six pitchers, the Sox can get a better read on Matsuzaka, and make some kind of determination about whether progress is near at hand. If not, then eventually the team might get to the point where it might have to consider keeping Penny and moving Matsuzaka to the bullpen or sending him to the disabled list if there’s a physical reason for his poor performance.

Speaking to Japanese reporters last night, Matsuzaka acknowledged how important his coming outings are in restoring the faith of his club in his ability and worthiness of a spot in the rotation.

“It has been hard, but I know I can not be in this situation,” Matsuzaka said. “I have to bring my (stuff) back as quickly as I can. I really want to pitch for the team to win, with focusing on my details (of pitching).” (Translation courtesy of reporter Hiroki Tohda.)

Matsuzaka will have that opportunity, at least for the coming couple of weeks. Yet even if he slides into a six-man rotation — the same format in which he pitched in Japan — if he fails to pitch deep into games, he could remain a challenge for the pitching staff. Given the likelihood that the Sox will pare a reliever from the pitching staff, a failure to pitch deep into games by starters will assume more ominous tones for the Sox than it has to this point this year.

“(The bullpen) has been a strength of ours since day one,” said pitching coach John Farrell. “We have to be careful not to overload or tax that even further. That can be the downside of (a six-man rotation).”

And that downside could become particularly pronounced if Matsuzaka, or any other pitcher, fails to provide innings.

TIM WAKEFIELD

Tim Wakefield has been great this year, and the Sox are winning with metronomic frequency when he’s on the mound. He’s 9-3 with a 4.39 ERA, and the Sox are 10-3 in his 13 starts.

Yet it’s easy to forget that he’s been nearly as good at this stage of the season in recent years. Through 13 starts in 2008, he was 4-4 (a byproduct of poor run support) but with a 4.33 ERA. In 2007, he was 6-7 (again, lousy run support) with a sterling 3.92 ERA.

Both years, he struggled with shoulder injuries down the stretch. Wakefield has a partial tear of his labrum that seems to be exacerbated as the season wears on. The pitcher has altered his between-starts and post-start routine in an effort to do more to ensure his health for the long haul, and said after last night’s win that he feels great.

All the same, if he gets extra rest between starts — or if the Sox have the luxury of skipping him for an occasion start if they have five other capable starters — Wakefield would seem one of the pitchers who might benefit the most. Indeed, the team has said that it wanted to find a time to give him a breather in the middle of the past two summers, but that Wakefield was too valuable and pitching too well to permit such an outcome. If this year is different, and the team can allow Wakefield extra rest, it would seem a good way to keep him strong down the stretch.

“We are trying to learn from history to keep him going longer like he can pitch. In the last couple years, we have gotten towards the end and he’s worn down and his shoulder’s bothered him,” said manager Terry Francona. “I don’t see that happening right now. And if we can be cognizant of that we won’t get to that point.”

JON LESTER AND JOSH BECKETT

The Sox worked Beckett hard early this season, having him go past 110 pitches in seven of his first 11 outings. The team has been mindful of giving him a bit of a breather of late, most notably when pulling him after six shutout innings and 93 pitches against the Yankees last week, but even so, his 1,421 pitches are the eighth most in the majors. Lester, meanwhile, is on pace for over 200 innings, a year after he totaled roughly 240 frames between the regular season and playoffs.

Both pitchers look incredibly strong at this stage of the year, and their stuff looks exceptional. But for the Sox, the focus is on making sure that remains the case over a full year, rather than merely riding the hot hand. Towards that end, making sure that both pitchers can have five days of rest between starts would seem to be an optimal outcome for the Sox, and something that they will be able to do, between next Tuesday and the All-Star break, only by having a sixth starter for at least a couple of turns through the rotation.

One caveat: Matsuzaka or Smoltz, in particular, prove unable to navigate deep into their outings, then the Sox will likely need to rely on these two pitchers to pick up the slack for a six-man rotation, particularly if the bullpen is down an arm. Even so, in each of the last two years, the Sox have used the All-Star break to give Beckett (2007) and Lester (2008) extended breathers. The presence of an extra rotation arm could make it easier for the team to do that once again.

Read More: Brad Penny, Daisuke Matsuzaka, john smoltz, Jon Lester
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