UPDATE (4:22 p.m.): Jake Arrieta will start tonight because of the injury to Brian Matusz's nose, so his trip to the bullpen will have to wait. But that doesn't mean you can't still read John Smoltz's analysis on Arrieta and the O's.
There haven’t been many pitchers in baseball history who could master the different mindsets necessary to thrive as both a starter and reliever.
I had the opportunity to catch up with one of them Tuesday afternoon, and John Smoltz shared a bit of the psychology that comes with Jake Arrieta's transition into the bullpen.
Now an analyst for the MLB Network, Smoltz went to the pen in 2001, after 12 seasons as a starter for the Atlanta Braves. It was under different circumstances from the ones that have led Arrieta there for the first time in his major league career. But in listening to Smoltz explain the mental challenges of pitching in relief, you get a sense why the Orioles feel this might be an opportunity for their 26-year-old right-hander to clear his head and get back to pitching with confidence.
“Whether you have your stuff or not, you’ve got to believe you do [when you come out of the bullpen],” Smoltz said. “You’re not given much freedom to make mistakes. As a starter, you can not have your stuff and recoup it in the fourth inning and your team can bail you out.
“Everyone just assumes that coming out of the bullpen, everyone’s going to have their best stuff, because they don’t have to throw as much. It’s not always the case. So you have to almost fake it sometimes and get through it.”
In this case, maybe having to “fake it” a couple times will help Arrieta (2-8, 6.32 ERA) return to trusting himself after admitting to overthinking at times this season.
Or, as Smoltz said, pitching in relief when your team is already losing can present a good time for a pitcher to take some risks and work without the same pressure as starting or coming in to protect a lead. (Arrieta has yet to work out of the pen, so his role hasn’t been completely defined, but he'd obviously be more suited to long relief.)
“In this case it just sounds like he’s in a pretty good funk, and this is going to help get him out of the funk by depressurizing,” Smoltz said.
However Arrieta is used, Smoltz said it isn’t easy to switch from pitching every fifth day to having to be ready to enter a game in an unknown situation at a moment’s notice.
“It’s not as easy as people think,” he said. “I don’t think every starter in the history of the game could just transition into being a reliever just because they had good stuff.”
Here’s the rest of my Q&A with Smoltz, which covers a few more Orioles topics and a gives a little preview of this weekend’s series against the Braves.
(You can also catch Smoltz tonight on “MLB Tonight,” which airs at 6 p.m. on the MLB Network.)
Transitioning to someone who has had a lot of success out of the bullpen, can you talk a little bit about Jim Johnson and how you think he’s pitched this season in the closer’s role?
I mean, when you think of closers, you think of guys who come in and have big arms and wiggle out of trouble and be dominant – and he’s done that.
It’s impressive to see the progression of this guy, who earlier in his career did a little set up.
He gets quick outs, it seems like. He throws strikes, and that’s what you’ve got to have. My theory about closers – at least it was mine – is make it quick, one way or another. … I don’t think you can keep pitching yourself into trouble and getting out of it. You’ve got to be on attack, and if you don’t get it done that night, turn around that next night and absolutely get it done.
Have you seen Jason Hammel pitch this season, and do you have any thoughts on his resurgence?
I’ve seen a little bit of him. I just think the fact that he’s out of Colorado probably gives him a chance to breathe a little bit. The change of venue is always something that a player can certainly use, but the change of atmosphere probably has a lot to do with it, too.
Although, Baltimore is close to Coors Field as far as giving up home runs … the ability to pitch in that park is a lot easier than it is in Colorado. You don’t have to grind as hard.
The biggest question here in Baltimore now is how long this team can stay toward the top of the AL East. What are your thoughts?
I think that’s the curse of every team that has not had success for 10, 12, 15 years. When they come out, there’s an expectation probably a lot lower than where they’re at and [people] are just waiting for their balloon to pop.
It’s just natural for people to do that, but I can tell you, there’s many examples where a team stays there long enough and they believe in themselves and believe in the pieces that they have.
When you execute and do the little things, you can compete in baseball a lot longer than most. And if you don’t, sometimes you hide mistakes by having incredibly powerful hitters or powerful pitchers. We hid a lot of mistakes as a pitching staff back in the day [in Atlanta], and the Yankees are hiding a lot of mistakes with the fact that they can hit it out of the ballpark.
But to answer your question fairly, if they keep executing the way they’ve executed to this point, there’s no reason that they can’t. There’s no reason.
A formula for success in baseball kind of goes like this: You need your great players to be great. You need your good players to have great years. And you need players who you didn’t expect to do anything to have good years.
You seem like you have a lot of fun when you’re broadcasting. Is this something that you thought about doing while you were playing, or did it just kind of come up when you were done?
It just kind of came up. The opportunity was there when I was hurt to do a spot start, if you will, in the playoffs. I kind of enjoyed it, and the opportunity presented itself for me to do it when I officially retired.
I just try to get my arms around everything, like I do in pitching, and try to learn as much as I can to be as good as I can be.
I know you had your No. 29 retired in Atlanta over the weekend. Can you describe what kind of a thrill that was?
It’s probably the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me at this point in my baseball career. When you think about a number being retired, I don’t know that anyone could ever dream that’s going to happen, so when it did I was thoroughly thrilled.
As exhausting as it was, it was phenomenal to go through a day like that where you’ll see your jersey up there forever.
The Orioles actually head to Atlanta this weekend. Could you give me a little breakdown on this year’s Braves team?
They’re a bit streaky. They’ve been streaky with their rotation. The bullpen’s still decent. It hasn’t been as great as it was last year, but the bullpen has one of the best lockdown 7-8-9 [inning] potentials in all of baseball.
Offensively, they’ve made a lot of improvements, but I don’t think it’s a team that’s going to wow you every day. I don’t think they’re going to be pouring out 6, 7 runs a day. … But if they’re healthy, I think they’ve got a chance to do what they did last year and have a chance to finish it off better than they did.
Baseball, again, is all about who’s doing what and when they’re doing it. Execution and timing of good hitting and pitching at the same time are what make teams win or lose.
I find it awfully interesting how baseball can be explained really easy, and then it can be very complicated.