John Smoltz on Shohei Ohtani’s future, pitching approach: ‘He’s got to dial it back’

John Smoltz on Shohei Ohtani’s future, pitching approach: ‘He’s got to dial it back’

The Braves have looked more like the Braves of late. But after two brutal injuries and an uneven first half of the season, can this version of Atlanta replicate its 2021 championship season without Ronald Acuña Jr. again?

As part of our weekly conversation with John Smoltz, the MLB on FOX analyst and Braves all-time great provided his takes on the Braves’ 2024 roster, the exhilarating start for Pirates rookie sensation Paul Skenes, the power (and pitching future) of Shohei Ohtani, the American League West race and the most complete roster between the Yankees and Orioles.

Kavner: We’re seeing Paul Skenes put up a pretty incredible rookie season thus far. Obviously, he came in with massive expectations as the No. 1 overall pick. But has he exceeded what you expected so far?

Smoltz: He has. I thought that with the stuff he has, he could handle the style of hitting that exists today, and his angle of release is so funky that at 101-102 mph, as long as he repeats his mechanics and doesn’t get flat on the slider, he’s virtually unhittable at times. He definitely has the package that the Pittsburgh Pirates saw when they drafted them. Now, the question will be, can they keep him healthy? And can they keep him? Because the Pittsburgh Pirates have not shown anybody in their organization or fan base that they’re going to keep these kinds of guys they draft. They have to do that, and they have to be relevant soon in baseball, and I think they’re on the trend to do both of those things.

Would you consider him among the top 10 pitchers in baseball already? It’s only been eight starts, but is he in that group? What do you expect him to still have to maybe sharpen or improve on to get there?

Yeah, he’s going to have to make necessary adjustments any young player makes when the league starts adjusting to him. As long as he’s commanding the baseball, and he’s not just throwing it as hard as he can, he’s going to be just fine. But I think anytime you deal with these kinds of arms, and we’ve seen it now, the history of the arms have been so good. The Jacob deGroms of the world, we’d still be talking about him as the best pitcher in the universe, but he’s been hurt a lot. So, with this, comes all the evidence of these guys just not being able to stay healthy. I’m crossing my fingers. I am hoping he does, because we deserve to see guys like this pitch, and for the trajectory of their career learn how to dominate.

Speaking of pitcher injuries, you’ve said in the past that Shohei Ohtani is the best player we’ve seen, while also noting that when you’re putting that kind of strain on your body, it’s hard to throw 100 and do what he’s doing and stay healthy. Though he’s not pitching this year, he’s probably the best hitter in the National League. Did you expect this kind of production from him because he was able to put all of his effort into hitting, or are you surprised at how quickly that power has come back following offseason surgery?

Not really, I thought that what he was doing was heroic, and something’s got to suffer when you’re doing the kinds of things that we are just not accustomed to seeing. So, when you pour all your energy into hitting, and you can relax and have actual off days, I’m not surprised he’s doing what he’s doing in the Dodgers lineup. Now, having said that, without Mookie Betts in the lineup, there would be some regression in how they’re pitching to him. Knowing that Freddie Freeman’s behind him is helping, and if they get Max Muncy back, look, the Dodgers have sustained the same kind of injuries, but Ohtani has been dynamic. He’s been everything they could ask for, and time will tell whether he’s able to combine pitching and hitting to the degree he did with the Angels.

What do you think he should do? Should he go back to that workload? He’s been so good as a hitter, but we’ve seen him do the two-way thing. Where do you fall on this?

I hope he can do it for the foreseeable future. I really do, but I’ll tell you this: He’s got to dial it back. In my opinion, I don’t think you can keep throwing 94 mph sliders and splitfingers and 100 mph fastballs. I would love to see him dial it back and become the great athlete that he is. He’s such a good athlete. He could pitch at any level he wants to from a standpoint of velocity. So hopefully, he’ll make the necessary changes. Technically, this is the second Tommy John even though it may not have been the full Tommy John surgery, but I hope he dials it back. This is what I don’t understand in the game — and we’ve talked about it until we’re nauseous — a 3.00 ERA is OK. You don’t have to have a 1.70 ERA; you don’t have to strike out 14 guys a game. I think at some point, we’re going to get back to health is going to be more important than dominance. And if you can do both of them, golly, would that be incredible?

We’ve seen guys like Jordan Hicks regularly throwing triple digits before getting the chance as a starter and dialing it back a bit and succeeding. But when you are able to do what Ohtani does, and you’re that competitive, how difficult is it to say, “I need to take this mindset and think about the future,” more than just striking this guy out right now?

I’m not saying this is the end-all, but when you get a contract like that, what else do you need, but I’m staying healthy? I think guys are pitching for contracts. I really thought that maybe Jacob deGrom, when he got his contract, unfortunately he got hurt, that he wouldn’t throw every pitch 101 mph. I just think the reward system feeds it. But once you get rewarded, I would think that the ultimate goal would be to pitch as many games and play as many games as you possibly can, so we’ll see. History’s not on the side of a lot of pitchers right now, and I’m confident that over time, we’ll do some things to reverse it.

The Seattle Mariners have built a cushion in the AL West, but the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers are finally surging. Will one or even both of them ultimately catch Seattle?

I think it’s going to be a three-way race. I think if the Texas Rangers can get those two studs back in the rotation, it’s just going to add two free agents in the second half. Houston, I never thought was out of it. Seattle is going to be the favorite because of their pitching staff, but they still got to be able to score enough runs, so it’s going to be a fun second half in the AL West.

Which of these teams would you fear most in October?

I still would fear Houston if they’re all healthy. Pedigree, been there, done that. They’ve got so many weapons. It’s just a bias that you’re going to go to the team that has done it the most. And that doesn’t guarantee anything, but I’ll tell you what, when you have experience on your side, and you use it, it’s a huge advantage.

The Yankees and Orioles have looked like the two best teams in the entire American League all season. Which of those do you think is the more complete group?

That’s a great question. It’s more like a dead heat. I would’ve thought Baltimore was a more complete roster until they started piling up injuries in their rotation. That’s a hard task to overcome, and now, the Yankees are going to try to sweat out their injuries when they’ve got a couple position players that have gone down, which seems to be the theme with Giancarlo Stanton. Unfortunately, Anthony Rizzo has not been the kind of guy they had hoped for. So, it really is kind of a dead heat in the sense that the Yankees are more armed and ready with their arms than the Orioles. But the Orioles have a more complete and healthier lineup that could do some damage. I think it’s going to go down to the wire. I thought Baltimore was the best roster in baseball before their injuries. And now it’s kind of a wash because I don’t know what they’re going to do at the trade deadline, but they certainly have suffered more injuries in the rotation than you want.

Atlanta has been playing better recently. Do you think this group is built to replicate its title run from 2021 without Ronald Acuna Jr.? Are you expecting them to approach the deadline similarly with a bevy of smaller moves, or do you think they need to add a premier bat to get past some of their offensive struggles?

Yeah, they’ve definitely lost the two most prominent players on a roster that you cannot afford to lose, and they’re definitely looking, I’m sure, to get some pieces to complement what’s really been an offense that probably wasn’t going to live up to last year anyway. But if some of those guys can stay hot or get hot and complement that lineup, it all comes down to their pitching. They’ve got some older pitchers they need to keep healthy. They’ve got some younger depth pitchers that are going to learn on the job. And, hopefully, their experience will help them down the stretch.

Does this version of Chris Sale remind you of his best years, and how vital is his presence now with Strider out?

I think for Chris Sale, he is showing why he was one of the nastiest pitchers when healthy in the big leagues. He hasn’t had a complete season in a long time, and he’s going to have to navigate the second half and find a way to stay healthy, because the Atlanta Braves need him — very, very badly — to stay healthy.

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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2024-06-25 21:15:52
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