John Smoltz Prospect Retro
John Smoltz was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 22nd round in 1985, out of high school in Lansing, Michigan. Don't be deceived by his draft status: he was well-regarded by most teams, but everyone thought he was going to pitch college ball at Michigan State. If his signability had been more clear, he would have gone sometime in the first five rounds. The Tigers picked him in the 22nd, then managed to sign him in late September, just before he attended class.
Smoltz made his pro debut in 1986, going 7-8, 3.56 in 14 starts for Lakeland in the Florida State League, with a 47/31 K/BB ratio in 96 innings. His K/IP was quite poor, but he held his own overall at age 19 at a tough level, showing above average velocity but the need for better command. Given his inexperience level, the weak K/IP was understandable, and I'd probably rate a similar pitcher a Grade B right now.
The Tigers jumped Smoltz to Double-A in 1987 and he struggled badly, going 4-10, 5.68 in 21 starts for Glens Falls, with a horrible 86/81 K/BB ratio in 130 innings. He was obviously over his head at this level. The Tigers traded him to the Braves for Doyle Alexander to reinforce their stretch run starting rotation. Alexander pitched well, while Smoltz was terrible in three starts for Triple-A Richmond. Giving him a retrospective grade is tough: his numbers in '87 were awful, but he showed good stuff, was very young, and was pitching at too high of a level. Grade B-? Grade C+? Grade C? It's hard to know.
Everything changed in 1988. Smoltz spent most of the year pitching for Triple-A Richmond, going 10-5, 2.79 in 20 starts with a 115/37 K/BB in135 innings. Note the huge improvement in his K/IP and K/BB, reflecting an improved breaking ball, sharper command, and more confidence. He was hit pretty hard in 12 starts for the Braves (2-7, 5.48, 37/33 K/BB), but it was obvious that he had come along way very, very quickly.
Smoltz won 12 games with a 2.94 mark for the Braves in 1989, spending the last 17 years as a mainstay of the Braves staff in one role or another. As a prospect, he was a good example of the importance of age/experience-relative-to-league. He struggled in the Tigers system, but was pitching against older competition and didn't know what he was doing in the initial stages. The switch to the Atlanta system, combined with simple maturity, helped turn him from a thrower into a pitcher.