O's Smith, Ballard, Johnson are two slowballers too many

John Steadman

July 24, 1991|By John Steadman

What creates a vexing predicament for the Baltimore Orioles involves three pitchers who are too similar in style. Their names: Roy Smith, Jeff Ballard and Dave Johnson. None of them, in the vernacular, of course, throws hard enough to blacken your eye.

But not all pitchers need to break the sound barrier to be effective. When Smith, Ballard and Johnson deliver the ball it could be timed with a calendar. That doesn't mean they can't win more games than they lose.

Where the difficulty occurs is no pitching staff can afford the luxury of three so-called "soft ballers." One, yes. Two, doubtful. But three, an emphatic no. Almost impossible.

What it comes down to for the Orioles is the need to make a judgment. Which of the three do they believe has the best chance of being productive? Smith, Ballard and Johnson throw a fastball that is alive but, at the same time, will never set the catcher's mitt on fire.

Ballard is lefthanded, which gives him an edge. Smith and Johnson, both righthanders, are so similar they are almost pitching clones. Maybe they have nerve going out there with what they bring with them -- good control, no better than mediocre fastballs but a profound awareness of how to set up hitters. They use the breaking pitch to get out of jams, except if they "sneak" a fastball past a batter who is caught looking for something else.

With pitchers who throw hard, there is always room for acceptable and comforting explanations after they get bombed. Off-night, didn't have the maximum, put a pitch in the wrong place. But when Ballard, Smith or Johnson is rocked there is little forgiveness.

If Ballard wants to prolong his career, he should put out a call for Eddie Lopat, a lefthanded "stuff" pitcher of a previous generation who used change of speeds to mesmerize hitters. His best fastball had trouble staying airbone on its way to the plate, but he relied on the science of pitching, despite being unable to throw hard.

Ballard should try to get to know Lopat in the offseason. Take him to dinner, play golf and establish a rapport while openly soliciting as much information as possible from one of the true pitching craftsmen the game has known. Lopat would probably be flattered if Ballard was interested enough to seek his help.

As for Johnson, he deserves more consideration from the Orioles than he is being shown. He won 13 games last year with a fortitude that is lion-like. He gives up a higher percentage of home runs because he goes directly at hitters, a la Robin Roberts, who also gave up bushels of home runs but happens to be in the Hall of Fame. Roberts, though, threw harder.

Johnson has done some remarkable things for the Orioles and rates more than being placed in limbo. Early this year, when it was decided the night was too cold for Ben McDonald to attempt to pitch, the ball was handed instead to Johnson. The message there was McDonald represents a high investment and you are just another rag arm.

But Johnson isn't the complaining type. What Frank Robinson found out in a hurry as the Orioles manager was he didn't have enough pitchers who could pop the ball and far too many who relied on "stuff." Not that this sportswriter is any kind of an oracle but the demise of the Orioles was spelled out in advance by this reporter in the mid-1980s when it was obvious the pitching staff was comprised of too many average arms.

The Orioles, back then, kidded themselves into believing they could get by with what they had, the same as they are doing now. A decision needs to be made on Johnson, if for no other reason than the sake of decency. He is too fine an individual to be treated as a second-class citizen.

And then for next year, which represents the future? Manager John Oates and general manager Roland Hemond must decide on which one of the three it will be -- Ballard, Smith or Johnson? The two they eliminate should be placed on the trading block and given a chance to work for another major-league club.

The Orioles can't go primarily with pitchers who rely on cunning. You can utilize one, if need be, but not two or three such starters on one team.

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