Smoltz’s Playoff Role

With a magic number of one, the St. Louis Cardinals should lock up a playoff spot this weekend as the winners of the National League Central. With that hurdle officially cleared, they can begin to sort out their pitching staff for October, and more than most teams, they have some decisions to make.

Their top three starters are set, of course. Carpenter, Wainwright, and Pineiro is a formidable threesome, but they have to choose between either Kyle Lohse (assuming he’s healthy enough to pitch in October) or John Smoltz. Given that Smoltz has put to rest any doubt about his ability to still function as a major league pitcher, he would seem like the natural choice. After all, he’s running a 2.03 FIP since arriving in St. Louis, carving up National League hitters and making them look foolish.

Lohse, with his 4.69 FIP, is nowhere close to the pitcher than Smoltz is. That said, he’s not a total stiff, as his average-across-the-board skillset makes him a solid enough back-end starting pitcher. He’s not going to sink your chances of winning the one game per series where he takes the hill. But he’s clearly still the inferior pitcher in this decision, and the current injury situation muddies the waters a bit.

So, why would the Cardinals even consider choosing Lohse for the game 4 start? Because John Smoltz may be needed to help plug a bullpen that could cost them the series.

Ryan Franklin made the all-star team with a strong start to the season, but in the second half, he’s regressed into being, well, Ryan Franklin. He’s running an ugly 14/16 BB/K in the second half of the season, and given his career history, he should not be looked at as a true relief ace, even with the sparkling season ERA.

Likewise, the setup guys for Franklin are not the dominating types. Smoltz has significant experience coming out of the pen, and his stuff can play up for 15-20 pitches a night. As the #4 starter, he’s unlikely to work more than six or seven innings in any given playoff series, which we have to assume would be something close to even leverage. As a reliever, Smoltz could end up working in four or five high leverage critical situations, where the value of his performance would be enhanced even in a smaller number of innings overall.

Using him in relief also allows the team to minimize his exposure against left-handed hitters, who have given him the most problems this year. As a starter, the opposing manager will be able to stack the line-up with lefties to try to exploit his weakness, but that can be minimized through bullpen management.

As well as Smoltz has pitched since arriving in St. Louis, it’s probably in the Cardinals best interest to use him out of the bullpen in the playoffs. Using him as a reliever gives them their best chance of throwing a parade in November. Cardinal fans should be hoping that Lohse gets healthy in a hurry.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

12 Responses to “Smoltz’s Playoff Role”

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  1. Matt B. says:

    Anybody else think Jason Motte was gonna be HUGE this season after his dominance late last year and early this spring? What a bust.

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    • theWizard says:

      He’s definitely struggled off and on, but he’s picking up steam at the right time – 1 ER and a 14:3 K:BB ratio in the last month. As long as he continues staying away from the HR like he has lately I think he’ll be a dominating reliever in the postseason.

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    • Zach says:

      Motte is hardly a bust. His numbers are mediocre but his stuff is still good. He’s still learning. There is every reason to think he will take a step forward next season

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    • Samuel Lingle says:

      The tough thing to take with Motte is that we gave up Chris Perez and Luke Gregersen in trades before/during the season. Sure looks like the Cards got rid of the wrong young relievers! It’d sure be nice to have Gregersen in the pen considering Khalil Greene’s… “achievements” this season.

      Still, as others have said, Motte has plenty of potential to pull things together, so we’ll have to wait and see.

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  2. JI says:

    If Loshe were 100% I’d be all for sending Smoltz to the pen, but the way he is throwing now I can’t see it being the superior option. My guess is that since the Cardinals have been stretching Smoltz out, and that Smoltz is not sure whether his body can handle pitching on short rest in relief, that he’ll be the #4 starter.

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  3. Xeifrank says:

    How deep into games do Carpenter, Wainwright and Pineiro tend to go? Atleast from the games I’ve watched them pitch, they’ve gone pretty deep. Smoltz in the bullpen is not a gaurantee to help plug anything and the bullpen would probably only be taxed when Lohse pitched. I’d throw Smoltz into the rotation and take your chances with a shaky bullpen.
    vr, Xei

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    • Tim says:

      Teams with shaky bullpens don’t win the World Series.

      It’s no coincidence that the lone WS title under this Cardinals regime came during the one postseason when they featured a dominant pen.

      Smoltz (not Franklin) is most suited to play the role of Wainwright this time around.

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  4. azruavatar says:

    Dave — has his pitch selection changed over “second half” data sample you cited? One reason some fans have been encouraged by the first half was the adoption of a cutter that he didn’t previously throw. This was thought to be a big part of his success and a reason why regression might not be expected. I’m curious if he’s stopped throwing that as frequently.

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  5. Chris says:

    As a Cards fan, I’m sure glad we listened to all those abrasive BoSox know-it-alls who were entirely convinced that Smoltz was washed up. (After all, they’d seen him pitch. They KNEW.)

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  6. Samuel Lingle says:

    John Smoltz has a higher K rate than any of the Cardinals relievers, AS A STARTER.

    They could really use a shut-down guy they can count on to dominate in high leverage situations. Hawksworth, Motte, and McLellan have all been effective as of late, but they are not guys you can really count on to come in and strike someone out with guys on base and the game on the line.

    This is all really an academic discussion, though; this all depends on what Kyle Lohse brings to the table. His last start, in Houston, was good and it was the first time since the start of the year he was not bothered by a health issue as his elbow has finally calmed down. If he has another good start before the playoffs, then he’ll probably take the fourth spot and we’ll see Smoltz in the pen.

    I’m a little apprehensive either way; John Smoltz is one of the few most dominant post-season starters in history. It’s almost a shame he won’t get the chance to start two games each series considering what he’s done in the past and how he’s pitched with the Cardinals.

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