The Great Smoltz Debate Rages On

The Cardinals’ acquisition of John Smoltz sparked some debate here and elsewhere. The debate basically went like this:

“Smoltz is not done. His ERA is meaningless. His peripheral stats are still pretty darn good. His high batting average of balls on play and homer per fly ball rates are unsustainable. More importantly, he’s still missing bats. He may not be a dominant pitcher anymore, but there’s no reason to believe he can’t be decent. He’s just thrown 40 innings of unlucky ball.”

“Are you freaking kidding me? Have you seen him pitch? He’s old, coming off of major surgery and can’t hit his spots. He’s throwing meatballs and getting pasted. He can’t make it past one trip around the lineup. He should just retire.”

First hand experience can sometimes cloud our judgment when it comes to regression to the mean. In other words, perception and reality many times will clash. Having personally watched Smoltz pitch on TV yesterday, my feeling was the he is at the very least a reasonable facsimile to the Smoltzy of old. His fastball had decent life and he located the pitch well. His splitter was a thing of beauty. His slider and curveball both looked pretty good. The final result, Smoltz threw 5 innings, allowed 3 hits, no walks and struck out 9. At one point in the game, he struck out seven in a row. Granted, this came against San Diego’s weak lineup, but how in the world did Boston let this guy go?

Who is right? The Boston fan who witnessed this guy get blasted around Fenway, or me?The process in finding out is a lot more complicated than people think. We’ll have a clearer picture over Smoltz’s next few starts, but even then it’ll still probably be in the realm of small samples. Smoltz says it was mechanics, the Cardinals say it was a matter of tipping pitches. We can’t quantify either, really.

Here’s my lazy, take it for what it’s worth analysis. John Smoltz was by all accounts an awesome pitcher in 2007, when we started to get pitch f/x data. Not a full season’s worth, mind you, and there have since been some kinks worked out. Caveats now aside, here’s how his stuff stacked up from 2007 to his time in Boston to his one start for St. Louis —

Smoltzmovement

(Sorry, not sure why the curves got cut off. Velo is the same year to year)

What can this tell us? Not a whole lot. Obviously his fastball and slider’s velocity is down. His fastball has been less than effective, while his slider is still an effective pitch. His splitter is also still a weapon, although I can’t explain the crazy horizontal movement from yesterday. Yes, his stuff is down. He’s not the “let’s stink up the joint” version of Smoltz, neither is he going to strike out 40% of the batters he faces. But I just don’t see any reason to believe he is finished, from a quantitative standpoint and from my own two eyeballs. I just trust the numbers more.




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Erik Manning is the founder of Future Redbirds and covers the Cardinals for Heater Magazine. You can get more of his analysis and rantings in bite-sized bits by following him on twitter.


67 Responses to “The Great Smoltz Debate Rages On”

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  1. Joel says:

    This is a much much more reasonable article than the previous one.

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  2. Nick says:

    Awesome erik!! You had almost the exact same reaction as I did:

    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/blog_article/john-smoltz/

    And even a similar graph!

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  3. Matt B. says:

    Of course he was pitching against a squad closely resembling a minor league squad, and a bad one at that!

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    • Davidceisen says:

      Not to mention at Petco Park.

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      • Matt B. says:

        Saying that, I never would’ve written him off that quick. The AL east is a beast to pitch in, period.

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      • Bob says:

        “Saying that, I never would’ve written him off that quick. The AL east is a beast to pitch in, period.”

        Nevermind the fact that his nine starts in the AL only included 3 against Baltimore and 1 against the Yankees, none against the Rays, Blue Jays, or Red Sox (obviously). Can we please stop playing the AL East card as a reason Smoltz stunk for the Red Sox? Thank you.

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      • Nick says:

        He got 16% swinging strikes and his command was excellent, those aren’t park affects.

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    • Matt B. says:

      4/8 starts vs AL East. Why include his 9th vs an NL squad while pitching for StL?

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      • Matt B. says:

        20 out of 37 earned runs vs the AL East, sorry but its a factor.

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      • Bob says:

        You could also say he put up lousy numbers with all but one of his starts being against teams with mediocre-to-bad offenses (3 against Baltimore, 1 each against KC, OAK, WAS, and TEX). So far he has made ONE START vs a top-tier offense — the one against the Yankees. Again, please stop using the level of competition as a reason to rationalize his crappiness.

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    • MU789 says:

      They may be the Padres but they are major league hitters. No one claimed Carpenter or Pineiro were pitching against a AAA team when they shut them down (and Lohse didn’t). And the Padres do have a very good left-handed hitter in Gonzales that Smoltz handled.

      That said one game is too small a sample size to say the Cardinals have the old John Smoltz. But they did get a bigger return on their $100,000 after one game than the Cubs will get from an entire season of Soriano.

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  4. fanofdefenseagain says:

    Smoltz will probabilistically pitch well for the rest of the season and, if things break well for him (ie. he does not get unlucky), everyone will have forgotten their earlier remarks about his “suckiness”.

    NO! DON’T EVER FORGET YOUR COMMENTS, SMOLTZ NONBELIEVERS.

    You people make me sick There are two types of human beings. One group is committed to the process and respect randomness. The other group is ludicrously outcome oriented cannot help but piss in their pants in the face of randomness.

    Will a Smoltz revival shame these people? I doubt it.

    I hate you people

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  5. Pat says:

    Even if he goes on to have a great season with the Cardinals, it’s still perfectly reasonable to say he stunk in Boston. I just don’t think he was able to pitch in the AL East right after coming back from surgery, it was too much for him.

    I was rough on him, but still his stuff looked good, but the thing is Boston didn’t have the time to sit around and let him work his kinks out. The Cardinals picked him up for the minimum and can just give him a test drive. I think he’ll be a set-up man come playoff time, but as of right now, he should be a perfectly capable 5th starter in the much less challenging NL Central.

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    • mattymatty says:

      “Boston didn’t have the time to sit around and let him work his kinks out.”

      Well, if you’re buying the ‘turnaround’ then it only would have taken one more start.

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  6. walkoffblast says:

    I am tiring of people not recognizing the entire situation and oversimplifying the situation. By the numbers was Smoltz dead weight? No. By the numbers was Smoltz worth paying more money every day when the Red Sox likely had at least equivalent options? No. I expect him to have some success for the cardinals for various reasons but that does not mean the Red Sox made a bad move. This fallacy that they let him go because they thought he was done is a joke. They let him go because they did not think he was worth it which is plenty viable by the numbers.

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  7. Judy says:

    Unfortunately for the Red Sox, assuming that Smoltz has now managed to fix whatever mechanincal thing it was he was doing wrong, Brad Penny and Junichi Tazawa aren’t equivalent options, and Wakefield and Dice-K may not be, either. Still, I don’t know what choice they had, whatever they were doing with Smoltz wasn’t helping him.

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    • Matt B. says:

      They will live to regret not doing everything it took to acquire Roy…

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    • mattymatty says:

      Yeah, I guess the Sox have no other choice but to trade Penny and Dice-K to St. Louis.

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    • walkoffblast says:

      Its mechanical now? 5 solid innings and petco and he is magically healed or back to being the Smoltz of old? I think many are forgetting what the numbers said. They said he was slightly below average instead of terrible, not that he was the Smoltz of old waiting for his luck to change. Tazawa is incapable of being slightly below average for a few weeks? Someone better tell him that because he has not gotten the message yet.

      My main point on the whole Smoltz thing is this was a smart move by the Cardinals but it was not a bad move by the Red Sox. If it was then every team in baseball was equally as dumb because they could have had Smoltz for free and passed. There just might be a reason for that.

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      • Judy says:

        I’ve been consistent that it was likely mechanical from the beginning of all these assorted Smoltz debates, but I’m not assuming it’s completely fixed now, that’s why I said, “assuming that Smoltz has now managed to fix whatever…”. But, of course, that’s the whole reason the Red Sox signed Smoltz in the first place, because none of their other options are equivalent to a “fixed” version of John Smoltz. Whether he is that now certainly requires more evidence.

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  8. Laura says:

    AL>>NL

    As amazing as Pujols is, I have to wonder how good his stats would be in the AL. He might even look somewhat human.

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  9. Tim says:

    Smoltz was dominant the first time through the order, but was extremely lucky in the 4th when (following a bloop hit)…

    -Adrian Gonzalez flied out on a ball that’s a HR almost anywhere else,
    -Chase Headly struck out looking at some very borderline pitches
    -Kevin Kouzmanoff flied out to deep center

    Given the Cardinals problems in the back of their rotation, Smoltz will continue to start in the short term (against the crappiest of NL lineups), but come postseason he’s gotta be in the pen.

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  10. Xeifrank says:

    What was the process that the Cardinals were able to get Smoltz?

    The Red Sox DFA’d him. Did the Cardinals have to claim him off of waivers? If so, did a bunch of other teams have to pass on him before the Cardinals got the claim?
    vr, Xei

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    • tom s. says:

      everybody passed on him (including the cardinals), b/c the contract he had had some hard-to-swallow incentives. after he passed through waivers & became a free agent, those incentives terminated. at that point, he could have signed w/ anybody. i don’t know if any other teams got into serious discussions with him – the dodgers and rangers and marlins were talked about, iirc.

      to get at what i think is your point, yes, another team could have claimed him and paid a million plus for 7 weeks of a pitcher who was somewhat an enigma. but i don’t know that that would have been a good plan. after becoming a FA, it wasn’t really about money, but where he wanted to play, what role he would play there, and who had the best chance of success in the postseason.

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    • Erik Manning says:

      Yes, a bunch of other teams would have had to pass on him, if i understand correctly.

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  11. Sky says:

    Here’s something worth looking at: which exact pitches were hit for home runs? Which were swung at and missed? Which were hit for line drives?

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  12. Alex says:

    When he does this against a legitimate team then you can brag about stats being correct but a team that has like 2 hitter batting their weight is not a legitimate one.

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  13. JH says:

    In value terms, Smoltz earned his entire 100k and then some yesterday afternoon. As long as he isn’t a serious negative win contributor going forward, the move has been an economic positive for the Cardinals.

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  14. tide182 says:

    ha, i prefer this kind of lazy to the previous…

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  15. Ed Nelson says:

    Look at the Pitch FX strikezone plots from his 7-20 start against the Rangers and his start from yesterday and you don’t have to be a genius to figure out what changed yesterday, better control, better velocity. Almost no pitches high in the zone (where he was getting pounded) and terrific distribution low in the zone.

    Will it last? He had a very similar start against Kansas City July 11th, and came back to get drilled 4 starts in a row.

    Will Carrol at BP had it down in today’s article, Smoltz’s issue has been recovery. His fastball was almost 3 mph faster than it was for that 7-20 start yesterday. It’s no surprise he was good after all the rest, in Petco, against the worst offense in all of baseball.

    Let’s see if he can do it again…

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    • Nick says:

      Ed – if you’ll read my article that I posted just above, it’s clear that Smoltz’s stuff was not so much better last night. His fastball was .9 MPH faster than average, but you can’t attribute his entire turnaround to that.

      You can attribute it to the fact that he was just on his game. He kept the ball down and continued to get a lot of swining strikes while pounding the zone.

      There is nothing that he did, besides maybe not tipping his pitches (which I think is bullshit), that made him so good. He just had a good start. It doesn’t mean he is back, nor did his struggles in Boston mean he was done.

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  16. Andrew says:

    The Red Sox could’ve kept Smoltz and maybe had a servicable fifth starter. Or they could’ve released him and had a servicable fifth starter.

    They saved a couple million by doing the latter though. It was a much lower-risk move.

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  17. Ed Nelson says:

    Read the article Nick. Good stuff, but I think my problem is you are taking the entirety of the Boston experience and comparing it to one start with St Louis. A (IMO) better way to approach that would be to compare one start with Boston to this one start, and if you are looking at the horrible 7/20 start against the Rangers his velocity is up a full 2 mph. Even against the Yankees in his last start the velocity is up more than a mph, which may explain a lot.

    In my opinion the most important thing is this. 75 pitches. No sending him out for the next inning. That’s the key. If the Rich Harden rules must be applied than stick to it, and resist the urge to push him past where he should be allowed to go.

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    • Nick says:

      So you want me to cherry pick his best and worst starts?

      Also, while agree that he shouldn’t be pushed, I’m pretty sure that he was only pulled early because the Cardinals were up 5-0 and he hadn’t pitched in 2 weeks.

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  18. XslyderX says:

    Mechanics had to have something to do with his problems in Boston. It may have been the Padres, at Petco, but he only gave up three hits. And he didn’t walked anyone. Even a trip-a hitter can get something if the ball is hanging over the plate like he did in Beantown. He had something more going right than the team and ballpark..thought still at lest a minor factor.

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  19. Brandon says:

    The reason the Red Sox made a poor decision dumping Smoltz is that, in the interim, he would have been a serviceable 5th starter. But his ceiling is much, much higher than Brad Penny’s or Tim Wakefield’s. Plain and simple, Boston panicked. They overreacted to their poor showing in the NY series, when they weren’t going to win the division anyway, and made a rash decision. Did Smoltz miss his spots far too often? Of course he did. But, as a pitcher, grooving a 92 mph fastball does not mean that the ball gets hit on a frozen rope every time. And if the ball gets hit on a frozen rope it finds the gap, or in the air it flies over the wall. In these instances, Smoltz was getting unlucky. The fly balls to the warning track against San Diego were what is called ‘regression to the mean’.

    His peripheral stats (K/9, K/BB) showed that a turnaround was, barring further injury, inevitable. Now, in a playoff series, they get to use Beckett, Lester and Penny? Wakefield? Dice-K? Instead of arguably one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all time? Good luck with that..

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    • Andrew says:

      There was a zero percent chance that the Sox would’ve used Smoltz to start either game 3 or 4 in the postseason. Dice-K was an integral part of the 07 team that won a WS though he has sucked this year, Tim Wakefield has a great deal of postseason experience and made a herculean effort in the 2003 ALCS to keep the Sox in it, and Penny is uh…well, a former All-Star. They will probably go to a three-man rotation with Wakefield starting Game #3. Bucholz would’ve been used before Smoltz as a postseason SP. Also, hasn’t John Smoltz not started a postseason game since the 90s?

      The Sox bullpen is rock-solid and they didn’t need him coming out of there either.

      Also, I think you are ignoring the fact that fly-balls on the edge of the track in Petco would be home runs almost anywhere else.

      Again, the Sox had plenty of serviceable fifth starters waiting in the wings (Tazawa, Bowden). This was mostly a financial decision.

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    • walkoffblast says:

      Interesting how every other team in baseball agreed with the decision the Red Sox made when they were “overreacting.”

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      • Nick says:

        I think that other teams strayed away from Smoltz for the reasons that most people here didn’t like him.

        1) He’s 42 and coming off of major arm surgery
        2) His ERA was over 8

        However, it was also clear, based on his pitch attributes (velocity, movement) and the outcomes (contact rate, swinging strike rate), that his stuff was still good – probably above average.

        If he could regain his command of his pitches with further practice, with his veteran smarts (although I’m not sure how much that matters), he would still be able to be an above average pitcher.

        I would say he was certainly a very nice low risk – high reward pick up, and I am surprised that only the Cardinals bit.

        You may think that I am being arrogant by saying that the front offices made this (non)decision off of ERA and a 40 inning sample in which he struggled with his control, but I really do think that was the case.

        FO’s have shown that they really aren’t that good at identifying pitching talent: Bruce Chen, Oliver Perez, Barry Zito, Sidney Ponson, Adam Eaton are just a few examples of that.

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      • Andrew says:

        Well then you’re wrong. The Red Sox employ Bill James and the inventor of FIP. When I listen to Yanks games on the radio or watch games on ESPN, the announcers talk about and know contact rate/swinging strike rate. Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman aren’t less stat-savvy than John Sterling and TIm McCarver. If you think you are smarter than Theo Epstein, then I don’t know what to say except that you should send him your resume.

        Smoltz wanted to pitch every five days and didn’t want to come out of the pen. Every team passed on him because there was no team in a penant race that needed a fifth starter, except for the Dodgers, Phils, and Cards. The Phils got Pedro and the Dodgers decided to go with Padilla for whatever reason. All of those teams are running away with their divisions and can afford two or three (or four) blow-ups. Seriously, name a team besides the three I mentioned for which it would make any logical sense to add Smoltz, or any fifth-starter not-named Smoltz to their roster. Mark Mulder is still unemployed…

        The Red Sox have a one and a half game lead in the WC as of right now. It wouldn’t be smart to risk losing that lead and the millions of dollars that come with a playoff berth because “hey John Smoltz has really good stuff he will PROBABLY get good again soon”. Would it be an easy decision for you, with Tazawa and Bowden waiting in the wings?

        This isn’t fantasy baseball where you can bench a guy for a couple weeks while his BABIP and ERA regress. It’s MLB and there was no guarantee that Smoltz wouldn’t blow up in his next two starts (and then pitch perfect games for the rest of the season after that), and cost the Red Sox a postseason appearance. None. You can talk all you want about velocity and movement all you want, but that’s the reality. It’s pure coincidence and the genius of Mike Maddux (who says Smoltz was tipping pitches) that Smoltz’s first start as a Card was sick.

        They called it the “John Smoltz Experiment” for a reason. The experiment failed and there’s zero justification for the Red Sox to have stuck with it.

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      • Andrew says:

        Also re: “FOs aren’t that good at identifying talent”, those are all teams with pretty awful FOs. KC, NYM, and the SFG don’t stack up at all to the Red Sox front office.

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      • Nick says:

        We’ve already established that the reason the Red Sox didn’t keep him was likely due to salary/opportunity cost reasons. Although, I don’t think that Tazawa or Penny are better than Smoltz, it’s an understandable

        I was addressing possible reasons as to why other teams didn’t sign him.

        You said that the Phillies, Dodgers and Cardinals needed him the most. Then you said that the Dodgers went with Vincente Padilla “for some reason”. Maybe that reason is because they looked at Smoltz’s ERA and his age, and decided he was done?

        I can’t name a team that would need Smoltz, besides those other two, who went for inferior options in Martinez and Padilla (I assume you agree with this?).

        And I’m not sure what you are trying to say with the regression stuff. If you believe Smoltz has a talent of, say, a 4 ERA, than you should expect his ERA to drop to that in his next start. Any pitcher can blow up. There is no evidence that recent poor performance cause pitchers to blow up more than guys who have been pitching well.

        Also, I don’t buy for a second that Smoltz was tipping his pitches. I believe he simply struggled in Boston and pitched very well in St. Louis. That’s baseball, it’s so random. That’s why it was foolish for anyone to say he was done after his first 40 innings, and now for anyone to say he’s back after his next 5 innings.

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      • Andrew says:

        Sorry, I can’t really tell which Nick I’m debating. The most prolific one seems to think that Smoltz is a Jon Lester caliber pitcher and the Sox should be sending him out there every fifth day.

        Well, the Phillies signed Pedro well before Smoltz had been DFA’d so they don’t really count. I think Smoltz is a better option than Padilla, but not by a significant amount. I also think Padilla is in some ways a better fit for the Dodgers since he can go deeper into games and take some workload off their extremely overtaxed bullpen. Finally, the Dodgers front office is not the most brilliant bunch. They basically bid against themselves for Manny.

        Tipping pitches is very real and it’s something that major league hitters can catch onto fast. When it’s really blatant I notice it on TV and I’m sure you’ve caught it at some point too. When Wandy started getting really lit up I immediately noticed he was tipping pitches hardcore. And then he figured out, and stopped, and then he got better.

        Here’s an example of what I meant by regression: earlier this season, when Nolasco was demoted to the minors, I assume everyone who reads this site either tried to buy low on him or stuck him on their bench. I acquired him and k-rod for Weaver because I knew Nolasco would come back awesome based on his peripherals and Weaver was heading for a blowup (plus I needed the saves). I didn’t start him for his first game back, but since then he’s outpitched Weaver. However, there was no guarantee that his first 3 starts back would be great but I knew that for the rest of the season he would be the better pitcher. The Red Sox can’t take 2-3 chances.

        In fantasy you can sit on pitchers while they regress back to their true performance. When you are barely holding onto a wildcard lead, you can’t afford to wait especially when it’s costing you hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary a day. I have no idea what Smoltz’s true talent is; probably mid-4 ERA, which is serviceable and better than other option the Cards had.

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  20. d says:

    Smoltz nothing – what’s going on with Doc Halladay?

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