What to do with Smoltz?

Alright, time to tackle the topic of the day – John Smoltz. After six starts, the future Hall-of-Famer has averaged a mere 5 innings per outing and compiled a 7.04 ERA. This is not exactly what people were expecting, so the calls for him to be moved out of the rotation are growing. What can we say about the way he’s throwing the ball now, and can we expect things to get better for the 42-year old?

I’m not going to argue that the results haven’t been that bad, because they’ve been bad. The Sox have gone 1-5 in games Smoltz has started, and been outscored by a margin of 47-33. But in his defense, the run support has been poor; 15 of those runs came in one game, and 10 in another, so it hasn’t been quite as good as that total looks. So let’s not conflate the failure of the offense with Smoltz’s performance. There are some other factors to consider before writing him off.

ERA doesn’t tell the whole story

One of the important points to consider is that Smoltz’s ERA is a full 3.43 runs higher than his FIP ERA of 3.61; that is, given the number of strikeouts, hits, walks and HRs he’s allowed, you would expect his ERA to be a LOT lower than it is. That FIP is actually better than Tim Wakefield (4.31 ERA/4.16 FIP), Brad Penny (4.71 ERA/4.08 FIP), Justin Masterson (4.63 ERA/3.81 FIP) and Clay Buchholz (3.72 ERA/5.02 FIP). Smoltz is not walking many, so while he has had some struggles with location, it hasn’t been of the Daisuke Matsuzaka variety. So what’s the problem? One thing is that opponents are hitting .378/.385/.486 off of Smoltz with runners in scoring position, something that is likely a fluke in such a small sample size of just 39 plate appearances. He’s struggled with two-out rallies as well. Accordingly, his strand rate for baserunners has been just 57.6%, as opposed to 73.7% lifetime and even higher than that in recent years. It could also be the 1.17 HR/9; Smoltz has given up about 0.71 HR/9 in his career and never exceeded 1.07 HR/9 since his rookie season, when he pitched only 64 innings. Remember that 3 of his 4 HR given up came in that one start in Texas, a very hitter-friendly park.

How’s his stuff?

One of the great things PITCHf/x and computers allow the casual fan to do is to analyze Smoltz’ performance objectively, apart from our horror at all the runs given up. One look at this data at FanGraphs.com shows us that the velocity is clearly not what it was. His fastball is averaging 91.3 mph, about 1.5 mph slower than in his last full season. His slider also shows a parallel decrease, and the splitter is a touch slower, while the curve and change seem okay. The pitch type values also tell us that the fastball and split-finger fastball have not been effective, while his best pitches have been the changeup and the curve. The slider has been okay, but nothing close to Smoltz’ signature breaking pitch. For him to be effective, Smoltz has to command the fastball better, throw that slider harder, and bury the splitter in the dirt, which he hasn’t been doing (yet).

Yet Smoltz has been tinkering and improving. The key is getting his slider back into form; that pitch is essentially what makes Smoltz who he is. Here’s his slider over his six starts:

Game         TOTpitches  #Sliders %Strikes Avg Vel Max Vel X-mov Y-mov
6/25 @WAS    92          26        77%     84.5    87.1    3.83  2.61
6/30 @BAL    52          10        50%     85.4    87.7    2.18  0.70
7/6  OAK     99          35        80%     83.8    86.8    2.89  2.39
7/11 KCR     97          41        80%     85.2    87.7    2.45  2.95
7/20 @TEX    96          25        72%     83.0    84.9    3.39  2.34
7/26 BAL     83          37        62%     85.2    88.6    2.38  3.40

I see a pretty clear progression here, in both velocity and movement. That slider is getting there, and when it does, it will make everything else that much more effective. His fastball averaged 92.3 mph in this start, topping out at 93.3 mph. This kind of slow progress is what happens when you basically don’t pitch for over a year. If you don’t believe the numbers, believe an opponent’s perspective. The Red Sox are not ready to give up on John Smoltz, and neither is he.


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