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 —


(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.

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.

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13 years ago

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