Huh, so that Smoltz guy is still pretty good…

A little while ago, I wrote that the Dfa’d Smoltz still had some stuff in the tank and would be a good pick up for a contending team. The basis behind that was that a lot of his terrible performance in Boston was attributable to luck, and his stuff still looked pretty good. I referenced his K:BB ratio, which was one of the highest in the majors, and I probably should have mentioned that his swinging strike rate was well above average.

A couple of other writers had similar veiwpoints, and we all were met with much skepticism from commenters. The general argument from them was the Smoltz was too old for FIP to be a good model, and he was struggling too much against lefties, and the in the later innings of the game.

Well, a couple of days ago, my beloved Cardinals picked up him. Furthermore, to a lot of people’s surprise, they announced he would be pitching out the of the rotation. This gave us nice chance to see the debate play out in real life.

Yesterday, Smoltz made his St. Louis debut against the Padres. His final line was a thing of beauty:

5 IP, 3 H, 0 HR, 0 BB, 9 K

He also struck out 7 in a row at one point, 3 shy of the major league record. He got 12 swinging strikes (16%) and only allowed contact on 70% of his pitches compared to a league average rate of about 80%. He threw 70% strikes, but was pulled after just 75 pitches, likely for precautionary reasons due to the fact that the Cardinals were up 5-0.

So why was he able to be pitch so well yesterday, when he was so bad in Boston? Here is a quick comparison of his stuff:


As you can see, his stuff was slightly better yesterday; or at least his velocity was. 3 out of his 4 pitches received about a 1 MPH bump in velocity, and his speed differential on the fastball and slider improved because of it.

However, a slight uptick in velocity doesn’t explain why Smoltz was able to have such a miraculous turnaround. It isn’t attributable to any kind of mechanics change as well, at least as far as I can tell. It simply appears that he was just simply on his game, and was able to hit his spots more than usual.

The real thing to take away from this start is… nothing. As great as he looked today, having a great game against the Padres in Petco doesn’t mean that he is back, anymore than pitching terribly in the AL East meant he was finished. Baseball has so much variance, that making assumptions off of ANY results in a small sample size will likely lead you to the wrong conclusion.

That of course makes my own title completely wrong. And the guys who commented here and at FanGraphs aren’t wrong either. We don’t know anything (or barely anything) more about Smoltz from this start or from the results of his starts.

What is clear, as it has been to me all along, is that he has still major league quality stuff and a long history of excellent performance and experience from which to draw back from. While he certainly isn’t going to be as good the rest of the year as he was yesterday, I still believe that he can be an above average pitcher, which would be great for the Cardinals.

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13 years ago

Two factors helped Smoltz a lot yesterday (I was at the game)

1) The ineptitude of the Padres’ batters
2) An umpire who believed that the strike zone was very large.
(low and left side of the plate especially).

Nick Steiner
13 years ago

He also had 16% swinging strikes, and had a zone% of nearly 60% by my calculations.  And he was also hurt by a lot of factors in Boston.

13 years ago

Nice article, Nick; Smoltz threw a side session on Thursday, where Dave Duncan, Tony LaRussa, and Chris Carpenter all observed that Smoltz was tipping his pitches while working from the stretch—so that, plus isues with his still-developing stamina, probably accounts for the poor BoSox showings.

Q: If you ran the Cardinals, Nick, and had to choose between bringing Smoltz back on a one-year deal (say, $6-7MM) or Pineiro for a 3-4 yr. contract at $8-9MM per season, which would you take?

Nick Steiner
13 years ago

That’s a tough one.  If it were an isolated circumstance, I would take Pineiro: he’s looking like the real deal with that GB% and Smoltz may fall off the table any time.  However, the Cards already have a few long term contracts, and Pineiro signing one would kill our flexibitily and it might affect our ability to resign Pujols.

So, probably Smoltz.  (Actually Myers> Gaudin > Harden > Smoltz)

13 years ago

About the ump:

Looking at gameday, I see only 4 questionable called strikes (one low in one AB; then three all in a Hundley AB, called strikes but arguably consistent and hitting Smoltz’s mark).

Thus, I think the ump argument is a poor one. At best, you can downplay Smoltz performance on Padres players who swung and missed a fair amount, and stupidly watched plenty of good pitches as well.  And because the Ks came early, it’s not like the Padres were swing at stuff because they knew the Ump’s zone to be huge, but simply because the balls were fooling them.

13 years ago

The obvious difference is the NL West vs the AL East, but could this improved outing simply be a matter of Smoltz being farther along in his rehab?

13 years ago

Since coming to St. Louis, Smoltz has had two weeks additional rest, found a flaw in his delivery, and discovered he was tipping his pitches.
  His stuff looked great on Sunday – lots of movement on pitches, hitting lower 90’s throughout his 5 innings, I didn’t think the umpire was to bad, (except for the high inside strike).
  Smoltz did begin to look tired and wild at times during innings 4 and 5, but he held it together against San Diego.
    If Smoltz works out, and Lugo continues to be a solid back-up for us, I’d like to thank the Red Sox for their help this season.  Cards fan

13 years ago

Before the game, Dave Duncan said that mechanically, Smoltz was lifting his heel off the rubber and pushing only with the ball of his foot, pushing his arm out of alignment. So I watched and Smoltz kept his right foot flat on the rubber the entire five innings.

Little tweaks like that make Duncan more valuable than La Russa. If a pitcher can be fixed under Duncan’s eye, then he’s not fit for the Majors (see Wellemeyer this year compared to Jeff Weaver in ‘06).