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Happy 4th of July Weekend!

Coming off of another bad outing on Sunday, this time against the lowly Orioles, there are rumblings that the Red Sox may have John Smoltz on a short leash. There’s even some chance that the veteran will lose his rotation spot when Tim Wakefield comes off of the disabled list in the next week or so. In six starts, Smoltz has a 7.04 ERA, and is averaging barely more than five innings an outing; he has yet to post a quality start. Driving the discussion is that the Red Sox have lost five of his six starts, and fallen from first place to second and 2½ games behind the Yankees since Smoltz was activated.

As I’ve hammered home, when it comes to Smoltz, there have generally been two poles in his performance record: effective and unavailable. Since his rookie season in 1988, when he ran a 5.48 ERA in a dozen starts for a Braves team going nowhere, Smoltz’s worst seasonal ERA is 4.14, that posted in the strike-shortened, offense-happy 1994 campaign. ERA+ is a statistic that measures a pitcher’s ERA relative to the league, adjusted for his home park. Smoltz, since 1989, has never posted an ERA+ below the league average. He’s missed entire seasons, he’s missed broad swaths of other seasons, he’s jumped from the rotation to the bullpen and back, but John Smoltz hasn’t pushed his team away from contention since we were all sweating Michael Dukakis.

Although Smoltz’s ERA is sky-high, he’s pitching more or less as well as he did last year, in his injury-shortened campaign, and even in 2007, when he finished sixth in NL Cy Young Award balloting. Smoltz has a stellar 28/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his home-run rate, while elevated in 30 2/3 innings, isn’t that out of line with his career norms. The league is hitting a whopping .380 against Smoltz on balls in play, a figure that is driving his ERA higher and creating the perception that he might be done.

Let’s look at Smoltz’s last three seasons (’09 inclusive), by considering events as a percentage of batters faced (all statistics exclude intentional walks):

Year   BFP     K     BB    HR     1B   2B+3B
2007   777   25.4   4.9   2.3   17.5     5.4
2008   116   31.0   6.0   1.7   12.9     6.9
2009   139   20.1   3.6   2.9   17.3    10.1

As you can see, Smoltz’s strikeout rate is actually down a bit relative to recent seasons, and by enough compared to his last full season to cause some concern. His walk rate is down a bit as well, and he’s allowing homers and singles about as often as he did in 2007. The big change is on in-play extra-base hits, which have become far too common for Smoltz, especially considering that he has not seen a change in his fly-ball rate. This is the kind of number that can be affected by luck, and given that it’s the only truly bad number in his line, and the main reason for his high ERA, there’s every reason to think he’ll be fine.

Are there scouting-level reasons to be concerned? According to the data at Fangraphs, Smoltz’s fastball velocity is down a tick, from 92.5 mph to 91.5, and his slider velocity down a bit more (86.4 to 84.8). I would question, especially over a small sample from a rehabbing pitcher, whether those figures are significant enough to warrant much concern. Smoltz isn’t being hit notably harder-his line-drive rate of 19.6 percent is actually a bit under his career 20.2 percent mark. The only conclusion that can be reached from the available data is that Smoltz is essentially the same pitcher he’s always been, and has been victimized by a combination of poor defense and bad luck so far.

This is somewhat subjective, but I think there’s something to the idea that a pitcher who is giving up more of his runs in big innings is a better bet going forward than one who tends to give up runs in more innings. The former pitcher is usually effective, but he may be tiring quickly, or prone to slipping into a mechanical problem, or has just been unfortunate. Smoltz has been an extreme example of the type. In four of his five bad starts, he’s basically been knocked around in one inning. In one of those, July 21 against the Rangers, that one bad inning was allowed to go on interminably despite Smoltz’s rapid degradation in performance in the sixth. Most of the time he’s taken the mound, Smoltz has walked off it having succeeded in holding down the other team. It’s the one bad inning that has haunted him.

If there’s a potential landmine, it’s in that high BABIP number. The idea that pitchers have limited control on the results of balls in play applies to major-league hurlers. A pitcher who has slipped below that level will sometimes have a high BABIP because he’s allowing balls to be hit so hard and so far that he’s indefensible. This is a possibility, but with all the scouting and ball-in-play data showing very little change, the more likely result is that Smoltz has simply been unlucky. His baseline performance-striking out batters, allowing few walks, and a reasonable home-run rate-tells the true story. The Red Sox should stick with Smoltz as a starter, as he’s the fourth-best one on their roster.

Thank you for reading

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Nater1177
7/29
Well this is a welcome sign. His performance was starting to worry me, but not having actaully been able to watch most of his starts, I wasn't sure how justified the concern was. It would appear that much like Lester at the beginning of the year fell vicitim to high a BABIP number, Smoltz is as well. Lester 'back of the card' numbers returned to form shortly thereafter and now Red Sox fans can hope Smoltz's do as well. Not that I expect him to be as dominant as Lester has looked during most of the last two months, but a fraction of that would be more than adequate for #4 starter staus.
llewdor
7/29
"A pitcher who has slipped below that level will sometimes have a high BABIP because he’s allowing balls to be hit so hard and so far that he’s indefensible." See Weaver, Jeff and Silva, Carlos.
Drungo
7/29
As an Oriole fan I'm well aware of BABIP spikes in non-MLB pitchers. Also, as an Oriole fan, I hope that they think it's a luck problem when it's really he's lost it problem. That might keep us within 20 games of the wildcard. It's all about hope.
rbross
7/29
Check out our starting pitcher tonight. That might give you some hope. Go Birds.
AlCracka
7/29
Thanks Joe, good article. I have seen most of Smoltz's starts, and every time - okay, almost every time - I've left thinking man, we just got our asses kicked...but the dude looked fine. The Sox know when to be patient. (And they also know when to keep trotting poor Ortiz out there.) I think they'll stick with him, and it'll be one of those things that people look back on in September and say "Good thing we didn't give up."
Edwincnelson
7/29
I think it's dangerous to look at the overall numbers and take comfort in the idea that he's been the victim of bad luck. Smoltz's problem has been the big inning, especially late in the game. Pitchers always get into trouble. The difference between the good and the great is the great ones have the ability to reach back and find a way to get that most important out. Smoltz seems to have lost that skill. Go back to the July 20th game against the Rangers. In the 6th he gives up a solo homer to lead off the inning (happens to everyone), then a hard double to Hamilton (again, who hasn't) but after a Blaylock single, and with the game on the line he gives up a 2 run homer to David Murphy!? It was no cheap shot either. That's the guy he always could get out. Now I am beginning to wonder if it's possible that he just doesn't have enough gas in the tank to reach back and find the pitch he needs to get that crucial out anymore.
alskor
7/29
"I think it's dangerous to look at the overall numbers and take comfort in the idea that he's been the victim of bad luck. Smoltz's problem has been the big inning, especially late in the game." Swing and a miss. Might want to take another whack at reading this article.
eighteen
7/29
I can't believe a BP subscriber wrote that.
akachazz
7/30
Why was this post hidden? This comment policy is really lame. Sure I don't think too highly of this guy's reasoning, but it seems like anyone who goes against the grain is hidden. It's not like he was being ad hominem or inappropriate. Fix this BP!
drewsylvania
7/30
A few of us have tried to address this issue but BP does not feel the need to change it.
jcuddy
7/29
Excellent article, Joe. Its a good example of exactly why I keep paying for that subscription. Keep up the good work.
trooney
7/29
K's are down significantly per total hitters faced, and all XBHs are up significantly. Or, he's missing less bats and the bats he's hitting are hitting him much harder. There's great value in understanding BABIP, but there's also danger in overstating its importance. Its not like a bunch of GBs have sneaked their way through or bloops have fallen in for singles to affect his BABIP-- the chart above demonstrates that the difference have been in 2Bs, 3Bs, and HRs.
sbnirish77
7/29
Every Yankee fan hopes the Red Sox decide to keep sending Smoltz out there. They'll take their chances with that BABIP thing.
Oleoay
7/30
Perhaps the change in parks from Atlanta to Boston is a reason?
drewsylvania
7/30
If memory serves Smoltz has had several wall-balls hit off him so far.
mhmosher
7/30
Yeah...Smoltz looks like garbage. I realize he's being victimized by some bad luck too, but he's not good right now. Boston is going to struggle to even make the playoffs. Theo needs to get an arm and all he's focused on is hitting. Meanwhile, they won't catch NYY and Tampa will end up passing them.
jman2050
7/30
Perhaps something that's getting lost in all this luckiness business is the quality of competition. He's faced Baltimore twice, Kansas City, Oakland, Washington, and Texas. This isn't in-depth analysis or anything, but that list seems comprised mostly of teams that don't take walks and swing freely. Perhaps his current peripherals are misleading?
jsheehan
7/30
Ranked by total walks, since it's easiest and more or less gets to the point: Orioles, 24th Royals, 28th A's, 21st Nationals, 5th Rangers, 27th Well played.
drewsylvania
7/30
The A's are only 21st. That's pretty amazing.
DrDave
7/30
Also, at least in his start against the O's, he wasn't facing the first team. As a RHP, he nevertheless faced a lineup that included Felix Pie, Ty Wigginton, Robert Andino, and Nolan Reimold -- but not Luke Scott, Aubrey Huff, or Cesar Izturis, even as pinch-hitters.
noonan
7/30
I don't see any reason to think that pitchers prone to big innings are more effective than pitchers that are more consistent. That's analogous to the argument that small-ball offenses are more effective because they don't rely on the big inning.
drewsylvania
7/30
I suspect the Red Sox are in on Halladay as much because Buchholz doesn't have it together mentally (and Penny being an injury risk) as Smoltz being relatively ineffective. They figure at least one of those three guys is going to become a problem in the second half. Halladay would be the ultimate hedge against that problem.
JoeSky60
7/30
It might also be pointed out, that the switch of leagues, and on top of that, to the toughest division in baseball, doesn't do any favors for an aging hurler, coming back from injury.
Edwincnelson
7/30
Easy there guys it's just baseball. I should have been a little clearer on my opinion. What I meant to say was that I think I disagree that Smoltz's peripheral numbers necessarily point to an upcoming correction. There's bad luck, and then there is just throwing the ball and missing your spots. That will lead to a high BABIP and a high FB/HR ratio and a high number of extra base hits. You look at the numbers and think this is a fluke, and this guy's going to bet better. You watch him pitch and realize that at certain times in the game he can't get guys out when he needs to. Call it the Javier Vasquez effect. Guys can underperform their peripherals for years and I think Smoltz doesn't have that kind of time. So, not so much a matter of bad luck, but a guy who just can't find the magic anymore when the David Murphy's of the world come up with men on base and he needs a big out.