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May the Smoltz be with us

I did a piece on this just a few days ago but we’re going to break it down a little more today. First, it’s important that we note that he was dfa’d for a reason – primarily, that his ERA was a robust 8.32. There’s, of course, a lot of bad in there to create an 8.32 ERA. Those aren’t accidents. He’d given up 59 hits in 40 innings. Batters are batting .341/.384/.584 against him this year. He’s given up 1.80 HR/9 this season. Lefties have annihilated Smoltz to the tune of .440/.490/.758. Ugh! His fastball is down from a career average 93.4 mph and 92.5 mph last year to 91.3 mph this year. As a result, Smoltz is more than 16 runs below average w/ the fastball this year. Imagine if he’d been throwing it more than 42.1% of the time! It’s not all terrible, however.

His BABIP is a whopping .390, unsustainably high for a guy w/ just an 18.1% LD rate. His LD rate (18.1%) is lower than his career LD rate – 20.1%. He’s having an unusually high percentage of fly balls leave the ballpark – 14.8%. Combine that w/ the BABIP and it’s not difficult to argue that he’s been a victim of bad luck. His K rate this year is pretty strong (7.43) and his BB rate is better than his career average. Perhaps most importantly, he’s only pitched 40 innings so far this year. As Dave Cameron argues, anything can happen in 40 innings so there’s no need to get worked up about the high homer rate and the reduced speed on his fastball. The terrible lefty splits? That’s in a grand total of 101 PAs. Talk about a small sample. It’s about 4 games worth of PAs. Would any of us contend that Carp was washed up based on 4 bad starts?

I mentioned a week ago that Smoltz has been fantastic in innings 1 and 2 and in his first 25 pitches of the game. Batters have splits of .250/.342/.313 the first time through the order against him. To me, that’s more comforting if he’s going in the bullpen but, in light of the news that Tony and Duncan want him starting games, it’s slightly less comforting. That said, he’s still seeing swinging strikes on 16% of his strikes – a percentage higher than any of our starters – including Wainwright and Carpenter.

It’s tough to know what to expect from Smoltz. As I said, he’s thrown just 40 innings this year and it’s difficult to place a lot of emphasis on what he did last year, considering the fact that he threw just 28 innings in ’09. In ’07, he was 40 and threw 205 innings. He had a 4.19 K/BB ratio and a 0.79 HR rate. He was pretty tough on lefties -- .262/.327/.382 – in 432 PAs. That’s more than 4 times as many PAs against lefties as he’s had so far this season. As you’d expect, he was much better the 2nd and 3rd times through the order and was very good through pitch number 75. Still, he is 2 years older now and you’d expect the drop-off from age 40 to age 42 to be pretty steep. While we shouldn’t place a lot of emphasis on what’s happened so far this season, it’s probably foolish to look to his #s in 2007 as any kind of barometer on what to expect either.

Here’s what we do know – until he went on the D.L., Duncan preferred that Todd Wellemeyer reclaim the 5th spot in the rotation. I, for one, don’t expect Smoltz to be the Smoltz of old and while I’m adamantly opposed to Todd Wellemeyer ever throwing another meaningful pitch for the Cards (at least until he proves he can handle a bullpen role!), if Smoltz pitches the way Wellemeyer has this season, we’ll at least have the chance to win some of his starts. He wouldn’t be good, but we’d have a chance if he gave up, say…4 runs in 6 innings. So let’s compare the 2 this year:

FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 LD% GB%
Smoltz 4.94 7.43 2.03 1.70 18.1 42.8
Wellemeyer 5.23 5.67 4.07 1.36 21.3 36.5

and vs. lefties:

Smoltz .440 .490 .758 3.78 6.48 3.24 8.06
Wellemeyer .342 .421 .606 5.92 5.92 2.59 7.60

Is there really any reason to think Smoltz would be any worse than Wellemeyer? Granted, we’re not setting the bar terribly high but, for a 5th starter, it could be worse. It could be Mike Maroth circa 2007. Yeah, those homers against lefties are troubling but he had 3 starts in Boston and one each in Baltimore, New York, and Texas. A lot of homers fly out of those parks. In fact, 3 of his 8 homers came in 1 start in Texas and another 2 came in 1 start in Yankee Stadium. 2 of the other 3 came in 1 start in Baltimore and the last homer came in Fenway. The 8 homers could be a little misleading considering the teams against which he pitched and the parks where he pitched.

I still say that we’ve got a hole in right-handed relief but maybe Hawksworth can fill it or maybe Smoltz can shift to the pen in the playoffs and fill the hole. Regardless, I think we’re better – if only by a little bit – w/ Smoltz on the roster and I think there are many reasons to believe he’ll be better than he was w/ the Red Sox. As Dave Cameron said (in the fangraphs article linked above):

A bad ERA over 40 innings, driven by a high BABIP and HR/FB rate, does not mean that Smoltz is finished any more than it means that Weaver is finished. And, of course, no one thinks that Jered Weaver is washed up. Cardinal fans just picked up a pretty good pitcher for the league minimum, thanks to the continued overestimation of the usefulness of ERA. The sooner people realize that it's an obsolete pitching statistic, the better off baseball will be.