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.