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The Riddle of the Smoltz

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At some point in this season, when it became clear to many that Daisuke Matsuzaka was not himself and the Red Sox had a hole in the starting rotation, a hope arose. Fans, in the bars and homes (and even mother's basements) of Red Sox Nation began to envision a better future. The vision looked something like this:

Marauding bandits are attacking Fenway Park. Suddenly, a clarion sounds and a ray of light shines down, illuminating a white stallion and its rider. The rider lowers his lance at the bandits, drives them off. The grateful fans annoint the rider, John Smoltz, a protector of the people and shower him with gifts, affection, and expensive sports cars.

However, instead of the archetypal man on horseback, we've gotten something quite different with Smoltz. His performance has been disappointing, to say the least. To use the analogy above, instead of a stallion we got a donkey, and instead of routing the opposition, Smoltz is tilting at the Green Monster.*

The start Sunday was atrocious. Smoltz was striking out plenty of hitters, but he also showed abysmal command, leaving pitches over the middle of the plate to be hit VERY hard. For the second start in a row, more than half of the hits he allowed went for extra bases (9 hits, 4 doubles, 1 HR). So what is going on? Read on for my investigation into the seedy underbelly of John Smoltz's stats.

Smoltz has made 6 starts. All but one start (vs. Texas) were against last-place teams. At no point has he pitched more than 6 innings. In his best start, 7/11, he allowed one run over five innings against the Royals. 6/30 he pitched 4 innings and allowed one run before the rains came down; this was the disastrous game the Sox lost 11-10. With the exception of Texas, none of these teams have good offenses, reinforcing the mystery of why Smoltz is struggling so.

Ordinarily when a pitcher is routinely failing to go more than six innings, we'd expect he's running up pitch counts and walking too many people. This is not the problem with Smoltz, whose 1.47 BB/9 is well below his career average (2.62). Yet his WHIP is quite high. Smoltz is also getting his Ks: his K/9 this year is 8.22, once again better than his career average (7.98).

Smoltz has two interrelated problems. As mentioned earlier, he is getting hit HARD. Opposing batters are slugging .527 against him, with 18 extra-base hits in 30.2 innings pitched. In addition, many balls put into play by opposing batters are falling in for hits against Smoltz. Smoltz's batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a measure of this, is a very high .380 (average BABIP falls between .280 and .320). Contrast this with Brad Penny, who is providing league-average pitching: his BABIP is .320. I believe these problems are interrelated: when a pitcher is leaving pitches over the middle of the plate, opposing hitters will be able to put them into play and hit them very hard. We have a phrase for this: batting practice.

The problems begin with Smoltz's fastball, which to date has been below average. Fangraphs has Smoltz's heater as his worst pitch, at -3.5. Smoltz has used his fastball less than in previous years, when he threw it more than 50% of the time, but at 41.6% of the time it is still his primary pitch. In the start yesterday, Smoltz left his fastball over the plate, allowing Orioles to tee off on it. Smoltz's secondary pitches are less worrisome - the changeup and slider are effective, but the splitter is not.

Looking at splits, left-handed batters are the main culprit. Southpaws have a 1.096 OPS against Smoltz, while righties are only at .677. Home and road splits aren't significant: he's been bad in both venues.

There's some cause for hope. His Fielding Independent Percentage (FIP) is fairly low at 3.61, especially compared to his 7.04 ERA. Smoltz may be a victim of the team's gaping void formerly known as the defense. Also, these numbers are based on six games, so perhaps he'll work past them. However, the high slugging numbers, weak fastball, and inability to go deep into games do not bode well.

Smoltz probably has another two or three starts to show something to the Sox brass, but I'm ready to call this experiment over. Send him to the pen as long-relief / mop-up / ROOGY and give Wake, Bowden or Masterson his starts. Trade or DFA him. Just don't keep running him out there.

*That's right: Don QuiSmoltze de la Monstah.