Sports

John Smoltz Reveals Importance of Numbers in Sports

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This week's edition of The Weekly League isn't an edition of The Weekly League at all.

Surprise!

John Smoltz Pitches Poorly (Or Doesn't)
Before the 2009 baseball season started, the Boston Red Sox signed right-hander John Smoltz to a one-year contract. The signing was notable for a number of reasons, including but not limited to the following:

• Until that point, he'd pitched with the same team (the Atlanta Braves) for his entire 21-year career.
• He was (is) a future Hall of Famer.
• He was coming off major surgery to a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.
• He would likely not be available to pitch until June.
• He was old (41).

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The move was generally considered a good one for the Sox, who paid Smoltz a base salary of about $5.5 million, with incentives that could net the pitcher something in the vicinity of $10 million. And the deal looked even smarter after Smoltz made his first minor-league start in May, pitched well through his entire rehab stint, and made his Red Sox debut on June 25th at Washington.

Yet, besides the fact that he was able to make it at all, that start against the Nationals didn't go so great. Smoltz allowed seven hits and five earned runs in five innings, taking the loss. And, actually, that performance was typical of his eight-start tenure with the Sox. Before being released by the team on August 17th, Smoltz' line with the Sox looked like this: 40.0 IP, 59 H, 37 ER, 8.33 ERA. By the majority of fans and local media, the Smoltz Experiment was considered a failure.

Here's the thing, though: in terms of the things that pitchers can control -- the things that are most easily repeatable and most predictive of future performance -- Smoltz was pretty excellent. His 7.43 K/9 and 2.03 BB/9 were both better than average for a starting pitcher. He'd conceded a lot of hits, yes, but mostly because 39% of the batted balls he conceded didn't find gloves (while the league-average rate is about 30%). And even though he'd allowed 1.80 HR/9 over those 40 innings, some of that was because his fly balls were leaving the park at a higher-than-normal rate -- 14.8%, as opposed to the league-average 11% or so.

All told, Smoltz pitched like a pitcher who "should" have had a 4.19 ERA -- not vintage Smoltz, but certainly palatable. And definitely not a failure.

When Dave Cameron made a very similar case on FanGraphs, the commentariat -- or, at least, much of the commentariat -- became rabid and emotionally unkempt.

Regard this from Joe R:

And once again you miss a big factor, Dave.

Smoltz was missing bats and in the strike zone. He was also grooving a LOT of pitches. He was looking gassed by the 4th inning. He simply does not have the gas to start anymore.

He probably could serve a purpose out of the pen, but Smoltz the first time through the lineup =/= Smoltz after.

And Nick:

I’m as big a stathead as anyone, but this literally is one of those times where “the numbers don’t tell you everything.” John Smoltz has a great K/BB, but he just cannot pitch, especially to lefties. His slider doesn’t break, and his fastball is bordering on garbage. If he’s used as a ROOGY he’d be fine, but I’d be nervous if I were a Cards fan if he starts the rest of the way.

And the very formally named Mr. S:

I usually don’t say this about sites that deal with advanced statistics – but do you actually watch the games? Or do you just take a look at the box score?

If you watched any of Smoltz’s innings from this year you’d see that he’s got a nice big fork sticking out of his back.

One of the few poorly thought out articles I’ve read here.

The basic message: for those people who watch the game -- even those who also respect the power of numbers -- it was clearclearclear that Smoltz was tired, old, and finished as a pitcher.

This is certainly an appropriate place to note that the author of this piece is by no means averse to watching the game*, nor is he (read: I) averse to observations made by those with some expertise in football's Xs and Os.

*Especially in such cases as when beer is in close proximity.

However, I also know that, as our generous host Brian Burke reminded us in this week's Roundup post, we humans often see what we expect to see. Because Smoltz was a pitcher in his 40s coming off a major procedure, his troubles looked different -- even to intelligent people -- than did, say, Jered Weaver's, a young pitcher with very similar troubles. The strength of Smoltz's narrative obscured the fact that he was, most likely, just experiencing some seriously bad luck.

Numbers vs. Narrative in Football
The influence of narrative is very strong in football, too -- a fact borne out by the case of this year's Atlanta Falcons. Readers of this site will know that the Falcons aren't rated particularly well by the advanced metrics. Our Generous Host's regression model has them as a below-.500 team, actually. And yet, with a 13-3 record, the Falcons are being roundly praised.

In this case, the narrative being constructed around the team concerns the expertise and preparation of the coaching staff. Even as he notes Atlanta's statistical shortcomings, Yahoo's Jason Cole praises head coach Mike Smith's "attention to the most minute details." Paul Johnson, writing for the Times' Fifth Down blog, cites the team's excellence both in penalty yards and turnover margin. "This speaks of discipline," he writes, "and that starts at the top."

Certainly, it would be difficult for a team to win without an excellent coaching staff -- and it's even possible (although very unlikely) that Smith possesses some quality that has allowed him to excel in games decided by six points or fewer (in which situations, Cole notes, Smith is 13-7). But all this leads us to note the painfully obvious: if Smith is so very good, why is his team just okay in terms of passing and running? And just okay in terms of defending the pass and defending the run? Even those fans who're less inclined to give weight to the numbers -- they recognize that these are the things that football teams spend the majority of a game doing.

Of course, anyone already convinced of the Falcons' excellence has a pretty easy response: "Scoreboard." That's fine, I suppose. And difficult to dispute. Again, it's possible that Mike Smith et al. have stumbled upon a little-known means to the great and glorious end of winning football games.

But more likely is that the Falcons will regress to their Generic Winning Percentage. More likely is that a .460-team has won 13 of its last 16 games. More likely is that the Falcons will commence playing like such a team immediately.

Smoltz, Redux
Given his credentials and desire to continue pitching, it was pretty clear that Smoltz would receive at least one offer to finish out the season -- and he did, like three days later, from the St. Louis Cardinals.

So, how'd Smoltz perform with the Cards?

I'll tell you.

In a second.

Before I say how Smoltz pitched in St. Louis, it's essential to note that, because he threw only 38 innings with them -- i.e. roughly the same amount he threw with Boston -- it's actually not that important how Smoltz pitched with the Cardinals. It takes a long time for a pitcher's ERA to become a reliable indicator -- more than 200 innings. So even if he allowed exactly zero runs over that span, it wouldn't necessarily confirm that he (Smoltz) was "back." It would create a smaller window of Smoltz's probable "true talent," yes, but still nothing certain.

Anyway, in the end, here was his line with St. Louis: 38.0 IP, 36 H, 18 ER, 4.26 ERA. As with Boston his strikeout and walk rates (9.47 and 2.13 per nine, respectively) were above average for a starting pitcher. Also as with Boston, Smoltz conceded hits on batted balls at an inflated rate, 33%. All told, he pitched in St. Louis like a pitcher who "should" have had a 3.46 ERA. In any case, it's not surprising that he ended up much closer to the 4.19-ERA pitcher he "should" have been with Boston than the 8.33-ERA pitcher he ended up being.

Some Brief and Sweeping Conclusions
The Green Bay Packers are the 2009 John Smoltz. Or, perhaps stated more accurately, the Atlanta Falcons are the anti-John Smoltz. The Smoltz Narrative was strong enough to cloud the judgment even of smart people. The Falcons narrative is similar: they're likely a mediocre team that's gotten very lucky.