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Projecting John Smoltz

Signing a three-year extension with the Braves four days ago, it appears John Smoltz will finish his career in Atlanta.  

The details of the deal are a bit complicated:

2008:  Guaranteed $14M.

2009:  Guaranteed $12M if Smoltz pitches at least 200 innings in previous season.

2010:  Club Option; $13M if Smoltz pitches at least 200 innings in previous season, $12M if he falls short of that total.

Smoltz today is one of baseball's most productive starters and will surely be a first ballot Hall of Famer when his time comes, but is it safe signing a pitcher of his age to such a deal?

Smoltz will turn 40 years old in May; rarely do you see players of his age sign such lengthy extensions.

Is this a good move, and what can we expect from Smoltz in the future?

For that answer, I will turn to his PECOTA forecast.

What's He's Done

It would take me forever to go over the Cooperstown-bound career of Smoltz, so we'll take a look at his three-year numbers:

Smoltz was penalized a bit on the VORP and WARP front a bit in 2005 because he was still closing for Atlanta and wasn't getting sufficient playing time.  He was effective however, as evident of his 7.0 WXRL mark which was fifth best among major league relief pitchers.

Smoltz returned to the rotation for the next season and began starting for the first time since 1999. It looks like he may have lost his strikeout pitch a bit that season, his K/9 mark of 6.62 was the lowest single season figure he had posted since 1990, but he was still awesome.  He outperformed his peripherals a little, but he was very effective in his return to the rotation and there was no reason to believe he couldn't succeed in starting games the following year.

His ERA was more aligned with his peripherals in 2006, but he was still very productive.  His WARP of 8.8 that season was the highest figure he had posted since 1996 and more importantly, he didn't show any signs of old age.  If anything Smoltz did the opposite:  He upped his K/9 rate up to 8.19 and started two more games that season compared to the previous year.

That leads us to today, where Smoltz is already off to a solid start in 2007:  Five of his six starts have been quality starts.

The Projection

Here is a look at PECOTA's 5-year Valuation for Smoltz:

The first thing that grabs my attention is the expected workload decrease following his age 41 season.  Even for a pitcher of Smoltz' caliber, you aren't going to find many 42 year old starters pitching 200+ innings.  

The other aspect of the projection that grabs my attention is the expected reduction in Smoltz K/9 rate.  Last season Smoltz struck out 8.19 hitters per nine innings, this season PECOTA expects a K/9 mark around 7.12.

This is still a pretty sweet 5-year projection for a soon to be 40-year old pitcher.  For a pitcher of Smoltz' age, regression is almost always expected.  Given his 3-year projection, you have to like what the Braves can get for their money.

The List of Similar Players

I know I've mentioned this before, but my favorite feature of the PECOTA system outside of their accurate projections is the similarity index for each player.

Given the fact Smoltz is a sure fire Hall of Famer many of the players Smoltz compares to are either currently enshrined in Cooperstown or will likely be elected into the Hall.  Let's take a look:

Gaylord Perry:

Perry had a very solid age 40 season, but didn't pitch 200 innings again until his age 43 season. Retired after his age 44 season and was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

Roger Clemens:

The age-less wonder.  Clemens has been extremely productive during his age 40 through 43 seasons; and he might not be done yet.  Clemens is yet to sign with a team for the 2007 season, but should be very productive if he returns to the majors.  Arguably the best pitcher to ever wear a baseball uniform, Clemens is a first ballot Hall of Famer.

Steve Carlton:

Carlton pitched 229.0 innings in his age 39 season, but didn't pitch 200 innings in a season again in his major league career. Carlton saw five different teams during his age 40 through 43 seasons, before retiring in 1988. Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.

Kevin Brown:

Brown was simply awesome during his age 38 season, but fell apart during his age 39 and 40 seasons.  Brown was out of the major leagues following that age 40 season.

Don Sutton:

Sutton had very productive age 41 and 42 seasons, but was out of the majors following his age 43 season.  Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.

Dennis Martinez:

Martinez pitched 224.2 innings during his age 38 season and was very productive doing so, but saw workload decreases onward retiring after his age 43 season.  

Tom Seaver:

Seaver's last very productive year came in his age 40 season with the White Sox.  He was out of the major leagues however following his age 41 season.  He attempted a comeback during his age 42 season with the Mets, but was unsuccessful.  Elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.

Other notable names found in Smoltz' similarity index include Warren Spahn, Orel Hershiser, Joe and Phil Niekro and Fergie Jenkins.

The isn't really a clear pattern here.  Many of the pitchers that compare to Smoltz are Hall of Fame or soon to be Hall of Fame pitchers that established themselves as one of baseball's premier performers at one point during their respective major league careers.  In terms of aging however, many of these pitchers differed.  Pitchers such as Clemens and Spahn remained productive in their age 40 seasons and onward, whereas pitchers like Brown and Hershiser didn't remain productive past their age 40 seasons.

Smoltz is a very difficult guy to project, but given his durability over the past two seasons, I'm confident in saying he'll end up aging more along the lines of a Clemens or Spahn.  My best guess is that Smoltz completes his new three-year deal with the Braves.

Final Thoughts

I have to say that I love this deal from the Braves' perspective.  PECOTA's MORP system values Smoltz' projected 3-year performance at $33,075,000 which is a bit lower than the $39M Smoltz' can make during the extension meaning the Braves may have overpaid a bit.  But I'll give Atlanta the benefit of the doubt here.  I personally believe Smoltz' will be a pretty darn good pitcher over the next three seasons and it's only fitting that he will likely end his career where it all began:  In Atlanta.