The Cubs have continued to make intriguing moves aimed at bolstering their bullpen and maybe, if everything works out okay, their starting rotation. The Drew Smyly signing last night fits this pattern perfectly. He’s 28, healing from Tommy John surgery with one exceptional season under his belt, one disappointing season under his belt, and some pitch data that indicates there is a lot of upside if everything goes according to plan.
Drew Smyly 2012-2016
Smyly didn’t pitch in the 2017 regular season, although he did have an outstanding start in the World Baseball Classic (more on that start in a bit). He was excellent out of the bullpen for the Tigers in 2013 and put together a solid season the next year as a starter for both the Tigers and the Rays. It’s worth noting that during that time he worked with both Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey, so he’s returning to a coaching staff that knows him quite well.
Smyly only made 12 starts in 2015 as he was dealing with a shoulder injury, and while he returned in 2016 he didn’t look nearly as strong. Beyond the Box Score did some digging and found the culprit: Smyly was giving up a lot more home runs than he used to:
This article would be simple if Smyly's ERA looked bad while his peripherals looked good. Teams today understand the randomness that goes into run scoring, and there wouldn't be much debate around Smyly's value. And to some extent, that's the case. His strikeouts are down somewhat from last year – 25.2 percent versus 28.0 percent – but 2015 represented a season high on that front, and his walks have fallen as well, leading to a K-BB percentage right in line with his career norms. Instead, the change is in the dingers; his HR/9 is sitting at 1.79, versus a career norm of 1.18. With 100 innings under Smyly's belt this year, that's not simply a fluke, but a sizable difference of nearly seven home runs.
This is a worrisome problem for a few reasons, but most importantly I’ll mention two. First, Wrigley Field is a lot more home run friendly than Tropicana Field (Wrigley sits right around league average at 1.005 vs. Tropicana which is considerably below average at .888, according to ESPN’s compiled park factors from 2017). Second, the fastball that he relies on about 55% of the time is what Brooks Baseball calls an “extreme flyball pitch” which we’ll explore more below.
So, now that you’ve seen the reason for caution and concern, let’s temper that with a bit of optimism. Prior to his struggles in 2016 there was a lot of discussion that Smyly was on pace for a breakout year, from Beyond the Box Score again:
By the end of 2014, however, writers were already talking about Smyly's demonstrated next level. In September of that year, FoxSports' Andrew Astleford said he could become "the diamond in the rough" of the David Price trade, and that it was time to view him in "a different light" than at the time of the trade. Ken Rosenthal reported that the Rays had pushed Smyly to elevate his fastball more often, and Jeff Sullivan noted that change in approach had coincided with his K-BB% doubling. BtBS's own Ryan Romano said Smyly's continued improvement thhrough 2015 presaged a dominant 2016. For a pitcher who was never a blue-chip prospect, and who was once relegated to the bullpen as a quasi-LOOGY, this was an impressive rise.
According to Brooks Baseball, Smyly is basically a three-pitch guy (a fourseam that tends to be up in the zone, a curve ball and a cutter) that mixes in a change up about 5% of the time. That makeup has stayed remarkably consistent over the years.
Well, I should say, that makeup stayed remarkably consistent between 2012 and 2016, because Fangraphs noticed something interesting about Smyly’s stuff in the World Baseball Classic last year that is certainly worth taking a minute to look at more closely.
In the early parts of 2017, before being sidelined by injury, Smyly pulled off a rare trick: his velocity increased pretty significantly. It’s worth checking out the whole article (if for no other reason than my quotes are missing the wicked cool video clips), but this stands out to me:
Smyly’s fastball has been in the news before, because it’s a pitch the Rays attempted to weaponize. Because of Smyly’s over-the-top delivery, his fastball barely has any drop, and the Rays recommended that he use it for whiffs around the top of the zone. The pitch has been successful up there, yet that success has mostly been a function of the pitch’s movement. Smyly has never been known for his arm strength, and his average fastball last season clocked in at 90.2 miles per hour. He’s at 90.5 over his career.
Behold Smyly’s final pitch Wednesday, to strike out Carlos Gonzalez in the top of the fifth:
The reading there might be too pixelated to see, but according to Gameday, Smyly threw that fastball at 94.4. It followed a fastball at 94.2. Smyly, as a starting pitcher, hasn’t had a pitch recorded that fast since he was a rookie in 2012.
The article continues with a lot of examples, but the bottom line can be seen plainly in one chart:
This chart comes with a massive small sample size caveat. And a “hey Sara, it was the World Baseball Classic, he was on a stringent pitch count” caveat. And a “hey, Sara, he did that right before he missed a whole season and needed Tommy John” caveat. And probably some other caveats I haven’t thought of yet. But even with all the caveats, it’s intriguing and definitely something to look out for when he joins the Cubs, likely in a bullpen role, later this year.
I feel like I keep writing slightly different versions of the same conclusion for all of these pitchers. The Cubs have signed a really intriguing guy for not very much money who has a legitimate shot to be in impact arm for the team. If all Smyly does for the Cubs in the one and a half seasons they anticipate having him active for is act as a long man out of the pen a la Mike Montgomery, it will be $10 million well spent. If he hits his upside the Cubs have at least a fourth or fifth starter caliber pitcher on the roster for 2019.
I have to say, though, the health of pitchers is one of the most unpredictable elements of baseball, and I really love seeing the front office contingency plan around that reality this offseason.