It’s hard to avoid a sense of déjà vu writing this piece because I’ve written it before — I also did this five years ago, the first time the Cubs signed Drew Smyly to a two-year deal when he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Cubs took a second flyer on Smyly in March 2022 after he’d bounced around a bit between the Rangers, Giants and the Braves (where he won a World Series Championship in 2021).
Smyly declined a mutual $10 million option with the Cubs for 2023 and used the leverage from a solid 2022 to negotiate a two-year, $19 million contract with a mutual option for his age 36 season. Smyly basically took more guaranteed years, at a slightly lower AAV for each of those years, to return to the North Side of Chicago. Let’s take a look at the numbers behind the deal to see if we can identify why.
It’s pretty easy to see why the Cubs brought Smyly back after his 2022 campaign. Despite injuries limiting him to 106⅓ innings, those innings were effective. He was worth 1.3 fWAR, good for fourth most among Cubs starters in 2022. Here are all of the Cubs starters who threw at least 10 innings in 2022 ranked by fWAR:
Cubs 2022 Starters by fWAR
|Mark Leiter Jr.||4||14.1||6.91||4.40||3.14||.250||64.7%||40.0%||29.4%||8.16||8.00||5.22||-0.4|
Drew Smyly posted a 3.47 ERA in 2022, which outperformed his 4.23 FIP considerably. He accomplished that with a .275 BABIP, which was quite a bit lower than his career norm of .290. Combined, those stats indicate to me that Smyly is due for some regression closer to his FIP, particularly with new rules that will limit infield shifts, however, improved defense behind him could mitigate that risk somewhat.
I ran numbers for all starting pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2022 to get an idea of where Smyly stands relative to the rest of the league. The bad news first: almost nothing jumps out here. The most impressive stat was Smyly’s 2.2 walks per nine innings. That was good for 36th in MLB last season among starters with at least 100 innings pitched, right between Michael Wacha and Gerrit Cole.
His 1.3 fWAR puts him in a functional tie for the 90th most valuable starter in baseball with Graham Ashcraft, José Urquidy, and Jake Odorizzi. His 7.70 strikeouts per nine innings ranked 80th, just ahead of his new teammate, Jameson Taillon.
That probably doesn’t sound all that impressive. I’m keenly aware that I usually use this space to highlight at least one thing a player does that stands out relative to the rest of the league. But Smyly doesn’t need to be in the top tier of starting pitchers to be a useful starter for the Cubs in 2023 and all of the above is perfectly functional for a back of the rotation starter.
Cubs fans might be tempted to try and project Smyly’s numbers out to a full season’s work, but that would be a mistake because he hasn’t thrown more than 150 innings since 2016. Steamer currently projects Smyly for 123 innings, which would be the second most innings he’s thrown since 2019. He’s dealt with a litany of injuries through his career as FanGraphs’ Michael Baumann highlighted humorously in this write-up:
(Interior doctor’s office, day. The walls are stark white, our hero’s skin looks pale to the point of sickliness by the harsh fluorescent lights. He sits on the examination table, balanced carefully to mitigate the various chronic aches that have ailed him for so long. The DOCTOR, a studious, bespectacled figure, is perched on a stool across from him. The DOCTOR exhales as he regards a clipboard through thick black-rimmed glasses.)
DOCTOR: Let’s see here. 2011: Elbow soreness. 2012: Left middle finger, strained ribcage. 2015: Left shoulder inflammation, torn left labrum. 2017 and 2018: Torn left UCL, Tommy John surgery. 2019: Nerve tightness in left arm. 2020: Strained left index finger. 2021: Left forearm inflammation. 2022: Strained right oblique muscle…
SMYLY (grinning ironically): One more surgery and I get a free large pizza and a two-liter Coke.
(The DOCTOR does not smile.)
DOCTOR: That’s a lot of physical punishment. Isn’t there anything else you could do for a living? Something less dangerous?
SMYLY: I love it too much, Doc. I can’t give it up.
I imagine the Cubs are hoping they get something like the 106⅓ innings they got in 2022 because they have enough young starting pitching depth to cover the additional innings with some combination of Hayden Wesneski, Keegan Thompson, Adrian Sampson, Javier Assad, et al. when Smyly inevitably needs some time on the Injured List.
There are some notable pitch mix changes for Smyly over the last few seasons. Specifically, he’s throwing his curveball more as you can see below:
Smyly threw his curveball 42.9 percent of the time in 2022. Like many parts of Smyly’s repertoire the curve isn’t among the best in baseball, but it’s good enough to fool baseball’s best hitters. Take a look at this sword from Juan Soto on a particularly nasty curve ball in 2021:
Drew Smyly, Nasty 81mph Curveball...and Sword. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/dGNcL9tayj— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 6, 2021
I’ve honestly struggled a bit with this piece because there just isn’t a lot to highlight with this signing. However, while there may not be a lot to shout about from the rooftops with two more years of Drew Smyly, every free agent signing doesn’t need to be sexy. This is a reasonable contract for an average arm who should give the Cubs some depth in case any of their younger pitchers struggle. Smyly is a perfectly serviceable fourth or fifth starter for a team that has a lot of them, and his reliance on his curveball gives him a different look than some of the other pitchers in the starting rotation.