In part two of this series I’m going to be looking at Rays pitcher Drew Smyly. Since coming to Tampa Bay in 2014 as a piece of the three-team David Price swap with Detroit and Seattle, he has yet to put together a full season. He was a revelation in his first season with Tampa, holding his opponents to a .150 AVG over seven starts, but was shut down by Joe Maddon after just 150 innings. Expectations were high heading into 2015 but he was derailed by shoulder injuries and only pitched 66 innings.
Smyly has always had hype and potential, but he’s an interesting case because we’re only just getting the full picture of his abilities in his fifth Major League season. So what better time than now to dig into his peripherals and see if his impressive 10.64 K/9 is sustainable.
- ERA: 2.60
- FIP: 3.17
- xFIP: 3.20
The main driver of Smyly’s success thus far has been his leap in the strikeout department and his limiting of walks. His K-BB% has jumped from 20.7% to 27.3% and he’s reached double digit strikeouts in two of his five starts so far. Strikeouts and walks are the most influential statistical components on fielding independent statistics, so let’s dive into that first.
- Z-Contact% — Number of pitches on which contact was made on pitches inside the zone / Swings on pitches inside the zone.
Smyly has shaved almost 7% off his Z-Contact% thus far, lowering his mark from 86.8% to 80.1%. The top five names on the 2015 Z-Contact% leaderboard were, in order, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, David Price, and Francisco Liriano. Avoiding contact in the zone is one of the most important skills for high-strikeout pitchers, and Smyly is developing that skill nicely.
- SwStr% — Swings and misses / Total pitches
While his fastball velocity is pedestrian, Smyly’s arsenal has always generated sings and misses. This season, he’s bumped his SwStr by 2% so far, and his current 13.4% mark is elite, ranking between Corey Kluber and Masahiro Tanaka.
- xK% — -0.61 + (L/Str * 1.1538) + (S/Str * 1.4696) + (F/Str * 0.9417)
This expectancy stat was concocted by Fangraph’s whiz Mike Podhorzer in 2013 and quite frankly doesn’t get the love it should given that a regression of xK% against K% produced an R-squard of 0.892! The regression equation takes into account three things that a pitcher can do to get strikes—his Looking Strike Rate (L/Str), his Swinging Strike Rate (S/Str), and his Foul Strike Rate (F/Str)—and assigns each a linear weight. xK%’s strength is that it gets to the core of a pitcher’s underlying strikeout skills, but its weakness is that it ignores pitch sequencing.
Smyly’s xK% is 28.9% through the first 34.2 IP of 2016. It’s a bit lower than his 32% strikeout rate, but in no way is he outperforming his expected peripherals by a crazy margin, which is encouraging. For context (and interest, because who doesn’t love Thor), Noah Syndergaard‘s league-leading K% is 36.2 but his xK% is 27.5, which is a tick lower than Smyly’s.
Even as a reliever with the Tigers, Smyly’s arsenal always featured a wide variety of pitches. It’s still diverse, but 2016 Smyly is finding success by narrowing down his offerings.
The most striking thing from his pitch usage evolution is the complete disappearance of his two-seam fastball in favour of the four-seamer. The second thing of note is that he has been relying more on his changeup and cutter and less on his slider.
According to PITCHf/x’s pitch values, which rank pitches relative to the average pitch of the same variety (sort of like WAR but for specific pitches), it’s the fastball, cutter, and slider that are doing the damage for Smyly. The cutter and slider are particularly encouraging given that both pitches graded out as below average last year. That might have been related to lingering issues from his torn labrum recovery, and it might have something to do with how he’s now playing those pitches off his changeup more often.
A note on the slider: PITCHf/x classifies it as such but Baseball Info Solutions calls it a curveball. That may have something to do with the fact that it averages 77 MPH and gets a ton of horizontal and vertical break. Here’s a GIF for you to make up your own mind. I’ll call it a slurve because when else do you get to use a word like that!
As with Estrada, Smyly will have to live and die by his fastball command. When you lack heat, you can’t afford to making location mistakes because those will end up in the seats. His 52% FB rate and 11.6% HR/FB rate points to a little home run luck, but the strikeout peripherals and his revamped mix of pitches are encouraging. I could see him outproducing fellow rotation mates Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer on the season in terms of WAR.