Drew Smyly Makes Tampa Bay’s Rotation Elite

I’ve often heard the word “underwhelming” used to describe to the Tampa Bay Rays‘ return in the David Price deadline trade from this past July, even months after the blockbuster deal was finalized. While it was initially understandable, I’m somewhat baffled at the continual skepticism surrounding Andrew Friedman‘s last major transaction as an executive in Tampa Bay.

Enough opinions have been written on the matter, and I’m not here to discuss that trade any further, but rather spotlight one major piece brought in by the Rays in that deal, lefty Drew Smyly, and why he’s set to breakout in the upcoming 2015 season.

After being selected by the Detroit Tigers in the second round of the 2010 Amateur Draft, Smyly rose quickly through the minor leagues. He broke into the big leagues in 2012, starting 18 games for the Tigers. In 2013, Smyly was used exclusively out of the bullpen, where he found himself, posting a 2.31 FIP and 9.59 K/9 rate over 76 innings pitched.

Dave Dombrowski felt so confident in Smyly’s abilities that he traded away Doug Fister after the 2013 season in order to clear a spot for him in the stacked Detroit rotation. Although he served as an extremely serviceable fifth starter and still showed tremendous upside, Smyly didn’t exactly dazzle in 21 appearances for Detroit last season. It wasn’t until after the trade that something finally clicked.

Smyly was arguably the best pitcher on the planet over a seven start stretch after joining the Rays. He was reminiscent of fellow lefty Clayton Kershaw with his extraordinary numbers, including a 1.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP in that period of nearly 50 innings. In comparison to the 3.93 ERA and 1.35 WHIP he put up last season in Detroit, this was a vast turnaround.

Was this radical improvement just luck or have we witnessed a transformation in this southpaw’s game? While his remarkable .186 BABIP in that span is not sustainable, there is reason to believe that Smyly can continue to develop into a dominant force, and that is due to the situation he finds himself in.

Smyly couldn’t have landed in a better spot. Tampa Bay is well known for it’s excellence in pitching development, and the new environment has clearly already had an affect on Smyly.

What Smyly needed was a complete philosophical adjustment, specifically in regards to his fastball placement. With Detroit, Smyly threw his fastball almost evenly throughout the three portions of the strike zone (down: 31.7%; middle: 34.1%; up: 34.1%). After joining the Rays, Smyly began to throw more high fastballs (52.1%) and fewer low fastballs (14.6%).

Since ground balls result in hits more often than fly balls, a consistently elevated fastball culminated in more overall success for Smyly and a higher strikeout rate. It might not seem like an exceptionally significant modification, but it was enough to elevate Smyly’s effectiveness to another level, and therefore it’s relevance should not be ignored.

Take David Price for example. Price is a fastball-heavy pitcher that lives in the strike zone. As his career progressed in Tampa Bay, he utilized his mid-90s fastball up in the zone more and more. Although a few too many of the fly balls he allowed left the yard, Price has been exceedingly efficient with this technique, and that led to his career-best 9.82 K/9 rate in just over 248 innings of work in 2014.

Price and Smyly are two very different pitchers, and a direct comparison of the two would be unfair. However, Price serves as a makeshift proof of concept in this case. Smyly, even without that type of velocity, has shown that he can work the top of the zone with his four-seam fastball, and offset that with a superb slider for maximum potency. Of course, the development of his change-up will help the cause. As Jeff Sullivan of fangraphs pointed out, it’s just the Rays’ way.

Although the Rays would have been lauded for picking up a top pitching prospect like Seattle’s Taijuan Walker in that three-team trade, Smyly offers something that no prospect can: prolonged Major League experience. This 25-year-old already has 328.1 big league innings under his belt. The rotation in Tampa Bay is already so talented, and adding Smyly to that mix makes it awfully diverse.

There’s certainly reason for excitement, and enough, apparently, to warrant ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield’s declaration that Smyly might just wind up in the Cy Young discussion if he stays the course. While I might not go that far just yet, I can absolutely see where he’s coming from. As often as I talk about the still-bright future for this franchise, I expect this hurler to be a huge part of it.

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