The last time I saw Drew Smyly, it was during one of the lowest points of his career. It was July and he’d just completed a stretch of 20.2 innings over which he’d allowed 21 earned runs. He’d been assured that his job was secure, for the moment, but when a local beat writer asked him how it felt, the pitcher had a hard time looking up, doing his best to provide an honest answer before moving on to the next question — any other question, please. I obliged, and asked him about the home runs, pointing out that his strikeouts and walks were fine. Up came the eyes, and on was the conversation.
Back then, the focus for me was organization-wide: the Rays got hit harder by the home run bug last year than most teams, perhaps because they threw more high fastballs than any other team in the league. And yeah, Smyly, because of the unique nature of his stuff, will always throw high in the zone, and will always give up a few more homers than most.
But we did talk about Smyly’s particular issues last year, and what he was planning on doing about it. And it looks like he capitalized on that conversation somewhat, because things changed a bit from that day forward. The real question, though, is did it change enough?
In sum, the pitcher was focusing on consistency. “One game, I’ll leave a couple pitches up,” he said in July. “The next game, I’ll be behind a hitter or two. The next, I’ll pitch really good and just give up one big hit.” Tough to really test that assertion, but he later uncovered some aspects we can use as guideposts. In what follows, I’ve isolated three of Smyly’s comments from that day and examined whether they influenced his approach and/or outcomes over the remainder of the season.
“I’m around the zone, [but] it’s a matter of an inch, maybe not even that, whether the high fastball is a pop up on the infield or a home run.”
He’s talking about fastball command here, and of course, so much flows from fastball command. Check out the slugging heat map for all lefties against a lefty’s fastball, and then remember that Joey Votto told us that the pop up is born “up and in-ish,” and you’ll see that Smyly is right.
So we’re watching that up-and-in area in Smyly’s heat map, north and south, because that’s where the pop up meets the home run. We know that, this season, lefties doubled their homer rate against Smyly, while righties only slightly increased that rate. Let’s look at his fastball heat map against lefties before and after our late July conversation.
That’s… remarkable. He was absolutely throwing it into the lefty wheelhouse before that day, and then he pushed it out over the plate and avoided that spot where balls go to die. A small move on the rubber in the very next start after our conversation may have helped him find his location, but it also looks like a philosophy change.
He didn’t solve his homer problems against lefties immediately, but he did manage to give up just a .267 wOBA against them after July 26th, compared to .325 before that date.
“I need to be more unpredictable and mix my speeds more. I just need to get ahead better and keep them guessing.”
Smyly had a first-pitch strike rate of 58.9% before July 26th, decidedly below the league’s 60.3% average. Afterwards? That dropped to 57.5%. That second number would have been the 62nd worst out of 73 qualified pitchers if he’d done it all year. Mission unaccomplished on that front.
Mix speeds? Smyly stopped throwing the changeup almost entirely after our conversation. He threw literally three more over the rest of the season. He also went from throwing the fastball more than two-thirds of the time when the batter was ahead to over three-quarters of the time in the final stretch.
“My curveball has been really inconsistent this year. Years past, I’ve thrown it for called strikes.”
Here’s the biggest improvement for Smyly, who has one of the weirdest pitch groupings in baseball. Check how weird:
- PITCHf/x doesn’t call his curve a curve. That happens. But it’s still true.
- Smyly doesn’t throw a single pitch that feature cut-type movement. All of his pitches have arm-side fade, or away from righties and into lefties.
- Maybe a sinker/changeup lefty would have that sort of movement: Smyly doesn’t throw a sinker and stopped throwing his changeup this year.
- Smyly’s breaking stuff moves towards the lefty and away from the righty.
- There are 11 breaking pitches in baseball with more than two inches of fade. Smyly’s has nearly five inches of fade.
- The only pitcher who has thrown any breaking pitch 100 times and had more “fade” than Smyly is Jake McGee with his weird slider.
You want to see his curve again, don’t you? I do, too. Let’s look at one from last year.
You think it looks like a straight curve, but then you hear the announcer praise the changeup and you wonder what’s happening.
Smyly knows the stuff is weird, but doesn’t know why. “Steve Pearce, I faced him quite a bit in Baltimore, and when he came here he said when he faced me, every pitch I threw, he had to ask ‘what pitch was that,'” laughed the lefty in July. Ditching the change for the curve wasn’t such a big deal to Smyly: “I’ve had a lot of hitters, even our hitters, they all think my curveball is a changeup. Because it doesn’t break in down. It just sorts of fades down, and the spin is different.”
Anyway, back to the point. Smyly’s curve was inconsistent, and you can see it in the horizontal movement. Watch the movement on his curve over the course of the year, according to Brooks Baseball, which does a better job separating his pitches.
The stated goal was more consistency, but you can see that his curve was a little weird early on in terms of horizontal movement — weirder than usual — and that it returned closer to zero, where it’s lived in the past. That return occurred in late July. Although he didn’t quite get his velocity all the way back, the pitch was better.
Thanks to some simple queues, the curve went from this example below — which looks a lot like a changeup — to one much more like the one you see above. “Stay back, stay towards the rubber, it’s easy for me to open up,” he said of the things on which he was working. “Staying towards the plate, finishing out there and not pulling off. It’s all Little League stuff, nothing new.”
As the curve returned closer to zero, it returned closer to the horizontal values that the cutter has shown. And the fastball. But Smyly isn’t about horizontal movement. “I try to be more north/south,” he said. “I want everything to go down and up.”
Everything was more down and up after he got the curveball back together in late July, but it wasn’t all butterflies and butt slaps after that. Smyly finished strong, but with a 3.98 ERA paired with 11 home runs in 11 starts. He didn’t figure it all out.
The truth is probably that the pitcher never really had his curveball back last year. At least he identified that it was off, though. Maybe lefties will have a harder time hitting homers off him next year, and maybe he was a bit unlucky. “My ERA is shitty and my record is shitty, but I feel like I’m pitching better,” he said back then. There’s some evidence of that, especially with the fastball location, but watch that weird curveball in the spring if you’re wondering how Smyly will do in 2017 in Seattle. At least you’ll get to see some unique movement while you’re doing it.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.