Drew Smyly Cashes In

On Monday morning, the Atlanta Braves made their first major move of the offseason, signing left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly to a one-year contract worth $11 million. It’s a nice little payday for Smyly, who has a long and ugly injury history and posted an ERA and FIP over six as recently as 2019. Ranked 25th among Craig Edwards’s Top 50 Free Agents, Smyly was estimated to command an AAV of $8.5 million by Edwards and just $5.0 million by the crowd. Those low salary estimates are likely directly tied to Smyly’s spotty history. But the reason why he was able to command such a surprisingly high salary boils down to one chart:

In 2020, Smyly was able to add 2.6 mph to each of his pitches in his arsenal, pushing his average fastball up to 93.8 mph. That added velocity helped him post the highest strikeout rate of his career paired with the lowest FIP of his career, though it came in just 26.1 innings.

Despite the tiny sample, it was a promising bounce-back season after spending most of 2019 simply trying to regain his feel for pitching. After a promising start to his career with the Tigers and Rays, Smyly was traded to the Mariners prior to the 2017 season. He made three spring starts for the Mariners, left to participate in the World Baseball Classic on Team USA, and didn’t pitch again until the very end of the 2018 season. A strained forearm suffered while competing internationally wound up requiring Tommy John surgery, but because that procedure was put off for so long in 2017, he didn’t get back up on the mound until 18 months after the initial injury.

His struggles in 2019 can be partially explained away by his long lay off. He started off the year with the Rangers and really struggled with his command. That’s usually the last thing to come back after pitchers undergo Tommy John surgery, so it should be no huge surprise that Smyly saw his walk rate jump up to 13.5% in Texas. He was designated for assignment in late June, latched on with the Brewers for a couple of minor league starts, was released again, and finally found a home with the Phillies for the rest of the season. He looked a lot better with Philadelphia, getting his command under control and raising his strikeout rate a bit. He ended up posting a decent 4.45 ERA and 4.79 FIP in 62.2 innings with the club.

Smyly signed a one-year contract with the Giants in January of this year and proceeded to have his best season in years. He chalks up his aforementioned increase in velocity to being completely healthy. It even took him by surprise a bit. Here’s how he described his status in a postgame media session on September 16:

“I feel really strong right now. I don’t really ever remember throwing 95, 96. I feel excited to pitch, I feel healthy. And it’s a fun time for me right now, just for my body and mind just to be fully healthy and helping this team try to win.”

Smyly’s 2020 season wasn’t completely healthy. He spent about a month on the injured list with a strained finger in his throwing hand. Prior to that, he had pitched once out of the bullpen and had made just two abbreviated starts. Once he returned in September, he made four starts for the Giants down the stretch. He worked past the fifth inning in just one of those — his final start of the season — and didn’t throw more than 90 pitches in a single outing until his penultimate start of the season. It’s certainly possible those shortened outings helped him pad his maximum velocity. But even in his longest outings of the year, he was maintaining his velocity throughout until he hit his pitch count.

Beyond the added oomph behind his pitches, Smyly also refined his pitch mix in San Francisco.

He cut out his rarely used changeup and increased the usage of his curveball to a career high. His curveball is already a fascinating pitch. His over-the-top throwing motion combined with some unique spin makes it appear to fade away from right-handed batters — almost like a screwball. Here’s how he described the pitch in his introductory media session yesterday:

“They all kind of tell me the same thing — that it’s just really hard to pick up and they don’t really recognize it. I think that a traditional curveball kind of breaks inward towards the righties, but mine kind of stays floating away. It’s hard for them to pull the trigger on it.”

It’s been an inconsistent pitch for him in the past, but when he has a good feel for it, it can be a deadly weapon. With some added velocity, his curveball became his best pitch in 2020. Batters missed half the time they swung at it, the fifth-highest whiff rate for a curveball thrown at least 100 times in 2020. The only two home runs he allowed this year were hit off his curveball, but despite those two blips, he produced a .205 xwOBA and a .446 xwOBA on contact with the pitch.

The Braves definitely recognize the quality of Smyly’s curveball — GM Alex Anthopoulos said as much in that same introductory media session. The risk, of course, is that his velocity gains may just be a product of shorter outings. Or that his checkered health history could lead to an array of issues that sap his velocity back down to where it was before. Still, the upside is intriguing enough to give him an impressive one-year deal. Smyly should add some experience alongside Max Fried, Mike Soroka, and the rest of the young Atlanta rotation. It’s a high-risk, high-reward move, but the Braves feel like Smyly proved himself enough in his brief time in San Francisco.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Jewish Pache
Jewish Pache

Love Smyly’s profile and shooting for upside on a 1 year deal, even if it’s a few more million than expected. Smyly was 9th in FIP, 9th in xFIP, and 8th in K rate amongst pitchers with at least 20 innings in 2020. If that’s even semi-legit and the Braves can get more than 100 innings out of him, the contract is easily worth it.

That said, my outlook on this signing is entirely dependent on the path forward the Braves take from here. If this was their biggest move or close to it, I’ll be pretty annoyed. But if this was just an auxiliary effort to add 100-150 quality innings while still giving room for some pitching prospects to make starts here and there, and they actually upgrade the lineup through 1 big trade or signing or a few more smaller more astute moves, I’ll be pretty satisfied.