Back when the Rays finally got around to trading David Price, they took an awful lot of heat for the return. It’s not that the package was bad — it was that it appeared insufficient, to many observers. The argument in support of the Rays focused on the idea of surplus value. Willy Adames looked like a promising low-level prospect. Nick Franklin seemed useful, and Drew Smyly was a league-average starter. You can get plenty of value from a league-average starter in his team-control years. It wasn’t sexy, and it was hardly a blockbuster of the type that people imagined, but the Rays were going to be okay. The return was a little dull, but fair.
If you want to spin things in a negative way, you could observe that Franklin has more or less busted. Adames is still talented and still young, but he’s just getting accustomed to Double-A. And Smyly missed months with a labrum problem, while Price signed a massive free-agent contract he earned with his performance. There’s another way to spin things. Since that deadline deal a couple summers ago, Price has posted a 3.23 ERA, with 26% strikeouts. Smyly, meanwhile, has posted a 2.52 ERA, with 28% strikeouts.
No, Smyly hasn’t yet been durable. But Drew Smyly has whiffed more hitters, rate-wise, than the ace for whom he was traded. I don’t think even the Rays expected Smyly to develop into a strikeout machine.
Smyly is coming off an outstanding performance in New York. Before that, he struck out 11 batters in Boston, and before that, he struck out 11 Indians in Tampa Bay. Naturally, there was plenty of concern last year when Smyly needed an extended trip on the disabled list for shoulder issues, but he avoided surgery and, if anything, he looks better now than he did before. We can’t dismiss the possibility that Smyly will experience discomfort again, so, that’s the red flag. Otherwise, all the flags are…green? All the flags are good. All the flags are the color of good.
I don’t have an easy way to split league statistics at the 2014 trade deadline. I do have an easy way to split statistics at the beginning of 2015, so let’s just do that. Since then, Smyly has started 16 games. I know that’s not a lot, but I also know it’s not a little. Since the start of 2015, 197 starting pitchers have thrown at least 50 innings. Smyly ranks 15th in adjusted ERA, two points ahead of Chris Sale. He ranks ninth in strikeout rate, between Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard. He ranks ninth in K-BB%, now between Madison Bumgarner and Jacob deGrom. And Smyly ranks 15th in contact rate, between Bumgarner and Corey Kluber. While the sample for Smyly is effectively just a half-season, these can’t be total flukes. And Smyly showed much of the same ability down the stretch in 2014. Almost instantly, Smyly left the Tigers for the Rays, and he was made better.
Let’s look at that. What’s going on? With the Tigers in 2014, Smyly surpassed 100 innings. Not a small sample. He’s also surpassed that number with the Rays. Here’s a comparative table:
Smyly hasn’t gained four miles per hour or anything. He’s throwing basically the same repertoire. There’s important information in here. We can easily tell that Smyly’s strikeouts have gone up. Interestingly, he isn’t getting into any more two-strike counts. Not even a little bit! Nearly three of five plate appearances get to two strikes. The huge difference is in the last column. With Detroit, Smyly got strikeouts about a third of the time he had two strikes. With Tampa Bay, he’s up at almost half. That’s everything.
The deal is this: Shortly after the trade, Ken Rosenthal wrote a notes column, in which he talked about how the Rays wanted Smyly to use more high fastballs. They didn’t want to change his repertoire so much as they wanted to change how he used it. Smyly throws a four-seamer with atypical rise, and those pitches get whiffs when they’re elevated. Now, Smyly’s fastball wouldn’t be considered overpowering. With the Tigers, he didn’t go to it too much as a putaway pitch. Before the deadline in 2014, 38% of Smyly’s two-strike pitches were fastballs. Since the deadline, that’s gone up to 49%. And, before the deadline, 9% of those two-strike fastballs got strikeouts. Since the deadline, that’s up to 24%. About a quarter of the time Smyly has thrown a two-strike fastball as a Ray, he’s gotten a strikeout. It’s usually not this easy to break down a player’s improvement. With Smyly, it’s so simple. It’s this simple.
Plots! Baseball Savant! Two-strike fastballs! Here’s where Smyly threw those pitches before the 2014 deadline:
Some elevated, some not, many right down the middle. That doesn’t seem like a great strategy. Here’s the same thing, showing Smyly with the Rays:
I know that the dimensions of the imaged strike zone change for some reason. I don’t know what that’s about, but the images aren’t lying. Smyly didn’t make a habit of throwing high fastballs with the Tigers. With the Rays, this has become a putaway weapon. Smyly’s average two-strike fastball since being traded is higher by about seven inches. He’s moved the pitch out of the zone, making it more difficult to hit, and making it more difficult to protect against the other pitches as well. The whole Drew Smyly package gets to benefit from this, but it’s mostly about the heater. The Tigers saw Smyly’s fastball as a pitch he could control to get ahead. The Rays see Smyly’s fastball as a pitch he can use to both begin at-bats and end them. I don’t want to go so far as to claim the Rays are obvious geniuses, since I’m sure they didn’t expect all this, but the Rays saw something they liked in a 90 mile-per-hour heater. That’s not usually a weapon of choice to get strike three, but Smyly’s not the usual pitcher. He has the same fastball as ever, but now he knows a better way to use it.
Drew Smyly might never feel like a strikeout machine. It’s not how he was billed before, and he doesn’t look like he should be dominant. And, you know, if the shoulder starts barking again, so be it. That’s one of the downsides of doing what Smyly does. For now, though, we can see what the Rays have built. They can have their performance concerns about Chris Archer. They shouldn’t have any about Drew Smyly. It’s the damnedest thing.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.