Drew Smyly: Old School Relief Ace

The Tigers bullpen has been a running punchline for a while now, and if you were to identify a flaw on their team — besides corner infield defense, anyway — you’d point out their shaky ninth inning options when being asked to hold a lead. Bruce Rondon showed he wasn’t ready for the gig, then Jose Valverde tried and failed once more, so now it’s Joaquin Benoit’s chance to hold down the closer role.

However, the modern singular focus on the closer as representative of a team’s bullpen strength can be misleading, and Detroit is a prime example of why the guy getting the save doesn’t have to be your best relief pitcher. The Tigers might not have a closer, but in Drew Smyly, they have something even better: an old school relief ace.

Smyly has appeared in 26 games this year, which isn’t a remarkable number. In fact, 26 appearances ties him with Cesar Ramos and Kyle Farnsworth for the 124th highest total on the season. However, Smyly has pitched multiple innings in 17 of those 26 appearances, tying him for the fifth most multi-inning appearances among MLB relievers this year, and of the relievers ahead of him, only one — Pittsburgh’s Justin Wilson — is regularly asked to hold leads. Jim Leyland is deploying Smyly in the role that relievers used to play 30 years ago, and it’s working really well.

Here’s Smyly’s last three outings, as an example of how he’s being used:

June 17th, vs Baltimore: Enters to begin 7th inning with a 5-1 lead, Smyly retired nine straight batters to finish the game.

June 20th, vs Boston: Enters with two on/no out in 8th inning, team trailing 3-2, strands both runners, pitches two scoreless innings, Tigers win 4-3 on ninth inning walkoff.

June 23rd, vs Boston: Enters to begin 6th inning, team trailing 4-3, throws 2 2/3 scoreless innings, Tigers win 7-4 after taking lead in eighth inning.

Because of the messed up Hold/Save statistics that do less to inform understanding about a player performance than just about any other statistics in any other sport, Smyly’s performances in these three games are barely noticed. He got a Save for holding the 5-1 lead against Baltimore, but only because he pitched the final three innings, and that was the least useful outing of the three. Because he entered with the team trailing in both of his two outings by Detroit, he doesn’t get credit for a Hold, even though his performance was critical in keeping the gap at one run so that the team could mount a late inning comeback.

Smyly, though, got credited with a Shutdown for all three outings here on FanGraphs, bringing Smyly’s total for the season to 10 shutdowns against just two meltdowns. Those 10 shutdowns rank second on the Tigers — Benoit has 13 — and are all the more impressive because of the quantity of batters Smyly is facing in getting those shutdwons.

10 times this year, Smyly has entered a game in the 6th inning or later and faced at least eight batters in that appearance, and the Tigers are 8-2 in those 10 games. Because they don’t have a lot of bullpen depth outside of Benoit, the safest way for Leyland to preserve middle inning leads has been to ask Smyly to bridge the gap between the starter exiting and the ninth inning, and Smyly has been excellent in that role.

His numbers speak for themselves. He’s racked up 46 strikeouts against just 12 walks in 46 innings, and he’s allowed just one home run all year, so his FIP comes out to 2.19. Given that he was similary excellent as a starting pitcher last year, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Smyly has performed well in relief. He’s probably somewhat wasted in that role, and there’s no question that other teams will be asking for him in nearly every trade conversation Dave Dombrowski has over the next month.

However, the Tigers should rebuff those advances. While Smyly should get another crack at the starting rotation at some point in the future, he’s turned himself into a highly valuable member of a bullpen that can’t afford to lose him. In his last three outings over the last week, Smyly has racked up 0.41 WPA, the eighth highest total of any reliever in baseball during that stretch. In this role as a multi-inning bridge, Smyly is a highly valuable weapon.

While I’m sure some will raise concern about Smyly’s “heavy” usage, we should remember that this is how relievers were used for the better part of baseball history. This year, only 27.3% of all relief outings have been multi-inning appearances, but 30 years ago, that number was 59.9%. In 1983, Dan Quisenberry finished second in the Cy Young voting by racking up 45 saves and posting a 1.94 ERA, but he threw 139 innings and had 51 multiple inning appearances that year. That was part of a four year run where “The Quiz” threw between 129 and 139 innings each season and finished in the top four in Cy Young voting all four years.

The game was different back then, sure. The Tigers probably shouldn’t ask Smyly to throw 130 innings in relief. But what’s wrong with 100? He threw 99 in the big leagues last year after throwing 18 in the minors, and he threw 125 in the minors in 2011, so it’s not like his arm can’t handle throwing that many pitches in a year. Bullpen innings probably aren’t the same as starting innings, due to the higher stress and effort exerted on each pitch, but Leyland has done a good job of giving Smyly days off, as he’s only pitched in back-to-back games twice all year.

The Tigers could use another quality reliever as they march towards October, but they shouldn’t give up Drew Smyly in order to get a “proven closer”. The old school relief ace is just as valuable pitching multiple innings earlier in the game, and with the way Leyland is deploying him lately, Smyly is a piece that the Tigers can’t afford to be without.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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11 years ago

Great post, and thanks for validating what I’ve been thinking (and tweeting) about Smyly all season. People, particularly those in the F.O., keep saying Smylyl’s future is in the rotation but I think he’s really excelled in this super-relief role and wouldn’t mind if they kept him in it.

11 years ago
Reply to  catswithbats

Of course he’s excelled in the relief role. If you’re capable of excelling as a starting pitcher, you’re going to excel as a reliever, where you can dial it up a few extra MPH and don’t have to face hitters a 2nd and 3rd time through the batting order. That doesn’t mean it’s Smyly’s optimal role. I bet Clayton Kershaw would excel as a reliever. Or why not Scherzer? I’m not saying Smyly is Scherzer or Kershaw, but I do think he’s got a bright future as a starter and good starters are worth more than good relievers. It’s great to see Smyly excelling, but I do think they need to get him another shot at the rotation at some point before they settle on him as a reliever. They’d only be hurting themselves if they didn’t.

11 years ago
Reply to  SB

Okay? I’m quite aware good starters are more valuable than good relievers. I was merely commenting that Smyly has been pretty darn good as a relief ace.

11 years ago
Reply to  catswithbats

I apologize if I got the wrong impression, but it seemed to me that you were not only pointing out that he’s been good in relief, but also advocating that the Tigers keep him in that role. You said, “he’s really excelled in this super-relief role and wouldn’t mind if they kept him in it.”

Lee Panas
11 years ago
Reply to  catswithbats

He’d probably be more valuable as a starter, but he has not yet shown that he has the durability to be a full-season starter. He has never pitched 130 innings in a season and has had a number of injuries throughout his amateur and pro career. I hope he gets another chance to start but if he ends up in the bullpen as a super reliever due to durability issues, he could be quite valuable.