Prior to being dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays, Drew Smyly was 16-12 in his career with a 3.53 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP. He had started just 36 of the 107 games in which he pitched in and had struck out 23% of the batters he faced, walking 7% and allowed 30 home runs in 280.2 innings of work.
The overall body of work was perfectly acceptable, but if you were to look at his numbers strictly as a starting pitcher, the body of work is not as appealing. He was just 9-12 as a starter with a 4.00 ERA, a 1.31 WHIP, and a 21% strikeout rate. Suddenly, a guy who has appeal in a 12-team mixed league format is suddenly reserve material with his ratios.
The other issue was Smyly's splits. The southpaw has had no trouble against fellow lefties in his career as he has held them to a .195/.239/.295 slash line over 1600 pitches. In 393 plate appearances against lefties, Smyly has struck out 28% of those he has faced while allowing just seven home runs. The troubles for him come when he has to face righties as they have hit .272/.333/.460 against him in 801 plate appearances. His strikeout rate falls to 20% against righties and righties have hit 55 doubles and 23 home runs against him – hence the high slugging percentage.
Against southpaws, Smyly is primarily a fastball pitcher while he has waffled on which secondary pitch of his – the curve or the cutter – he prefers to utilize the most. Against righties, he is even more fastball heavy and with the Tigers, was heavy fastball and curve to righties. In looking at his zone profiles against both lefties and righties, Smyly's plan of attack as a Tiger was quite clear. When pitching against lefties, he ultimately wants them to chase his breaking ball away while keeping them honest inside with fastballs. Against righties, he likes to get ahead with fastballs, and then either backfoot the curveball or down and away with his fastball and cutter.
As a starting pitcher, that approach did not work well for him in Detroit. Righties hit .284/.342/.488 against him and he allowed 39 doubles, 5 triples, and 20 homers to them and his strikeout rate was nearly 11 full percentage points lower against righties than it was against lefties.
Enter Jim Hickey.
Hickey gave an interview to the Tampa Bay television broadcast before Smyly's first start with the team in Oakland and said he typically likes to wait six starts with new pitchers before making adjustments to them. Given the situation (slim playoff hopes), he would likely accelerate things to three starts.
The first three starts Smyly made with the Rays were a sampling from each menu: a win, a loss, and a no decision. In a win against Texas, he pitched into the 8th inning, scattering three hits, striking out 9, and shutting down Adrian Beltre and eight replacement level players in the lineup. In the loss to Oakland, he pitched into the 6th inning, striking out six, allowing seven hits, and walked two batters. In the no-decision to New York, he went seven full innings, allowing two earned runs that came off a two-run homer by Martin Prado, and struck out four batters. Over the three games, he held the opposing hitters to a .203/.267/.304 line and more importantly, held the righties to a .234/.321/.362 line.
Any success can be found in a small sample size of three games, but the results were encouraging given that Hickey and the team, by their own word, had not made any adjustments to Smyly. In reviewing the video of his starts in Detroit and in Tampa Bay, Smyly does look the same mechanically as he has all season. Frankly, that isn't a great thing, but it works for him.
Paul Sporer and Doug Thorburn beautifully broke down Smyly in their infamous Starting Pitcher Guide this season and in their report, gave Smyly a D+ in his mechanics. Looking at the picture below, it is tough to argue with them.