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Collette Calls: Drew Smyly's Evolution

Jason Collette

Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. He covers the Tampa Bay Rays at You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Towers of Power Baseball Hour Podcast on iTunes. He was selected as the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year by FSWA in 2013.

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.

The positive is that Smyly keeps his head centered at home plate, but the tilt and balance to his delivery leave a lot to be desired. If something is off even a hair, the command of his pitches would suffer. It is the type of thing that would lead intended for the inner half to leak back over the plate, or a curveball intended for the backfoot of a righty to never get there.

Those are things I would expect the Rays to look at in the offseason as they do tend to make adjustments in the offseason with their pitchers whether it's starting points on the pitching rubber or adding new pitches. During a season, it is tough for a pitcher to suddenly pick up a new pitch in the final months or alter their mechanics so a pitching coach usually can just work with what the pitcher has and get him to use it differently. In Smyly's case, that was his cutter.

Smyly, in theory, throws four pitches: Fastball, curve, cutter, and changeup. The changeup is clearly his fourth pitch, so much so that it has been determined to be the worst pitch in baseball. It is a show-me pitch for him that he uses when the count is in his favor, but lacks command of the pitch. If I were a betting man, I would put money on Smyly unveiling Thing III this coming spring. You could take this story about Jake Odorizzi from this past February and insert Smyly's name in his place.

Until then, Hickey is playing with the cutter to help Smyly continue to neutralize righties.

Smyly has thrown cutters to righties before, but never as much as he did on Friday night against a Toronto lineup that featured eight righties. In the past, when Smyly used his cutter, it tended to be a pitch that came in on righties more often than not. Against Toronto, Smyly threw the Jays a changeup as he used the cutter more frequently than he had before and also went backdoor with it rather than front door. The backdoor cutter in Tampa Bay is something all pitchers attempt to work through. It began with James Shields, then Wade Davis, and finally with the lefty Smyly is replacing in the rotation, David Price. When the pitch is executed properly, the batter is left with the tough decision of swinging at a pitch and it missing the sweetspot resulting in poor contact or taking a pitch that can catch the corner for a strike. Of course, the pitcher is left with the fine line between a properly executed backdoor cutter or one that comes out of the hand as a flat slider and ends up as a souvenir. It is something Matt Moore struggled with before his injury and something Smyly's current mechanics may struggle with as well on a game-to-game basis.

In short, the evolution process with Smyly is already underway. This offseason, expect some mechanical tweaks as well as the indoctrination into some form of a changeup, which is an unofficial requirement of the Tampa Bay pitching staff. If fantasy owners want to see how that evolution can help a pitcher, look no further than the growth Jake Odorizzi is showing this season.