It took just two starts with the Tampa Bay Rays for Drew Smyly to toss his best game in the major leagues. Smyly went 7.2 dominant innings against the Texas Rangers on Monday allowing just 3 hits, striking out 9 while walking 3. In doing so, he showed everyone not only that he will fit in quite well with the Rays’ impressive rotation, but also that he will stand out in another regard: his curveball. Smyly’s curveball surpasses those of Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jake Odorizzi for the best in his rotation, and it is the second best breaking ball overall behind only Chris Archer‘s slider. He showed against Texas all of the different ways that he can use it.
Overall, Smyly threw his curveball 30 times according to Brooks Baseball (yes, I know they call it a slider), and he managed an incredible -2.81 linear weights, meaning that the pitch led to extremely positive outcomes the entire game. In fact, that -2.81 mark was better than his next three best pitches (his two-seamer, cutter, and changeup) combined. He threw the pitch for a strike 18 times, a strong 60% of his total, and he forced four whiffs, just one short of the number he generated with 15 more fastballs and leading to the highest whiff rate of any of his pitches. However, those numbers do not even tell the full story.
On nine different occasions, Smyly started off a hitter with his curveball, throwing it for a strike six times and even forcing two whiffs. Alex Cobb, who is known for his first-pitch curveballs, has located such pitches for a strike 56.7% of the time in 2014 and forced a whiff 9.15% of the time. Smyly not only exceeded that in this game, but he beats Cobb out over the course of the season as well. His first-pitch curveballs go for strikes 60.8% of the time while getting hitters to swing-and-miss at a 9.8% clip.
On the season, Cobb also has used 164 curveballs to begin at-bats compared to just 51 that have ended them, a ratio of over 3-to-1. Smyly, despite doing a very good job with his first-pitch curveballs, has actually thrown just 93 of them compared to 148 to finish plate appearances, a 0.63-to-1 ratio. In this game, 11 different at-bats ended on a curveball, and just one of them resulted in a batter reaching base: Adrian Beltre‘s walk to lead off the second inning. Smyly struck out four different hitters with the pitch, two swinging and two looking, and he forced four outs in the air plus two more on the ground. Moving forward, some of those balls in play will drop for hits, but not too many–Smyly has allowed a .203 average on his curveball compared to .255 by Cobb this season, and that gap widens to .182 versus .272 when we expand the sample to the two pitchers’ entire careers.
A certain amount of the difference we are talking about between Smyly and Cobb stems from the fact that Cobb relies more on his split-change than his curveball, but it is still quite notable that Smyly relies much more on his curve yet finds better results. Smyly can do a lot of different things with his breaking ball to retire hitters, whether it is burying it in the dirt for a swing-and-miss, locating it down in the zone for a called strikeout, or throwing more of a get-me-over type offering to force contact and end a long at-bat. Smyly doesn’t do all of those things quite as well as Chris Archer with his slider–especially when we account for the fact that Archer rarely throws a third pitch–but Smyly’s versatility with his curve is incredible nonetheless, and it will continue being an effective pitch for him moving forward.
Of the Rays’ starters, only Drew Smyly and Chris Archer can claim that their breaking ball is their best secondary offering, and that is perfectly fine given how good both pitches are. For the Rays, it is nice to have a pair of pitchers who can give their opponents a different look from the changeup-dependance of Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson and Jake Odorizzi. We know the Rays love changeups, but they no problem at all with outstanding breaking balls. Drew Smyly has established his presence in the Rays’ rotation from the start with his curveball, and it will be fascinating to see to what heights the pitch can take him.