Alex Cobb is the Tampa Bay Rays’ ace, but he remains sidelined from the forearm tendinitis that prevented him from making his first Opening Day start. Only now is he making tangible progress towards his return as he will toss a bullpen session today. While Cobb remains far away, though, the Rays are getting another pitcher back, lefty Drew Smyly, and they are wondering just how good he can be.
We saw how effective Drew Smyly was after the Rays acquired him in the David Price trade. He delivered a 1.70 ERA and a 44-11 strikeout to walk ratio in his first seven starts and 47.2 innings pitched. It was his most successful seven-start stretch in his career, outpacing his 2.31 ERA in his first seven MLB outings (which, interestingly enough, began against the Rays on April 12, 2012). We also saw reason to believe that his performance was far from a fluke.
We immediately heard the comments that Smyly was a different pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays than he was with the Detroit Tigers. He was throwing more fastballs up in the zone, emulating Jake Odorizzi, and his cutter was looking like David Price’s. Here are the money graphs for the fastball point courtesy of Brooks Baseball (click to expand, and it may come after an ad).
The graph on the left is Smyly with the Tigers in 2014 while the graph on the right is Smyly with the Rays. Look at the two, and it quickly becomes apparent that Smyly was throwing a lot more fastballs above the zone and at its uppermost limits. When a pitcher can command his heater in the gray area where a hitter will swing at a pitch up but still can’t make contact, it can lead to dominance. Smyly demonstrated that quite well in his first seven starts with the team.
We always want to shy away from implying causation, but Smyly’s whiff rate on his four-seamer jumped from 6.42% of the time with the Tigers to 9.97% with the Rays. That was a statistically significant result with a p-value of .00336 (think 300 to 1 odds). We will have to see if Smyly can maintain that–hitters will certainly make adjustments–but something appeared to click for Smyly’s fastball once he joined the Rays, and it will only help him moving forward.
For the cutter, meanwhile, Smyly was using his cutter like Price in that he was using a lot more against right-handed batters. His cutter usage against lefties stayed relatively constant at 20% with Detroit and 22% with the Rays, but it jumped from 11% to 20% versus opposite-side hitters. As the graphs will show, Smyly was really only throwing his cutter in one spot with the Tigers–down-and-in to righties and down-and-away from lefties–while the Rays had him expand its usage to elsewhere in the zone.
Smyly was still going to that same spot predominantly, but the Rays had him throw it down-and-away to righties a lot more often as well. Once again, let’s not say that all of Smyly’s improvements came from the Rays’ changes, but it is hard to ignore that he jumped from 57.9% strikes with his cutter to 66.9% while also improving his whiff rate and nearly doubling his groundball to flyball ratio. The Tampa Bay Rays saw an opportunity to have Smyly do more with his cutter, and the early returns were excellent.
With the Rays last season, Drew Smyly seemed to drastically improve his fastball and cutter and that could completely change his fortunes as a pitcher. If the stats weren’t enough for you, we can also talk about Tim Kurkjian’s comments on Buster Olney’s podcast. Kurkjian quoted anonymous big league managers who would rather face David Price than Smyly between his improvements on the mound and another factor, his deception. People think that Smyly’s breakthrough is real.
If Smyly can continue to dominate hitters, the Rays’ top three of Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and him will rank among the best in baseball even with Alex Cobb and Matt Moore still out. There is reason for confidence about Smyly, and if both Cobb and him can pitch like aces, this team could start clicking. People counted on the Rays having a great rotation, but with Smyly leading the way alongside the franchise’s other talented starters, it could be even better than we thought.
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