Drew Smyly took the mound saturday afternoon in New York, where the stages are big, even if the right field porch isn’t. While some crumble apart and wither under the bright lights and intense fans of baseball’s version of the juggernaut, the Tigers rookie lefty put together a performance worthy of a Broadway standing ovation. His family was leading the applause as Smyly recorded his first win in the major leagues, despite Jose Valverde‘s every attempt to make him wait on that.
For the fourth time in four starts this season, when Drew Smyly left the mound for the day, his opponent had only put up one run on the board. And he isn’t doing it against a bunch of nobodies. He has faced the Royals, Rays, Rangers and Yankees. All have tried, but all have failed to have success against Smyly, who is proving not only that he belongs in the big leagues, but that he plans on having quite a bit of success.
I thought about doing an extensive pitch f/x study of just how Smyly carved up the vaunted and lavishly expensive Yankees lineup, but while his pitch movement and sequencing are a major reason for his success, it’s not just his arm that has been impressive. Just as impressive has been Smyly’s mound presence and ability to handle things like pitching in front of a New York crowd for the first time. As Kramer in an episode of Seinfeld once put it “Poise Counts!”.
Composure is often an element that gets overlooked in the business of baseball. In a time where prospect gurus rank players on things like “stuff” and “tools”, what often gets overlooked are people that are just baseball players, or guys that can just pitch. Smyly is never going to make scouts salivate. His four seam fastball, while it touches 94, sits mostly at 90-91. His curve isn’t going to fall off any table, and his change doesn’t have a parachute on it. While blazing fastballs, hammer curves, and confounding changes are ideal, the truth of the matter is, only a select few individuals on this planet have all of those things.
What separates the men from the boys is keeping hitters off balance. So far, early into his career, Drew Smyly is doing just that. In his four starts thus far, Smyly has pitched 22 innings, allowing only 4 earned runs, and striking out 22 batters. That’s right, our middle of the rotation ceiling rookie is striking out a batter per inning. This shouldn’t really even be a surprise Tigers fans. Smyly struck out 130 batters last season in 125 minor league innings last season.
How is he doing it?
It’s simple really. Movement, command, and outsmarting the guy in the batters box. On several occasions Saturday against the Yankees, Smyly put away Yankees hitters on strikes in different ways. He got Jeter in on the hands with a cut fastball. He got Andrew Jones on a back door breaking ball. And he got Alex Rodriguez on a four seam fastball on the inside corner. Smyly isn’t getting into patterns for hitters, and it shows from the weak contact he is generating.
Smyly also seems to bear down with men on base. Coming into today’s game, Smyly had only allowed batters to go 3 for 23 against him with runners on. With runners in scoring position, opponents were 1 for 13 against Smyly. He has left 99% of the runners that have gotten on base against him stranded.
Now, it is going to be impossible to continue that kind of strand rate, so Smyly could be considered somewhat lucky at this point. His xFIP prior to his start Saturday was 3.57. That’s a full two runs more than his actual ERA, but still, that would be way more than acceptable for a rookie.
Having been a Tigers fan since I can remember, I was trying to think of a Tigers rookie starter that has gotten off to the kind of start that Drew Smyly has, and I just couldn’t think of one off the top of my head. In fact, I couldn’t think of any pitcher in baseball that has gotten off to the kind of start Drew Smyly has. That’s 30 years of Tigers baseball. But while Drew Smyly is quickly turning my cautious optimism into just plain optimism, I still must caution those who want to jump on the bandwagon I’m volunteering to drive.
It is just four starts.
Four starts don’t make a career. Heck, four starts don’t even make a season, and barely make a month. Impressive as Drew Smyly has been, the fact is, the league tends to adjust to it’s young pitchers and start feasting on those pitches that seemed to fool them just one start prior. I hardly would expect Smyly to hold the Yankees or the Rangers lineup to just one run the next time he faces them. It will then be up to Smyly to adjust and adapt to teams that have seen him. Thing is, I suspect that he will be able to do so effectively, even if there is an adjustment period on his end.
Drew Smyly may not have the “stuff” of other top prospects, or the ceiling of an ace, but I do know that he can pitch. I don’t even mean to imply that I don’t think Smyly has a good arm or good “stuff”. He does. It’s a big reason he has the potential to be good.
The other “stuff”?
That’s what could make Drew Smyly great.