October 5, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Drew Smyly (33) delivers a pitch during the eighth inning in game two of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game against the Oakland Athletics at O.co Coliseum. The Oakland Athletics defeated the Detroit Tigers 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Although last year’s highly decorated Detroit Tiger starting rotation featured five right handers, the surprising November trade of Doug Fister opened a slot for left hander Drew Smyly, who spent 2013 in the bullpen. You don’t have to go back very far, though, to find the last time the team had an effective left hander in their rotation. The year was 2012. The pitcher’s name? Drew Smyly.
The trade reflects the faith the Tiger organization has in the 24 year-old Smyly’s ability to step into Fister’s super-sized shoes. Based on Smyly’s first two years in a Tiger uniform, it would seem that faith is justified.
Smyly performed respectably as a rookie in 2012. In 23 appearances (18 starts), he was 4-3, with an ERA of 3.99 and a WHIP of 1.27. He had a FIP of 3.83 and a BABIP of .295. Despite his success as a starter, he was relegated to the bullpen in 2013 to meet a team need.
He responded with a huge year, and along with Joaquin Benoit, stabilized the back end of an otherwise mercurial bullpen. In 63 appearances, he went 6-0, with an ERA of 2.37 and a WHIP of 1.04. His FIP was 2.31, and he had a BABIP of .290.
A lanky 6’3″, 190-pounder, second round pick Smyly signed with the Tigers in 2010 for a $1.1 million bonus after his sophomore season at Arkansas. He moved quickly through the Tiger minor league system, arriving with the big club in early April, 2012.
His repertoire is built around a four-seam fastball, which he throws a little more than half the time. His velocity sits around 91 mph, but he’s capable of reaching back for 93 when necessary. He complements this pitch with a cut fastball, a slider, and an occasional change-up.
Smyly’s precise control and feel allow him to pitch effectively without overpowering velocity, a la Cliff Lee, another University of Arkansas portsider who happens to share the same agent. Last July, Lee, one of the top pitchers in baseball, paid Smyly a high compliment by saying he had it “figured out”. It’s worth noting that when Lee was 24, Smyly’s current age, he was toiling in the minor leagues. It was not until Lee attained the age of 30 that he achieved consistent major league success. By that time he was locating with uncanny accuracy and adeptly mixing pitches and changing speeds.
This is not to say Drew Smyly is the next Cliff Lee, as very few pitchers ascend to that level. Sober analysis projects Smyly as a solid number three starter, with an outside chance to advance to a number two. In order to cement that status, though, Smyly will have to prove he can retire middle-of-the-order right hand hitters over the course of a full season.
Since he made only 18 starts as a rookie in 2012 and has never thrown more than 100 innings in a year at any level, the jury remains out on Smyly’s long-term durability as a starter. Additionally, he’s had some elbow issues in the past which could conceivably re-surface as his workload increases.
To date as an MLB pitcher he sports an admirable WHIP of 0.96 against left handed hitters, a trend which should continue. Against right handers, though, his WHIP is a more pedestrian 1.30, though the trend line from 2012 (1.36) to 2013 (1.20) is encouraging.
Though Smyly has pitched well overall against the AL Central, professional-type hitters such as Paul Konerko of the White Sox (7 AB’s, 5 hits) and Billy Butler of the Royals (6 AB’s, 5 hits) have hit him hard, albeit within a small sample size. They are the type of hitters that Smyly could largely avoid as a reliever but will have to face several times a game as a starting pitcher. His progress or lack thereof against such hitters will determine whether he becomes an average mid-to-late rotation guy or an upper echelon major league starter.
If the still developing Drew Smyly solves the puzzle of how to consistently retire the American League’s elite right hand hitters, as Cliff Lee implies he can, it might lead to a series of mid-summer reunions with his fellow Razorback. To be held every July, at the Major League Baseball All-Star game.