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Is Drew Smyly an Ace Now?

The oft-injured Tampa Bay Rays starter is off to a blistering start this season and looks better than ever. Can he keep up this ace-like pitching all year?

Drew Smyly has been pitching like an ace this year. Is this a fluke or a real improvement?
Drew Smyly has been pitching like an ace this year. Is this a fluke or a real improvement?
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed it, Drew Smyly has been the de-facto ace of the Rays this year, making Chris Archer look like a mid-rotation starter in comparison. Now, Archer's actually still doing fantastic outside of some walks (4.18 BB/9) and an unlucky 5.01 ERA (his xFIP is 3.12 and he has a 12 K/9!!!, so he's doing just fine).

But, this isn't about Archer, it's about his teammate and his move from number 3 or number 2 starter to ace-level. Can Smyly maintain this dominance? Is this a real breakout, like Archer's breakout last year?

As always, let's dive into the numbers to answer the questions.

First, a table. A table with some numbers that are relevant to our discussion about Mr. Smyly.

Year Team IP K% BB% HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP SIERA SwStr% Hard%
2012 Tigers 99.1 22.60% 7.90% 1.09 0.295 3.99 3.83 3.97 3.82 9% 26.60%
2013 Tigers 76 26.70% 5.60% 0.47 0.29 2.37 2.31 2.99 2.57 10.80% 26.90%
2014 2 Teams 153 21.50% 6.80% 1.06 0.278 3.24 3.77 3.76 3.69 9.90% 31.70%
2015 Rays 66.2 28% 7.30% 1.49 0.283 3.11 3.91 3.47 3.25 11.40% 31.60%
2016 Rays 34.2 32% 4.70% 1.3 0.173 2.6 3.17 3.2 2.61 13.40% 27.50%

As you can see, compared to 2015 (and earlier, in most cases): his strikeout rate is up, his walks are down, his HR/9 is down, his ERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA are all down, his Hard% is down, and his swinging strike rate is way up. His BABIP is extremely low, which is unsustainable, but everything else appears to be a significant improvement in skills.

How is he pulling this off?

Here's his pitch mix (according to Pitch F/X) for the last two years:

Season FA% FT% FC% SL% CH%
2015 36.80% 16.90% 11.80% 28.70% 5.80%
2016 50.50% 0% 18.20% 21.00% 10.20%

Here are his SwStr% on those pitches for those same years:

FA SwStr% FT SwStr% FC SwStr% SL SwStr% CH SwStr%
2015 9.40% 9.90% 15.70% 13.20% 10.60%
2016 13.10% N/A 18.70% 13.30% 5.90%

You can see he dropped the two-seamer this year completely, upped the usage of his cutter and split-change (labeled change-up), and lowered his slider use. The effect all of this had was to decrease the SwStr% of his change-up, increase it a little on his already-very-good cutter, and then massively upgrade his four seam fastball. The velocity on his four seam is up about 0.5 mph, which isn't enough to explain that big jump in swinging strikes.

Surely his pitch mix changes are at least partially to credit for the improvement, but is there more here?

His four seam fastball gets an insane amount of swinging strikes. Usually that means it has lots of movement, good deception and/or is thrown high in the zone. Let's take a look at heat maps of his fourseam from 2015 and 2016 and see if he is throwing it higher. 2015 is up first. Thanks, Baseball Savant!

smyly 2015 1
smyly 2016 1

These heat maps show a clear movement from 2015 to 2016 toward the upper left of the zone. That is boosting his strikeouts. In some ways, his improvements started back in 2015, when he moved on the rubber, which you can see in the graph below.

smyly release point

So, that's a lot of data, charts, tables, and the like. What does it all mean? Well, his elite strikeout rate is very real, backed up by well above average swinging strike rates on three pitches, especially his fastball, which is thrown 50% of the time and still fools batters. I don't see any reason not to buy his improved control either. He could maintain something close to this walk rate. There is one more element to his game I haven't discussed yet.

Pop-ups. These are basically automatic outs and he is good at generating them, which you would expect for a high-fastball pitcher like Smyly. If I take his IFFB% x FB%, I get his pop-up %. For 2015, it was 5.75%. In 2016 it's up to 8.77%. That's a nice jump. That makes him the #7 starter in all of baseball in pop-up%.

Just in case you were wondering, the guys in front of him are (in order): Robert Stephenson, Anibal Sanchez, MadBum, Aaron Blair, Tyler Duffey, and Justin Verlander. Most of those guys aren't doing well this year, but pop-ups aren't everything. Good thing Smyly has huge strikeouts as well.

So, what is the catch? Well, as always with Smyly, it is health. You can't expect much more than 120 innings from him this year. His career high is 153 innings and he had major shoulder issues last year. I don't expect a drop off in performance from him until his shoulder starts acting up again. He is pitching better than he ever has before and only his health can stop him now.

Each fantasy owner will have to decide for him or herself when it is time to cash in on this elite pitching and trade him away. The right advice is still to trade him while he is healthy, even though I believe he's going to be great until he gets hurt again. It's kind of like owning Jaime Garcia. He pitches so well when healthy that you want to keep him, but you know he's going to get hurt again every season.

I'm holding him in the Fake Teams Dynasty League, but that's mostly because that league is so deep and Smyly is already signed to a contract, so I don't have much of a choice. I guess I could try to move him for a young hitter, but I need pitching so badly. Ultimately, it will be up to you to decide what to do with Smyly, but know that his hot start is no fluke and will last as long as his shoulder or elbow holds up. Tschus!