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2017 Player Profiles: Drew Smyly

The brand spanking new Mariners starter disappointed in 2016. Will a new home, a fresh start, and some positive regression give him success in 2017?

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

If you want to catch up on all the previous 2017 player profiles, check out my archive here.

Since Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners want to make all the trades and single-handedly keep the hot stove alive, I felt it would be timely to write a profile about their latest acquisition, LHP Drew Smyly.

I wrote about him back in May, too. That title looks pretty bad now, but back then he was pitching very well with all the strikeouts. Then came the home run and fly ball monster and, as the kids say, he got rekt (am I doing this right?).

To illustrate: his ERA up to May 6 was 2.60; his ERA after that was 5.51.

His HR/FB% went from 10.4% to 13.2%, his FIP went from 3.1 to 4.89, and his xFIP went from 3.47 to 4.81. In other words, he got rekt (I still don’t know if I am using this correctly).

So, what happened to him? Will the move to Seattle help? What does all this mean for 2017? I’m glad you asked, random Internet user, I’m glad you asked.

Well, it wasn’t because he was allowing more fly balls. He was at just over 50% before May 6 and 48% after, both of which are crazy high, but that’s his style. His infield fly ball % only fell from about 17% to 16%. His hard hit % went from 28% to 30%. Here’s something, though: his BABIP went from 0.205 to 0.310, so he went from very lucky to about average. That was bound to happen.

As far as his actual skills, his K%-BB% fell from 26.2% (near the top of the league) to 13.3% (about average) and his swinging strike rate was similar (13.3% down to 9.8%). When a guy with a 90 mph fastball that lives high in the zone loses his nasty strikeout stuff, he becomes much more hittable. He has the raw talent to overcome his mediocre velocity with swing-and-miss stuff, but he has to be nearly perfect and keep it up every start.

His velocity is not to blame. It was very constant. I did find another symptom of his “stuff” declining as the season went on, though.

That’s a graph of out of zone contact % over the 2016 season. You can see he gave up more and more contact on those pitches as the season went on. You do not want to give up that much contact on pitches located out of the strike zone. That means hitters are not fooled. Interestingly, if you use his 66% value from late in the year, he’s in the company of many similar fly ball pitchers on the “leaderboard”.

Just ignore that Tanner Roark is highlighted, that was an accident. This list is populated with fly ball heavy guys (Jered Weaver, Josh Tomlin, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Fiers, J.A. Happ, Ian Kennedy, etc.) and pitch-to-contact ground ball guys (Fister, Graveman, etc.). So, Smyly’s end-of-season out-of-zone contact%, K%, swinging strike%, and BABIP were all much worse than they were early in the season and his ERA, FIP, and xFIP all followed.

It looks like his cutter and change-up were particularly awful after April.

Look at those slugging percentages on the blue and red lines! I mean, even his four seam and curve are above 0.500 a few months, but those other two, woof! Predictably, the swinging strike % on his cutter fell from 15.7% in 2015 to 10% in 2016. That alone accounted for most of his overall drop in swinging strikes, since his change-up, curve/slider, and four-seam all had almost identical rates in 2016 and 2015.

Interestingly, he dropped his two-seam fastball in 2016 after using it as his third favorite pitch for two seasons. The change in pitch mix was working in April, but it all fell apart after that.

Ok, let’s put all of this info together. No matter how you slice it, Smyly was a bad pitcher after the month of April. He lost the elite strikeout stuff he needed to be an above average pitcher. He gave up far too many home runs (32 in all, 6th most in baseball), despite playing in a pitcher-friendly home park. His cutter failed him and became very hittable, especially out of the zone. I can’t find any evidence of a lingering injury from his 2015 shoulder injury, so it was really just poor execution.

Maybe he really needed his two-seam fastball. Maybe he trusted his cutter too much. It’s hard to say. Having said all that, will a fresh start in Seattle help? Well, Seattle has assembled one of the best outfield defenses in baseball with Jarrod Dyson, Leonys Martin, and Mitch Haniger to catch all the fly balls Smyly allows. Surely that will help. However, that ignores the fact that he had the best centerfielder (on defense) in all of baseball behind him in Tampa Bay in Kevin Kiermaier. Safeco’s homerun park factor of 1.158 (wow, that’s 6th highest in MLB, I am legitimately surprised) is actually much higher than Tropicana’s 0.877. Therefore, I don’t think the defense or park factors really result in much of a benefit for Smyly.

Maybe his new coaches can help him figure out what went wrong in 2016. His April showed that he still has elite strikeout talent, but walks a very fine line and can quickly become very hittable. Just look at guys like James Shields and Ian Kennedy for examples of how quickly you can lose your dominance when you throw in the low 90s or high 80s and make a few mistakes.

I haven’t spent much time on his shoulder and arm injuries, which are always concerning, but didn’t crop up in 2016. His bad injury history will cap his innings projection below.

With all that said, here’s his projection.

2017 Projection

150 IP, 3.90 ERA, 22% K% (8.4 K/9), 7% BB%, 1.20 WHIP, 4.0 FIP, 3.95 xFIP

As you can tell, I think he will bounce back some from his awful 2016, but not back to his 2013-2015 numbers. That may make me lower on him than others who believe he can return to 2015 form. It puts him on the fringes of mixed league ownership, which seems about right for him at this point. Tschus!