KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 17: Starting pitcher Drew Smyly #33 of the Detroit Tigers warms up just prior to the game against the Kansas City Royals on April 17, 2012 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Somebody might have to tell Drew Smyly it's not this easy being a professional baseball player. It might be starting to feel like it though, for the 22-year-old left-hander from Arkansas, who recently picked up his first major-league win. It seems like all he's known since making his professional debut with Advanced-A Lakeland in 2011 are good times.
He went 11-6 in Lakeland, posting a 2.58 ERA while striking out 8.6 batters per nine innings and walking just 2.4 per nine innings. Promoted to Double-A Erie, where the wheat is separated from the chaff, he saw his ERA fall off the table to 1.18 across seven starts, while increasing his rate of strikeouts to 10.4 per inning.
This year, as you know, he's leading the American League in ERA after his first four starts, at a minuscule 1.23, and he's getting the best batters in the world to strike out at a rate of a batter per inning. Facing the Rays, Royals, Rangers and Yankees in his first four starts, he's already struck out 22 batters in 22 innings.
And he's not even considered the Tigers' top prospect!
Of course, you know it's not going to come that easily all the time for Smyly, who is scheduled to start against the White Sox on Friday. He's stranding runners at almost a 100% rate. Technically, one runner who reached base did score against Smyly. The other three runs he allowed were of the home run variety. The formula used by Fangraphs.com and others uses estimates rather than exact play-by-play data, so Smyly has an LOB% of 100.8% right now by my calculations.
That's not normal. You didn't need me to tell you that, though. The average pitcher strands runners at about a 72% clip. Good pitchers can and do stay a little above this rate. For example, you'll find Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Justin Verlander all in the 73-74 range for their careers. In individual seasons, they might be several percentage points higher or lower. But overall, they're a bit better than your average pitcher. So I think it's safe to assume Smyly's going to allow some runners who get on base to actually reach home.
Smyly has allowed 27 base runners. He's given up four runs. So that means 23 batters who reached at least first base didn't score. To bring Smyly's LOB% in line with league average, you have to assume an additional 6.5 runners would have scored. Based on Tigers averages, we can assume 90% of those runs allowed are earned.
Too long, didn't read? That puts Smyly's ERA closer to 3.85 than it does to 1.23. You can adjust that figure down a bit if you believe he's better than average or if you think his home run rate is a bit high. Interestingly, that ERA estimate is in line with his more sabermetric estimates of a 3.94 FIP, 3.64 xFIP, or 3.46 SIERA. Smyly has given up more than his fair share of home runs per fly ball, so I'm going to side with the lower figures here.
In short, that means even when you adjust some of the luck out of it, Smyly's still putting up good numbers. Not good numbers for a rookie. Just plain good numbers that you'd like to see a couple of his more-famous rotation mates put up.
Strike outs are key. A strike out is the pitcher's best friend -- especially when he has a not-so-solid defense behind him, like Smyly does. Smyly has gotten batters to chase at balls outside of the zone nearly 30% of the time. That's third behind Verlander and Rick Porcello. He's getting swinging strikes 9.4% of the time. That's third behind Verlander and Scherzer. If there's one reason to worry, it's that Smyly's first-pitch strike percentage of 53.3% is at the bottom of the rotation. He'll have to do better there.
When batters do get the bat on the ball, they're hitting for line drives just 17.2% of the time -- that's the best rate in the Tigers rotation. For the most part, you have to like that Smyly's getting batters to go after the pitches he wants them to, and if they make contact at all it hasn't been real strong.
It's obviously way too early for absolutes, but you have to be impressed with the start of Smyly's career. Pitching against some great batters in his first month in the major leagues, Smyly has gotten some great results. While some numbers may be a bit fluky, the overall picture remains bright.
Now, we'll just have to wait and see how Smyly deals with the inevitable challenges that lay ahead when opposing teams make adjustments. I like his chances in making adjustments of his own, and I like his chances of finding success at the major-league level for some time. He's been a great find by the Tigers.