The Tigers entered the 2012 season not knowing who would fill the final spot in the starting rotation. Drew Smyly stepped up and claimed the job, and did a fine job at that. When the Tigers entered the 2013 season, Smyly was the odd man out, through no fault of his own, so he moved to the bullpen and became one of the best relief pitchers in the league. Entering the 2014 season, Smyly has a job in the starting rotation, and the team is showing great confidence that he will perform at a very high level.
Detroit drafted Smyly out of the University of Arkansas in the second round of the 2010 draft. After just one full season in the minor leagues, a season where he posted an ERA of 1.18 between Lakeland and Erie, he made the team out of spring training in 2012 as the fifth starter in the pitching rotation, making 18 starts, posting an ERA of 3.99 and a WHIP of 1.27. That ERA was better than Rick Porcello, and the WHIP slightly better than Max Scherzer.
When the Tigers made a trade for Anibal Sanchez at the traded deadline, Smyly was moved first to Toledo, then called up where he made a couple more starts and a few appearances out of the bullpen. He made the post season roster and reported to spring training with his role uncertain.
In 2013, Smyly lost out to Rick Porcello for the fifth and final spot in the rotation, and was moved to the bullpen which he preferred over being sent back to the minors. As the team watched one reliever after another self implode themselves out of late inning roles, it was not long before Smyly found himself as the primary set up man with Joaquin Benoit having closing duties.
To make a long story short, Smyly was one of the best relief pitchers in the American league through the first four months of the 2013 season. He led the team in appearances, throwing 76 innings in 63 games, with an ERA of 2.37 and a WHIP of 1.04, both of which were second only to Benoit on the team.
Smyly ranked in the top ten in the league among relievers in innings, WAR, FIP, and BB/9 rate. He had the lowest home run rate in the Tiger pen, and led or was second in most categories. Yet inexplicably, Jim Leyland pulled him from the setup role after the team acquired Jose Veras at the end of July. Smyly continued to work the late innings, but seldom got to pitch a complete inning, and his numbers were not as solid for the last two months of the season.
Entering the 2014 season, Smyly has a rotation spot locked up. The team was confident enough in his ability as a starter that they traded Doug Fister, even though there is little or no depth should one of their starting pitchers spend time on the disabled list.
The biggest challenge that Smyly will face is performing at the same high level over more innings than he has thrown in a season. In his first season in the minors. he threw 126 innings, starting between High-A Lakeland and double- A Erie. In 2012, he logged 99.1 innings in Detroit, and another 17.2 in Toledo. Rick Porcello racked up 177 innings in 29 starts as the fifth starter in 2013. A jump of 60 innings over his previous high would be a steep climb for Smyly, but he will be challenged.
Odd Numbers: Smyly had the lowest WHIP and the lowest ERA in the American League last year among all pitchers, starters included, who threw at least 70 innings. He trailed only Chris Sale and David Price in K/BB ratio among lefties, and led the world in winning percentage, as he was had a record of 6- 0.
Key to success: Smyly has demonstrated the ability to get hitters out at the major league level. He has struck out a batter per inning in his two major league seasons, with a combined ERA of 3.29 and a WHIP of 1.17. He doesn't walk many, just 2.6 per nine innings and keeps the ball in the park as well as anyone. It's just a matter of being efficient with his innings so that he can get through a full season.
Outlook for 2014: Smyly has a spot in the rotation. Initially, he will be the "fifth starter" but once the season gets going, nobody cares who is the second or the fifth starter. He will be taking the ball every fifth day unless an opportunity presents a chance to give him a day off to keep his inning total within reason.