Drew Smyly was one of the biggest surprises of the Tigers' 2012 season, compiling a 3.99 ERA and 3.83 FIP in 99 1/3 innings. Smyly won the fifth starter job over touted prospect Jacob Turner in spring training despite making just seven starts at Double-A the year before. Smyly was later supplanted when the team traded for Anibal Sanchez at the trade deadline. He only started a few more games, but played a major role in the team's run to the World Series, tossing a pair of scoreless innings in the Tigers' 11-inning victory over the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the ALCS.
Going into 2013, Smyly was a starter without a starting spot. While many people (myself included) wanted to see Smyly spend the year in Triple-A, we quickly came around when we realized that he is simply too good to leave in the minors. He began the year in the bullpen and quickly morphed from a long reliever to Jim Leyland's "old school relief ace." His usage dipped back towards single-inning use during the second half of the season, and his numbers in August and September may indicate a bit of fatigue after all of the high-leverage innings he threw earlier in the year.
Overall, Smyly's numbers improved across the board while pitching out of the bullpen in 2013. He lowered his ERA and FIP by more than a run and a half, decreased his walk rate to a meager 2.01 per nine innings, struck out more than a batter per inning... actually, just marvel at the improvement via this table.
It is not necessarily easier to pitch out of the bullpen. You are still facing major league caliber hitters, and the short warm-up time can often wreak havoc with a pitcher who has been a starter at every level and in every year of his baseball life. Smyly adapted to the change beautifully ... but there may have been a reason for that.
In 2012, opposing batters hit just .190/.255/.347 off Smyly the first time through the batting order. Once the lineup turned over? They hit a scalding .309/.338/.517. These splits did not change much in 2013, save for a precipitous drop in production the second time through the lineup. This is a small sample of just 20 plate appearances, however, and should probably be ignored.
What does this mean? Smyly needs to do a better job of getting through an opposing lineup multiple times in a game. He throws a solid four-pitch mix, but needs to avoid showing the opposition everything he has the first time through the order.
Speaking of that four-pitch mix, Smyly adjusted his approach when he moved to the bullpen. He still relied primarily on his four-seam fastball, which sits in the low 90s but can touch 94-95 miles per hour. He also throws a cut fastball and a slider, the two of which seem similar enough to confuse various PitchFX trackers. According to Brooks Baseball, Smyly used the slider 28.4 percent of the time in 2012, but only 14.8 percent of the time in 2013. Conversely, his cutter usage rose from 12.6 percent in 2012 to 28.8 percent in 2013. His velocity numbers only vary mildly, so it is possible that this change in philosophy was legitimate.
The most interesting tidbit of Smyly's pitch usage comes via his fourth pitch, the changeup. Smyly used the changeup 4.6 percent of the time in 2012, but almost exclusively against right-handed hitters (6.5 percent). It was not particularly effective, resulting in a .571 batting average in seven at-bats. Smyly also did not show much command for the pitch, throwing it for a ball two-thirds of the time. However, opposing batters hit it on the ground at a 57 percent rate. If he begins to develop feel for the pitch, it could be an effective weapon against righty-heavy lineups.
Smyly has shown the ability to be an above average major league pitcher in his first two seasons, and expecting a repeat of his 2012 season isn't necessarily unreasonable. He will not replace Doug Fister's 200-inning production in 2014, but should be able to shoulder a 130-140 inning load. His light workload to begin the season may pay dividends later on this year, and it is possible that we see Smyly the Relief Ace return in the playoffs.
Until then? Enjoy the rotation, Drew.