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Game 42 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays at Detroit Tigers

Drew Smyly returns to Comerica Park for the first time as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While his major league numbers have not yet reflected it, Tigers starter Michael Fulmer was very good about limiting home runs in the minor leagues. He only allowed eight home runs in 124 2/3 innings last season, all but seven of which were spent at the Double-A level. He coughed up three gopher balls in one start at Triple-A Toledo this season, but has otherwise been rather stingy throughout his career.

You can't necessarily say it's a surprise that Fulmer has struggled thus far, given that these are the best hitters he has ever faced -- and he's probably a bit overmatched, if we're being honest -- but the home run rate is a little excessive. Fulmer has allowed four home runs in four major league starts so far, part of the reason why he has 15 runs (14 earned) already on his big league ledger.

Granted, a lot of this is just small sample noise from a pitcher who is going to get much better throughout his career. He has struggled with his command at times, and still lacks an effective third pitch to keep hitters off his fastball. Worse yet, he hasn't even pitched on the same mound twice -- yes, this is Fulmer's first home start. For a young pitcher yet to find his footing (perhaps literally), this is a rough way to open a career.

Let's see if Fulmer can get things going today, as Drew Smyly makes his return to Comerica Park for the first time since being traded in 2014.

Tampa Bay Rays (20-19) at Detroit Tigers (19-22)

Time/Place: 4:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: DRaysBay
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Drew Smyly (2-4, 3.44 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (2-1, 6.52 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Smyly 49.2 29.7 6.2 3.38 1.1
Fulmer 19.1 23.7 9.7 4.91 0.0

For a pitcher we Tigers fans are quite familiar with, I was taken aback when I read a FanGraphs article titled "Drew Smyly Is a Strikeout Machine." Smyly was no such harbinger of un-hit baseballs in his two-plus seasons with the Tigers, nor was he so strikeout-averse that the above title could be used ironically; in 280 2/3 innings with the Tigers, Smyly fanned 264 batters, a solid 22.7 percent rate.

Since arriving in Tampa, Smyly has elevated that strikeout rate to a whopping 27.8 percent clip, and is flying high at 29.7 percent in 2016. That's the ninth-highest rate in baseball, above names like David Price, Madison Bumgarner, teammate Chris Archer, and the ever-dominant Chris Sale. Smyly already has two double-digit strikeout performances under his belt, and has fanned at least six batters in six of his eight starts to open the season. Better yet, he has done so while simultaneously lowering his walk rate to just 6.2 percent, his lowest rate since he came out of the Tigers' bullpen in 2013.

How did Smyly get here? Allow me to defer to Jeff Sullivan, author of the aforementioned FanGraphs piece.

Smyly didn’t make a habit of throwing high fastballs with the Tigers. With the Rays, this has become a putaway weapon. Smyly’s average two-strike fastball since being traded is higher by about seven inches. He’s moved the pitch out of the zone, making it more difficult to hit, and making it more difficult to protect against the other pitches as well. The whole Drew Smyly package gets to benefit from this, but it’s mostly about the heater. The Tigers saw Smyly’s fastball as a pitch he could control to get ahead. The Rays see Smyly’s fastball as a pitch he can use to both begin at-bats and end them.

It's important to note that Smyly's velocity hasn't changed a lick since the trade. He hasn't made any sweeping changes to his pitch arsenal, nor has he changed his mechanics in any way. He's just throwing his fastball more often and in a different location, and has since become one of the best starters in the American League.

One apparent benefit to this adjustment is that it seems to have eliminated Smyly's platoon splits. Right-handed batters have hit .249/.307/.425 against Smyly in his career, nearly 200 OPS points better than lefties. This season, righties are hitting just .195/.255/.336 with 40 strikeouts in 141 plate appearances. His command has been spotty against righties at times -- 11 of his 12 walks this season are to right-handed hitters -- but he is still only putting them on base at a 7.8 percent clip.

Tigers hitter to fear: Ian Kinsler (.400/.455/.700 in 11 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Mike Aviles (.182/.182/.273 in 11 plate appearances)

Sounds about right.

Outlook

While Smyly appears to have eliminated his platoon splits in 2016, there is still a chance that they may rear their ugly head from time to time. Righties hit a modest .249/.303/.448 against him last season, and we've already touched on the mild command issues he has against them. Furthermore, righties have made hard contact 32.2 percent of the time against Smyly this season, well above the 23.5 percent rate left-handed hitters have. Between some potential BABIP regression and the star power the Tigers will have on the right side of the plate, they may be able to steal a game. It will take Michael Fulmer's very best to do so, however.

Prediction

Smyly gets the better of his former team for the second time in two seasons.

★★★

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