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Drew Smyly became elite in 2015

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Without any injuries holding him back, the Tampa Bay lefty could explode in 2016.

Smyly's four-seamer took a step forward in Tampa.
Smyly's four-seamer took a step forward in Tampa.
Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports

After a second consecutive campaign of mediocrity, the Rays officially turned on the hot stove, agreeing on a three-for-three trade with the Mariners. If you'd like a more in-depth recap of the deal, head on over to DRaysBay; I'll simply offer a brief summary. Nate Karns and a pair of minor leaguers went to Seattle, while Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, and Danny Farquhar came to Tampa Bay.

For the latter club, the move has clear benefits. Miller looks like an average-ish shortstop (a scarce quantity in the American League), Morrison provides a decent platoon option at first base, and Farquhar has a shot to rebound after a tough 2015; a possibility that seems more likely under Jim Hickey. But losing Karns — who had a very solid 2015 and won't become a free agent for five more years — may negate those gains. The Rays will need another starting pitcher to step up in 2016, and of all the Rays' candidates, Drew Smyly likely has the best shot.

Like many other Rays pitchers, Smyly didn't come up with the organization. He began his career with the Tigers, who drafted him in 2010 and shipped him to Tampa in the 2014 David Price deal. While he spent 2013 in a pseudo-swingman role, Smyly has pitched fairly well as a starter, but never really stood out — he accrued a 91 ERA- and a 94 xFIP- in 99.1 innings in 2012, followed that up with an 88 ERA- and 101 xFIP- in 153.0 innings in 2014.

Where those versions of Smyly lagged behind, the 2015 iteration surged ahead. Although a shoulder ailment limited him to just 12 starts this past year, he made the most of them, cruising to an 80 ERA- and an 86 xFIP-. The Steamer projection system buys into Smyly's breakout. On a per-200 inning basis, it thinks his RA9-WAR will top that of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Smyly 2015 performance may be something he can sustain for a while.

What did Smyly do in 2015 to be so successful?

Well, he didn't cut down on walks. His free pass rate of 7.3 percent matched up with the 6.6 and 6.9 percent clips from 2012 and 2014, respectively. In terms of batted balls, he also stayed mostly the same, with very few grounders and a good deal of infield flies. The change came with regards to strikeouts, wherein Smyly went from respectable to elite. He punched out 22.3 percent of the batters he faced in his 2012 starts, then fanned 21.2 percent in 2014. Come 2015, however, he ratcheted his strikeout rate up to 28.0 percent. Among AL starters with 60+ innings, that placed fourth, behind only Chris Sale, Carlos Carrasco, and rotation-mate Chris Archer.

Via Brooks Baseball, we can see the pitch changes that Smyly made over the years of starting. There's certainly a trend:

Year Fourseam% Sinker% Change% Curve% Cutter%
2012 52.7% 0.8% 4.8% 28.5% 13.2%
2014 52.3% 0.6% 3.9% 28.3% 14.9%
2015 54.5% 0.0% 2.1% 23.6% 19.8%

In 2015, Smyly used more four-seam fastballs and cutters than ever before, replacing his curveball and changeup in doing so. A more hard-throwing Smyly found himself racking up more strikeouts than ever before.

The changeup has never deceived batters — in Smyly's 55 career starts, it's posted a mere 8.8 percent swinging strike rate — which might explain why he's phased it out. While the curveball has historically fared much better by this measure, its output has declined slightly, coinciding with gains elsewhere:

Year FourseamWhiff% CurveWhiff% CutterWhiff%
2012 7.2% 16.0% 10.7%
2014 7.5% 15.4% 15.0%
2015 10.0% 14.8% 16.1%

More cutters obviously helped Smyly rack up the whiffs, since that pitch has made such strides. The biggest improvement in 2015, though, came from the four-seam fastball, which had never dominated to this extent.

Smyly's four-seam fastball presents an intriguing case. It ranks sixth in vertical movement since the PITCHf/x era began. When Smyly came to Tampa Bay last August, then-Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan took note of this:

"He wasn't aware that he's pitched really well at the top of the zone with his heater..."

As Jeff Sullivan showed later, Smyly began to pound the fastball much higher in the zone, a place where it indeed has gone for swinging strikes very often. Because of that change, the fastball induced a whiff in one out of every ten appearances during Smyly's 2014 stint with the Rays — identical to its mark in 2015.

Oddly, then, Smyly appeared to diverge from that recipe in 2015, returning to his earlier ways:

SmylyFF

How did he continue to blow it past batters? As it turns out, he only changed his location in certain counts:

SmylyFFCount

When he got to one strike, he'd throw the fastball higher. With two strikes, he'd throw it just as he had at the end of 2014. This meant his whiff rate on the pitch, while pitching for Tampa Bay, increased:

Count (Strikes) FourseamWhiff% (2014) FourseamWhiff% (2015)
0 6.3% 4.8%
1 11.4% 7.4%
2 13.6% 21.2%

Why would Smyly mess with success like this? Perhaps he didn't want to let hitters accustom to the location. After all, if he only threw fastballs high, the opposition would know what to look for. By shaking things up like this, he managed to keep them off-balance and take his game to the next level.

As with everything that occurs in the baseball universe, Smyly's performance had some luck behind it — both good and bad. Any time a starting pitcher notches a 28.0 percent strikeout rate, its fair to expect that he'll regress down somewhat in the future. It's also important to note that some of Smyly's improvement happened, when he significantly underperformed his expected strikeout rate. That shouldn't, however, diminish what Smyly accomplished in 2015, nor should it dull our predictions of where he'll go in 2016.

With their trade for Miller, the Rays have shown that they won't stand idly by and allow themselves to drift out of contention. They sort of resemble Smyly in this way — adjusting to make themselves better, not settling for average. The new Smyly, dealing occasional high fastballs and deadly cutters when needed, can help them reclaim their past glory. There's no guarantee that he won't fall victim to injury again, or that he won't simply decline with age. If he does maintain his 2015 level of performance, though, the Rays will have themselves another ace.

. . .

Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot (and on Camden Chat that one time) and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.