Drew Smyly has had a weird career. After a 2012 which saw him reach the 82nd spot on Baseball America's prospect rankings and break into the Tigers rotation as a 23-year-old, he spent 2013 in the bullpen, pushed out by a stacked Tigers starting five of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, and Anibal Sanchez. His 2014 began well, with a 3.93 ERA/4.08 FIP in 105 innings with the Tigers, and it ended better, as he improved on both marks after being sent to the Rays in the David Price trade, with a 1.70 ERA/3.70 FIP in 48 innings. He ended the season with 2.2 fWAR and 3.6 WARP, both very good marks for just over 150 innings.
A torn labrum limited his 2015 to only 67 innings, though they were promising; he finished with a 3.11 ERA/3.91 FIP/2.80 DRA and looked poised to be yet another Rays success story. When the Rays traded for him, it was seen as an economic move, prioritizing years of cheap control and a high floor over the flashy upside of other prospect hauls (like the one the Cubs got in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade just weeks earlier). Dave Cameron of FanGraphs described Smyly as "[not] the highest upside guy around" but a "league average starter ... with four more years of team control" who would "remain underpaid" for nearly the entire time. Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus called him "a no. 3" with "promise as a starter and a floor as a dominant reliever." A guy with potential upside, sure, but not upside he was likely to reach.
By the end of 2014, however, writers were already talking about Smyly's demonstrated next level. In September of that year, FoxSports' Andrew Astleford said he could become "the diamond in the rough" of the David Price trade, and that it was time to view him in "a different light" than at the time of the trade. Ken Rosenthal reported that the Rays had pushed Smyly to elevate his fastball more often, and Jeff Sullivan noted that change in approach had coincided with his K-BB% doubling. BtBS's own Ryan Romano said Smyly's continued improvement through 2015 presaged a dominant 2016. For a pitcher who was never a blue-chip prospect, and who was once relegated to the bullpen as a quasi-LOOGY, this was an impressive rise.
Unfortunately, 2016 has been a big step backward for Smyly, at least on the surface. He's sitting on an ERA closer to six than five, and while the Rays have underperformed in numerous aspects of the game, Smyly was supposed to be their number two or three starter, and his lack of success is certainly part of their disappointing season. Entering the year, the main projection systems all agreed with Ryan and Jeff and Andrew and projected Smyly for continued solid run prevention: ZiPS with a 3.64 ERA, PECOTA a 3.56, and Steamer a 3.30. Both ZiPS and Steamer thought his FIP would be worse – 3.73 and 3.67, respectively – and PECOTA similarly thought his DRA would be worse, at 4.04.
This article would be simple if Smyly's ERA looked bad while his peripherals looked good. Teams today understand the randomness that goes into run scoring, and there wouldn't be much debate around Smyly's value. And to some extent, that's the case. His strikeouts are down somewhat from last year – 25.2 percent versus 28.0 percent – but 2015 represented a season high on that front, and his walks have fallen as well, leading to a K-BB percentage right in line with his career norms. Instead, the change is in the dingers; his HR/9 is sitting at 1.79, versus a career norm of 1.18. With 100 innings under Smyly's belt this year, that's not simply a fluke, but a sizable difference of nearly seven home runs.
Home runs are one of the "three true outcomes" that don't result from any defensive input, but unlike their counterparts of strikeouts and walks, they don't vary that much from pitcher to pitcher. Guys can allow greater or fewer fly balls, but as a rule, the number of fly balls that turn into home runs is pretty consistent. This is how Smyly ends up with a 4.48 FIP but a 4.12 xFIP: the latter regresses his HR/FB back to league average. The question for the Rays, and any team that might be interested in Smyly, is whether that regression is appropriate, and whether Smyly has been unlucky with the long ball or has done something to invite more of them.
We can turn a few places for hints. I referred to DRA earlier, a stat from Baseball Prospectus with the full name of Deserved Run Average. DRA uses statistical modeling to predict what ERA a pitcher "should" have allowed, based on a number of underlying variables. By DRA, Smyly has been much better than his FIP or even his xFIP suggests; his 3.49 puts him in a class that includes Zack Greinke (3.48), Masahiro Tanaka (3.52), and Jake Arrieta (3.55), among others. DRA regresses home runs; by this measure, Smyly has been the victim of a heaping of bad luck, which might actually make him more attractive to an acquiring team. With two more trips through arbitration before he hits free agency, an ERA that looks worse than it should will depress his income and make him a more valuable asset, if DRA is accurately reflecting his skill.
The projection systems agree that Smyly is mostly the player he was before the season began. Steamer has revised its FIP projection up by 0.14, and ZiPS by 0.31. Interestingly, despite Smyly's better-than-projected DRA thus far, PECOTA has also revised its projection upward, by 0.13. Unfortunately, the projection systems (and DRA) are fairly opaque, and determining why they feel a way about a certain player can be difficult. Statcast (available at Baseball Savant) isn't much help with Smyly; his average exit velocity allowed is 88.1 MPH, 159th out of the 198 pitchers with at least 100 batted balls. Looking only at home runs, Smyly's average velocity of 102.8 MPH and average distance of 399.3 feet are nearly identical to the league averages of 103.4 MPH and 398.5 feet. If he's getting unlucky on home runs, it's not due to balls barely scraping over the top of the wall.
Smyly's approach also hasn't changed much when compared to the period from his trade to the Rays to the end of 2015. He's still throwing lots of elevated fastballs with two strikes, and they're staying out of the middle of the zone pretty well. The high fastball strategy can be risky, in that a pitch at the shoulders is great at inducing whiffs, but a pitch a few inches lower is great at inducing dingers. It doesn't look like Smyly has slipped into that trap based on the above charts from Brooks Baseball. The home runs he's given up haven't exclusively been on fastballs, either, or anywhere near it; they've been spread across all his pitches, roughly similar to the rates at which he uses those pitches.
In other words, after all that, we're still left with Drew Smyly, enigma. It's possible he's just this year's Rick Porcello (which I mean in the most positive way possible): a solid pitcher who's running into some bad luck with the long ball, and that's the view the projections and Smyly's peripherals seem to suggest. I still feel some nervousness, as without an apparent explanation for the home runs he's been giving up, it's possible there's some underlying issue still out there that is driving it. Given just how many home runs he's given up in the first half of 2016, this is also a plausible view.
It's possible that Smyly and the Rays as a whole have fallen victim to the general league-wide increase in home run rate. The Rays staff generally relies on fly balls (the Rays starters as a group have the second-lowest ground ball rate in MLB), so they are particularly vulnerable to this league-wide trend. Smyly has traded even more grounders for fly balls this season compared to seasons past, but his HR/FB has hardly changed from last year. Smyly's homer woes can't entirely be due to the league-wide increase in offense.
I think it's important to remember that teams are almost always working with more information than what's publicly available, and they have people much smarter and better-paid than I analyzing it for them. This is an open question, and it might be one for the Rays and the rest of MLB as well. If Smyly gets traded, however, I suspect we'll get some clarity on whether the league thinks Smyly's true talent lies closer to his ERA or his DRA. Until then, or until Smyly either begins dominating or his peripherals nosedive, we'll have to remain in the dark.
. . .
Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.