It wasn’t immediately apparent what the Phillies were thinking when they picked up Drew Smyly. Through 51 1⁄3 innings in Texas, Smyly pitched to an 8.42 ERA and 8.05 FIP. Before signing with Philadelphia, he went to the Brewers on a minor league contract and continued to struggle. He had missed the 2017 and 2018 seasons entirely after undergoing Tommy John surgery, so he hadn’t been an effective pitcher since 2016.
He doesn’t have an elite tool-set. His fastball ranks in the 12th percentile in velocity and spin. His curveball has been effective historically, but it ranks in the 1st percentile for spin. This wasn’t a situation like with the Astros and Aaron Sánchez and Joe Biagini where you could predict the adjustments the team wanted them to make before they even happened; this mostly seemed like a team wracked with injuries desperate for warm bodies.
The Phillies, however, had a plan, and it meshed with what Smyly had already started to do. Since coming to Philadelphia, Smyly has been a much more effective pitcher. In 18 innings, Smyly has struck out 20 while walking just four. He’s allowed just six runs though five of those came in a disastrous inning against the White Sox. He was otherwise perfect in that outing.
When a player changes teams, it’s always interesting to see how their pitch usage changes. The Phillies and Smyly agreed that he should be throwing the cutter more; Smyly had ramped up its usage after hardly using it in April. Below is a graph showing Smyly’s pitch usage by month. He was DFA’d by the Rangers in June, and he made his Phillies debut in July.
You’ll also notice that Smyly stopped throwing his changeup in June, but this wasn’t a recommendation made by the Phillies. Smyly stopped throwing his changeup two outings before the Rangers cut him. In his first outing since he stopped throwing the changeup, he threw a three-inning save with five strikeouts. His next was less encouraging as he gave up three homers in his final 3 1⁄3 innings with Texas.
It simply wasn’t an effective pitch for him. Hitters weren’t missing it and he wasn’t getting the same kind of horizontal break as he was before Tommy John. In 2016, his changeup averaged 11.7 inches of horizontal break. In 2019, it averaged just 3.6 inches.
Dropping the changeup was a step in the right direction, but there was still more that needed to be done. Since coming to the Phillies, Smyly has doubled down on its usage and he’s using it differently. In Texas, Smyly had mostly reserved his cutter for righties. Until June 4th, Smyly had only thrown two cutters to lefties all season. Smyly preferred to use it as a backdoor pitch, spotting it down and away. Here’s a plot of all the cutters Smyly threw during his time with the Rangers.
The approach produced disastrous results. By pitch values, Smyly’s cutter was worth -5.5 runs making it the worst cutter in the majors through June 18, Smyly’s last outing with Texas. With the Phillies, Smyly moved his cutter from the arm-side to the glove-side part of the plate.
Since adjusting where he throws the cutter, it’s been a much better pitch. It’s been worth 1.3 runs in his last three outings. By throwing the pitch inside to righties and away from lefties, Smyly has made it harder to square up. It’s a small sample, so it’s impossible to say that this has fixed Smyly. The early returns are promising, though. If Smyly is back to competency this will be a huge pickup for the Phillies who still find themselves in the middle of a playoff race despite a decimated pitching staff.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.