January 14, 2014
Painting the Black
Three seasons ago, Phil Coke started 14 games for a playoff-bound Detroit team. Coke, who the Yankees reared as a starter during his prospect days, had appeared in 158 games by that point, with all but one coming in relief. (The exception was a spot-start in the previous season's finale.) Success felt like a long shot, yet Detroit's effort made sense. As Detroit's pitching coach Jeff Jones, who served as the club's bullpen coach at the time, later explained, "[Coke] had the variety of quality stuff, he'd done it before and been successful in the minor leagues." Coke's variety of stuff and minor league success never yielded results, however, and the overwhelmed lefty returned to the bullpen by midseason.
Jones's experience with Coke during that forgettable trial should serve as a nice reference point this spring, when he converts another southpaw reliever into a starter. The pupil this time is Drew Smyly, whose transition should come easier. Smyly's stay in the bullpen lasted one season and was caused by a deep, talented rotation. Rather than send him to the minors, Dave Dombrowski used him to stabilize the bullpen. Things worked out well on all fronts: Detroit led the AL in rotation ERA and Smyly posted the game's second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio among left-handed relievers.
Nonetheless, Dombrowski entered the offseason motivated to trade a starter, which he did in December, when he sent Doug Fister to the Nationals in a much-maligned trade that cleared the way for Smyly's return to the rotation. Smyly would have experienced some extra pressure no matter who the Tigers moved, and for whom—such is the case when good teams replace veterans with youngsters—yet the disdain for the deal has changed the stakes. No longer is Smyly's development crucial only from an on-the-field standpoint; now it matters symbolically. If he succeeds, the Tigers can feel vindicated—or, at least somewhat justified—for the trade. If he fails, the post-trade questioning will restart.
That's a lot to put on the arm of any 24-year-old, let alone one who hasn't topped 130 innings in a season. Still, Smyly isn't the typical inexperienced kid. The former Razorback has a deep arsenal, including a low-90s fastball, cutter, curveball, and changeup. He leverages his tall, lanky body well—allowing him to deliver the ball on a steep downward plane—while repeating his actions well enough to maintain good control. Smyly receives high marks for his feel and poise on the mound, and in a perfect world he flowers into a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Despite those positives, there are legitimate concerns about Smyly's ability to fulfill his promise. Most notably, he'll need to prove he can handle the workload and more frequent exposure to right-handed batters.
Smyly averaged more than an inning per appearance last season, but Jim Leyland deployed him like a normal reliever down the stretch. All 11 of his outings lasting two or more innings came before June ended, and all but one of his 21 four-plus out appearances occurred prior to the trade deadline. The biggest adjustment for Smyly might have nothing to do with the uptick in innings, or his need to find a preparation and throw schedule that works for him. Instead, it could be how he deals with the blisters—a reoccurring issue for him, albeit one absent from last season due to his abbreviated outings.
Those abbreviated outings allowed the Tigers to manipulate who Smyly matched up with more than they'll be able to do this season. As a result, Smyly held the platoon advantage against 43 percent of the batters he faced. Of the 42 southpaws who tallied at least 100 innings in 2013, only three faced more than 30 percent lefties: Matt Moore, Hector Santiago, and Bruce Chen. Smyly, for his part, shouldn't join the club. His surface-level splits suggest he's better against lefties than righties, and a deeper look supports the notion: he's an extreme groundball pitcher versus same-handed batters, but turns into a fly-ball machine when pitted against righties. Smyly's ability to locate his cutter and changeup will dictate how much he can improve in those respects.
This would be the spot where similar recent reliever-to-starter transitions are referenced as proof of how these things can go either way. The past five seasons have seen a fair share of successes and failures among the 12 big leaguers who have made the switch*, but pitchers like Smyly—those with deep arsenals and an idea as to where the ball is headed—rarely spend time in the bullpen. That means he's not necessarily represented by those dozen—his walk rate would represent the lowest in the bullpen year by three quarters of a walk per nine innings. Adding to his oddness is that he didn't gain velocity with a move to relief—on the contrary, his average velocity decreased by about half a mile per hour, according to Brooks Baseball.
*Pitchers who made more than 40 appearances and zero starts a season before starting at least 10 games.
If Smyly can withstand the increased workload and exposure against right-handed hitters, then he should become a valued member of Detroit's rotation for the next few years. Dombrowski has added incentive to root for Smyly, as Max Scherzer will qualify for free agency at season's end, with Rick Porcello following suit the following year. While the Tigers do have some arms nearing the majors—namely Robbie Ray and Drew VerHagen—potential is no substitute for having four proven starters.