Drew Smyly’s Predecessors
When the Rays acquired Drew Smyly as the principal component in the David Price deal at the deadline of 2014 it looked like the team was getting a young horse that could immediately be plugged into the rotation for the next four plus years. It’s not very often that you can find someone that profiles as a two to three win pitcher with that much control, but David Price is kind of a big deal. An offseason finger injury delayed his spring training debut and when he finally did get on the field he ramped up too quickly leading to a shoulder issue. He would miss the first few weeks, but his debut saw the guy we all expected. Then after three starts the shoulder flared up again. Rays beat writer Mark Topkin’s “informed speculation” stated that the labrum was torn. It’s likely he would never pitch again. Yet here we are a few months later with Smyly on the mound and doing his best to keep this train on the tracks.
Mr. Smyly never went into specifics on the injury, but it would seem that there is some fraying in the shoulder. Unlike the ulnar-collateral ligament of Tommy John fame the labrum is a muscle. Muscles repair themselves. Every time you exert effort you’re tearing fibers at the micro level and when you rest those tears heal making the muscle stronger. Small wear and tear is fixable, but the track record of guys coming back from these types of injuries shows a nearly universal failure rate. Roughly 100 pitchers have hit the DL for at least 60 days from 2010 – ’14 due to any sort of shoulder ailment. Of that group there were 14 lefties that went on to throw another pitch. Most of them were used in relief. More on this in a bit. This is not something that guys usually come back from so it is encouraging to see Smyly on the mound at all, but his first start left something to be desired if you’re a rabid fan with not necessarily realistic expectations.
Drew went four and gave up five including two homers in his second debut of the season. He left some balls over the plate when he wasn’t missing just off of it. There were encouraging signs, but you would need to dig deep to see the real concern. When pitchers have arm troubles they will often need to compensate in some way to offset either the pain or loss of mobility/flexibility. This usually shows up when looking at release points:
(Data courtesy of Baseball Savant)
I wanted to get a second start in before releasing this article because I thought it important to have a second comparison point following his long lay off. Here I have plotted all release points over time with special emphasis on his first three starts of the year (2015/purple), his first start back (1/black) and his second start back (2/orange). It may be difficult to see, but it looks like his first start saw a guy that was hesitant to come over the top instead coming off the side a bit more, which is going to have a dramatic effect on the movement of his pitches. In order to see this better I have also taken the average of each group:
I have added the dotted line to kind of give an idea of the range of motion of release points. You can see just how low and out wide he was releasing his pitches in that first start back. That game was on the exact opposite end of the spectrum from the guy we saw last year who was coming well over the top. His second start saw a compromise point as he wasn’t quite as lateral, but also not quite as high as where he had been in the past. While this could be a calibration issue (another reason to get more data rather than less), this could also be an example of a guy that is a work in progress trying to get back to where he needs to be. It certainly gives us something to keep an eye on going forward as his second start went a lot smoother, albeit, in a much better park for pitchers.
Back to those previous examples. Of the 14 guys that “survived” their surgery to again throw at least one pitch there were three that stood out as direct comparables mostly because they were the only three southpaw starters that were able to come back. Clayton Richard, John Danks, and Jaime Garcia aren’t really all that similar other than the hand they use to do their job as a major league pitcher. The one thing they all have in common is the shoulder injuries in the past that saw them spend at least 60 days on the Disabled List. Richard and Garcia actually had two such stints for their shoulders, while Danks had just the one. I wanted to look at their vertical release points to see if what I noticed following Smyly’s first start was something that oscillates or comes back to previous levels or not. I think the findings are rather interesting:
There is a lot going on and it will be the same method for the next two guys so let’s learn this real quick. The left-hand axis shows release point in feet, while the right-hand axis shows run vales as calculated by me using Harry Pavlidis’s old method that he has since improved upon. C’est la vie, this works. The barely noticeable blue dotted line shows what an average pitcher’s run values look like while the black dotted line shows his average release point height over the entirety of these years. The red vertical lines show when he was injured. Moving averages are great for lots of things, but it’s important to remember that every single point on the line is the average of the previous 1,000 pitches so everything around these vertical lines is going to contain some semblance of the previous pitches. It takes a minute for things to stabilize, is my point.
We can see that early in his career Richard gradually raised his release point roughly half a foot from when he first broke into the league. He even saw a bit of success as he started coming more over the top, but eventually the shoulder could no longer keep up. After the injury he was back down closer to six foot than the six and a half that he had worked himself up to. Then he mostly hung around that level. For another almost 4,000 pitches before the shoulder gave out again and he needed another surgery. After that you can see how dramatically his release point fell off. My boss Jason Collette could probably tell you some stories about shoulder mobility, but I’ll leave that to him. Let’s move on to the second guy John Danks:
We can see with Danks that other than something abnormal early on (perhaps a shoulder flare up or possibly trying a more three-quarters angle) he was pretty steadily trending down until he went under the knife in May of 2012 for basically a year. Following his time off he made a conscious effort to come over the top more, but even that exaggerated and elevated release point has fallen off steadily since then. It is probably only a matter of time before he needs to shut it down again, and from the team perspective he might not even be missed as you can see just how poorly he has performed for the most part after being quite good. Let’s move on to Jaime Garcia:
Garcia shows much more of a linear path since 2008 as his release points were steadily trending downhill even before the shoulder injury. It should be noted that Garcia had Tommy John surgery in August of 2008, which may have been a contributor here. Before the shoulder injury he was really, really good, but that started to change as he approached the point where he couldn’t fight through the pain anymore. In June of 2012 he hit the DL for 64 games before giving it another shot. He came back in mid-August and was able to gut it out through the rest of the season pitching better than average, but not as well as previously. The following April he was still pitching pretty well, but you can see between the red lines that he was drastically dropping his release point again. He would have shoulder surgery on his partial labrum and rotator cuff tears in May and miss the rest of the 2013 season.
He was able to get back on the mound to start 2014, and pitched pretty well before having to get thoracic outlet surgery. He would miss the rest of the season. So far in 2015 you can see that he has pitched really well, and he has even seen a bit of a raising of his release point, but you have to wonder how long it will be until the shoulder gives out again. I think this is a pretty solid expectation of what might happen to Drew as he may be on the mound now, but sometime in the next year he may finally succumb to the ailment and go under the knife. A surgery would not be the death knell of his career as these are merely three examples of guys that have come back to have some success, but the greatest indicator of future injury is past injury so it will only be a matter of time. I also put one of these together for Drew so we may as well take a look:
I have gone with a smaller moving average of 250 pitches here since Drew has only thrown around 200 pitches since he came back, but I think it shows the point. His release point had dropped substantially this year, and while we may only be talking an inch or three these things have very large multiplicative effects. If you drop your release point by an inch that may cause the ball to move downward more than that inch or may cause major disruptions to command and control. Much like the kingdom that wanted for a nail, small things can become enormous things. We can see him ticking up ever so slightly due to that last start, but this is something that should be monitored because if the release point dips and continues to drop it could be a major flag for an injury that even a strong young bull like Drew Smyly just will not be able to physically pitch through.
I wish him the best as he’s a real joy to watch and as a Rays fan it’s hard to stomach losing someone of this calibre for any amount of time. The probabilities are still woeful. We’re talking a small handful of guys that go through this issue ever throw a pitch again, and even amongst the guys that do get back out there you’re looking at a strong likelihood of future injury coupled with no sure bet to return to previous excellence. Here’s hoping Drew does whatever he needs to stay on the field and pitching well. For this year, and beyond.
Many thanks to the Baseball Prospectus Injury database for this article as well as the aforementioned Baseball Savant.