Smyly is Changing UP
The Drew Smyly that wore a Detroit Tiger uniform and the Drew Smyly that has worn a Tampa Bay Rays uniform are very much related. Same number with a delivery that dances between unique and awkward thanks to some heavy spine tilt, and a three-pitch repertoire. However, there is one big difference between the 2015 Smyly and the 2016 Smyly – the cambio.
It is a right of passage for a Rays’ starting pitcher to start using a changeup more frequently at some point in their development with the organization. Jeremy Hellickson was seemingly born his his changeup. Alex Cobb had Thing 1 and Jake Odorizzi had Thing 2. Chris Archer and the changeup have taken awhile to get together, but it isn’t stretching the truth to say Archer is showing better command of that pitch than his two primary pitches thus far in 2016.
For Smyly, the increased usage of the changeup has been apparent since his first start against Toronto as he threw 13 in that outing and threw 11 against both Cleveland and Boston. Those three double-digit pitch totals for changeups doubled Smyly’s career ledger from his previous 126 games.
Smyly’s reluctance to use the changeup in the past is understandable given that batters had a .342 average and a .685 slugging percentage when putting the pitch into play. The ones that he didn’t leave up in the zone were not very competitive out of the hand as many were thrown below the strike zone and just half ended up as strikes from either swings and misses, called strikes, or foul balls. The changeups that Smyly has thrown thus far have been exclusively to right-handed batters, and the only damage from a changeup was a long home run to Josh Donaldson. Smyly has been able to get other batters out in front of the pitch to roll over on it to the left side or pop it up to an infielder.
One thing that stands out in the plot data is where Smyly is using his changeup to righties. Typically, pitchers will fade the pitch away so that it’s going down and below the swing path, but Smly has been throwing quite a number of changeups down and in, despite the fact he works from the first base side of the rubber.
Smyly has been able to throw the changeup with conviction and mostly keep it down in the zone and use it both in and out to righties. Compare that pitch plot to the one from 2012-2015 when the final location of Smyly’s changeup was anyone’s guess:
This version of Smyly is a new look for batters and so far. Toronto did not care, but there are worse sins than being mashed by a team loaded with lefty-mashing batters. Cleveland came up empty with many swings and 26 plate appearances against Smyly produced three hits while the same number from Boston produced two fewer hits and the same 11 strikeouts.
No pitcher can continue to do the same thing year in and year out and expect the same results. The best pitcher in this game, Clayton Kershaw, threw an eephus curve the other day. Many pitchers come to camp talking about the new pitches they will throw that season even though a good number of the hurlers don’t bring the pitch north with them. Smyly is dusting off a pitch that has been mostly a show-me pitch in the past and is using it as a weapon to keep righties off-balance and has not been afraid to use even when behind in the count. It’s part of the reason Smyly currently has the third-highest strikeout percentage in baseball at 34.2% trailing only Vincent Velasquez and a Norse deity.
Today, Smyly becomes the third consecutive lefty to face off against the Bronx Bombers. Matt Moore was inconsistently effective while Blake Snell did nothing to quell fans cries for his promotion. Let’s see how Smyly continues this approach today against a Yankee lineup that has mostly struggled against southpaws in 2016.