Drew Smyly had the worst outing of his Rays career if not his entire career last night as the team lost for the 14th time in 15 tries against Kansas City. The disastrous outing put an end to a month that saw the lefty post a 7.18 ERA while opponents posted a .397 wOBA against him coming off a month of April where he had a 2.60 ERA and a .219 wOBA against him.
Some might say May is just some normalization of his statistics as his .173 batting average on balls in play stranding nearly 80 percent of his runners in April came back to Earth. If you watched last night’s game, the effort was nothing about regression and a lot about revulsion from what we saw both from his pitches and his actions.
For a guy such as Smyly, velocity is important. We know from the work by Mike Fast that every tick up in velocity is worth .28 runs suppressed per nine innings. In April, Smyly’s velocity on his fastball ranged from 91.5 mph to 92.6 mph, and it was a fastball he put up in the zone.
Fastballs up at the letters in the zone serve two purposes: they’re harder to square up to the theory of Effective Velocity and they change the eye level of the batter so they have to adjust both vertically as well as horizontally to pitch location. When things were going well for Smyly in April, the fastball and slider were up, the cutter painted the edges of the zone, and the changeup was down in the zone. That is not happening in May and was certainly not happening last night.
This is the plot chart for Smyly’s pitches when he threw that beautiful one-hitter in mid-April in Fenway (click to enlarge):
This is the plot chart for Smyly’s pitches last night against Kansas City (click to enlarge):
Note how much lower his fastball was last night compared to where it was in April. Additionally, where the cutter was a pitch that was painting the corners, it was too frequently found out and over the plate last night (and in previous outings in May) which gets us back to the velocity issue.
Smyly’s average fastball velocity in May has ranged from 90.1 to 91.3, so he’s lost one of those ticks Fast referred to in his research. Not only has the fastball slowed down, but it has come down in the zone as well making it easier to hit. Opponents hit .167 and slugged .375 off Smyly’s fastballs they put into play in April but finished May hitting .304 and slugging .430 against the pitch. Smyly generated swings and misses 15% of the time off his fastball in April and the contact rate against his fastball that month was 65%. In May, those measures fell to 9% and 81% respectively.
Last month, we took notice of how frequently Smyly was using his changeup as he opened the season with three consecutive double-digit changeup pitch totals and finished April with 50 changeups thrown. For some unknown reason, Smyly has mostly shelved the pitch in May as he threw a total of 21 in May and only 3 over his last three outings. He has instead thrown more fastballs during this time where he is struggling with velocity and location eclipsing the 60 percent utilization of that pitch for a third consecutive outing last night.
High fastball utilization is not new for Smyly with the Rays as he did something similar last September when four of his six outings had such usage. In fact, Smyly’s velocity range on his fastball this past September is almost identical to where it is now. However, he was getting the rise on his fastball then that he is not seeing now.
Another noticeable issue for Smyly is his cutter. Yes, he is not locating it as well as he did in April, but the velocity on the pitch has noticeably dropped off in recent outings.
The cutter was in the 85-87 range earlier in the season, but has fallen into the low 80’s in recent outings. The pitch is also not as tight as it once was as it lacks the late movement that makes the cutter so effective when properly executed and instead has resembled a flat curveball more often than not. To see that in action, compare the cutter Smyly throws here to strike out David Ortiz to the one he threw Cameron Maybin two weeks back that led to a lead-off home run.
Smyly was generating four to six swings and misses a game off his cutter into early May when the velocity was good. Since it has begun dropping off, so have the whiffs as he has generated just 3 swings and misses in the last 73 cutters he has thrown.
It is unclear why Smyly has shelved the changeup and gone to more fastballs in a time where he is struggling to command his fastball, but that is not the only reason Smyly had an awful May. He does not have much of anything going his way and while he may have been one of the best 1-3 pitchers in baseball in April, he was one of its worst 1-3 pitchers in May. You can see it wearing on him with his body language and actions on the mound when he gets frustrated by the struggling defense behind him or any perceived strike zone issues from the umpires.
Smyly does not have to look too far back to find a time when he was successful and it would behoove him and the team to try to get back to that happy place and get him back to the guy that could go seven strong most nights. The other night, Archer came out and went 40 pitches before throwing his first slider as he tried to do something different to change the course he was on. Perhaps it is time for Smyly to do the same.