After his flurry of moves early in the offseason, Jerry Dipoto has been relatively quiet of late. Really the entire league is pretty quiet, so it's understandable. But we know he is out there hunting for a starting pitcher, and that makes for a pretty deafening silence.
We've heard a few names tossed around over the last few weeks, and of course, we'd like to aim as high as possible, with DeSclafani, Archer and Odorizzi being some of the top names who may be available. But that also makes them the most expensive, and the M's don't exactly have a surplus of minor league talent to offer.
I've been a vocal proponent of Anthony DeSclafani, but even I admit he may be too rich for Seattle's blood, so I've been looking for an alternative. Drew Smyly seems like he may be the best fit in terms of availability and likely cost, but I'm gun-shy about his inconsistency. He has the upside to be a 3 win pitcher, but he's maxed out at 2.2 WAR due mostly to injury. Last year he set a personal record for innings at 175.1, but he also had by far his worst year in terms of both ERA and FIP.
So I went digging, to see if there is anything that might make him more appealing, and less like a Taijuan redux. First, some general background. Smyly has pitched 570.1 innings, with 483 of them coming as a starter. He has a career 3.74 ERA and 3.82 FIP, both pretty nice marks. However, those jumped to 4.88 and 4.49 last year respectively.
His strikeout and walk rates were normal for him, which means they were actually quite good, at 8.57 K/9 and 2.52 BB/9. His BABIP wasn't out of the ordinary at .291, but he did see a dip in his strand rate, dropping down to 67.7% after being between 79% and 86% the previous three seasons.
The most obvious issue, though, was his penchant for dingers. Smyly has always given up his fair share of home runs, but for the most part they have been manageable, with his HR/9 generally sitting in the low 1's. Beginning in 2015, they became an issue as he allowed 1.49 HR/9. That could partially be explained away by a higher than normal HR/FB rate, though he did also see a one point increase in his fly ball rate.
Instead of regressing, though, his 2016 was even worse. His HR/9 shot up to 1.64, 4th worst among qualified starters. His HR/FB of 12.7% was right in line with the league, and even if you think his true talent is closer to his career mark of 10.8%, that's not enough to make that huge of a difference -- we are talking 27 or 28 home runs allowed versus 32, leading to a HR/9 of somewhere around 1.40. Better, but still bad.
The greater cause lies in his fly ball rate. Despite averaging about 42% fly balls entering 2016, his rate jumped to 49.3% in 2016. This follows a trend of increases beginning in 2014, mostly at the expense of ground balls.
I don't see any clear issues in his pitch mix. It's fluctuated from season to season, but nothing in 2015 or 2016 really jumps out too much, apart from maybe his cutter. He threw it 18% in 2015, up from 15%, but then dropped it back down to 14% in 2016. Its value took a nosedive over that time. After being positive in 2013 and 2014 according to Fangraphs wCT metric, it was worth -3.8 in 2015 and -9.7 in 2016.
In fact, all of his secondary pitches had negative value, while his fastball was the best of his career. This was the first season that at least one of his secondary pitches wasn't viewed positively by this measure.
Let's look at location. Below is his heatmap for 2012 through 2014, when his home runs were more in control.
As you can see, he spent on a lot of time down in the zone, and in to right handers (away from left handers), with over 12% of his offerings landing in that lower left section. It also makes sense that he uses the cutter quite a bit in this area; almost 44% of the cutters he's thrown in his career have landed in one of the three leftmost, bottommost zones -- the bottom left corner alone accounts for 23%. Now consider his heatmap from 2015-2016.
Still plenty of red down in that corner, but it's shifted some from the left to the center and right. He's still pounding the bottom of the zone and below, even more so that before in fact, but it's more spread out rather than concentrated in the corner.
This tendency is most obvious in how he is pitching right handers:
His most frequent location is middle-low at 9.01%. From 2012-2014, his most frequent zone was that bottom left square, at 9.26%, while that middle-low zone was down at just 6.07%. So again, he's keeping the ball low, but it's migrating to the middle of the plate, rather than staying inside.
Now look at his career rate of whiffs per swing against right handed batters:
He gets a decent amount of whiffs in that bottom middle zone, but he's much better as he works inside. Now, his whiff rate has actually gotten better the last couple years, which could counteract this, but it's still interesting to note that he seems to have changed his location for the worse.
I don't think it's a coincidence that his home run troubles over the last two years have been more apparent against right handed hitters. He has a 1.7 HR/9 against them, versus 1.3 against lefties. He's giving them up to both sides, no doubt about it, but righties are the biggest issue when it comes to home runs.
Finally, look back up at the zone second from the bottom, and in the middle (13.91% whiff rate in the last chart, for reference). Over the last two seasons, he's spent a bit more time in that zone as well. Nothing major, but a small increase from 5.38% to 5.54%.
The thing is, that's his worst zone for both batting average (.362 BAA for his career) and slugging percentage (.670 against for his career). He also gives up 34.8% fly balls in that zone, and while that's not huge, it's also not what you want from your low strikes. He should be staying far away from that area, not moving toward it. And he may not be trying to. It could just be a side effect of his general migration to the middle, and some pitches that were meant to be down out of the zone instead miss up. But regardless, it's a problem.
If he wants to pitch down, his heatmaps suggest it needs to be in on righties (and away from lefties). I know there are already too many charts, but here is his career SLG% heatmap so you can see what I mean:
That lower left corner is good for him. He needs to stay there, not go wandering out over the plate, even if the target is below the knees. If he goes for that and misses up just a little bit, it means he's left the ball in the worst possible place for him. His worst zone for SLG allowed is also the zone he has thrown in most. That's probably not ideal.
In short, I don't know that this really made me like Smyly more. I found something that seems like it played some kind of a role in his recent performance, but this is by no means exhaustive. If Mel and company can get him back to the edges, and more importantly help him limit his fly balls at least a little bit, he's probably a good pitcher.
But even then, there seems to be heightened injury risk. He's never been able to put it all together, and pitch well over a full season. If he does that, he's a nice #3. If not, you have another Nate Karns type. I'm alright with high variance, but that doesn't really describe Smyly, at least in terms of WAR value. He's been between 0.9 and 2.2, and the kind of season we are looking for in a trade target would be better than anything he's ever done.
As is always the case, it depends on cost. If he comes cheap, and the M's think they can get him back to where he was before, cool. This is especially true if everyone else is priced out. If he is valued more for his potential than his actual performance? I'd stay away.