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Drew Smyly’s trouble with the homer

Smyly’s dinger problem may be related to his pitch repertoire.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

When the Mariners acquired Drew Smyly yesterday, they finally found the mid-rotation arm they had been looking for the entire offseason. His upside is pretty obvious—a 3.36 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the last three years ranks 35th among all qualified starting pitchers—but he also comes with some serious warts. In 2016, Smyly gave up 1.64 home runs per nine innings, the fourth highest mark in the majors. Those struggles with the long ball led to career highs in ERA and FIP.

Back in July, Smyly spoke with Eno Sarris of FanGraphs about the home run problems the entire Rays pitching staff were facing. It’s a fascinating article, and I encourage you to read the whole thing, but I’ll just pull out the most pertinent section:

Smyly was introspective about his curveball. “I need to be more unpredictable and mix my speeds more,” he thought about solving his homeritis. “I’ve had some trouble with my offspeed pitches here and there. I’ve struck out a lot of guys on the curve, like in Seattle, but it’s not as consistent as I’d like it to be.”

“I try to be more north/south,” the lefty said. “I want everything to go down and up.”

The very next month, Smyly made some pretty drastic changes to his pitch mix. In August and September, Smyly threw just a single changeup after throwing them around 7% of the time in the months prior.

He replaced those changeups by throwing more of his excellent curveball, like he alluded to in the quote above. Why did he feel like he needed to make such a drastic change? Here are his individual pitch results from 2016:

Pitch Type Count FB/BIP BABIP HR ISO
Pitch Type Count FB/BIP BABIP HR ISO
Four-seam 1639 35.9% 0.295 13 0.146
Cutter 450 30.5% 0.330 8 0.298
Changeup 139 38.4% 0.191 5 0.500
Curveball 655 31.0% 0.313 6 0.178

He primarily used his changeup against right-handed batters and they were absolutely crushing it. More than half the hits he allowed off the pitch left the yard. It’s no surprise why he felt like he needed to drop the pitch—it wasn’t fooling anyone. Did changing his repertoire have any effect against righties over the last two months of the season? The results are mixed:

Apr-Jul vs RHH 397 46.2% 13.5% 0.309 0.215 0.341
Aug-Sept vs RHH 196 52.9% 11.0% 0.254 0.178 0.301

He was able to keep right-handed hitters at bay in August and September, dropping their wOBA against him by 40 points. That’s certainly promising but his strikeout rate dipped in the second half of the season. By dropping a pitch from his repertoire, batters may have had an easier time predicting what he was going to throw on any given pitch. The fact that he improved against righties is a testament to the quality of his fastball and curveball.

But he can’t survive on just two pitches, especially if he’s trying to mitigate the wide handedness splits he’s struggled with. If he’s not throwing his changeup, that leaves his cutter as his third pitch. He’s able to generate an above average amount of whiffs with that pitch but it doesn’t really cut very much. In fact, it moves horizontally very similarly to his fastball and his curveball, or more accurately, it’s a slower version of his fastball without as much “rise” to it. The second statement I quoted above matches what we see in the data.

Historically, Smyly’s cutter has been a good pitch for him. Like I mentioned, it generates an impressive amount of whiffs but opposing batters knocked it around quite a bit last year. It’s not a velocity or movement issue so it must be related to how he’s locating it. Below are two pitch location heat maps, the one on the right is shows where he located his cutter in 2014 and 2015, the one on the right is from 2016.

Sure enough, when facing right-handed batters, he was leaving his cutter out over the plate more often in 2016. In years prior, he would bury his cutter down and in against righties and they couldn’t make solid contact with the pitch. But even though he kept the pitch down last season, it was out over the middle of the plate and righties punished him for it.

Smyly possesses two excellent pitches in his fastball and his curveball. But his success will likely be tied to the effectiveness of his third (or fourth) pitch. His cutter has been a weapon for him in the past and he’ll need it to be again if he wants to bounce back in 2017.