One Quick Thing: The Smyly Transition

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Drew Smyly was a starter and then a reliever and now he’s a starter again. After spending a couple of weeks in the pen, Smyly makes his second start of the season tonight against the White Sox, so let’s take a quick look at how he performs as a starter compared to as a reliever.

We all know that Smyly was better on an inning by inning basis in 2013 while pitching out of the bullpen. That’s pretty common. When you’re only asked to go one or two innings, you do better than when you have to throw five to seven. Smyly increased his strikeout rate, decreased his walk rate, allowed fewer runs, got more ground balls, got batters to swing more often, and got batters to make less contact when they swung.

In pretty much every way, Smyly performed better as a reliever. But something that’s very curious about the whole thing is that Smyly didn’t throw harder out of the pen. Pitchf/x (per the classifications at FanGraphs) has Smyly throwing about a mile per hour softer on every pitch (four seam, two seam, cutter, slider, and change). That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it’s strange that he would move to the bullpen, throw softer, and get better. That’s not a typical progression at all.

Now it’s not as if this velocity change was dramatic or worrisome, but normally we think of guys moving to the bullpen and throwing harder because they don’t need to save as much energy for later innings, and as a result, they tend to pitch a little better. That isn’t how Smyly improved. It also doesn’t seem like he got much more bite on his pitches.

One potential explanation is that he did a better job in 2013 of releasing his fastball and breaking ball from the same spot, meaning it was harder for the batter to distinguish between them, but even those differences are slight.

Another explanation is that Smyly killed lefties in 2013 to the tune of a .212 wOBA against compared to .304 for RHH. The 2012 gap was .293/.327. In 2012, he faced lefties 31% of the time and saw them 43% of the time in 2013. That can explain some of the basic results because he had the platoon advantage more often, but it doesn’t explain why he got way better against lefties and only a little better against righties.

Perhaps we can turn to the times through the order penalty (TTOP). In 2012, Smyly allowed a .282 wOBA the first time, .359 wOBA the second time, and .315 wOBA the third time. In 2013, he was almost never asked to face batters multiple times in one game.

*If someone notices an error in that calculation, let me know. Used a shortcut. Could be a rounding error here or there.

Unfortunately, this isn’t super encouraging. The TTOP is a very real phenomenon and it appears that Smyly isn’t immune. He didn’t really get better, he just didn’t let guys get multiple looks against him. Pitchers have to struggle with this constantly and it will be important for him to mix his pitches and give different looks as he tries to pitch deep into games. He was still a solid starter in 2012, but we probably shouldn’t expect his 2013 gains to carry over.

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