Ah yes, the perfect distraction from a cheating scandal: the margin moves of a rebuilding team. The Giants announced via Twitter that they’ve signed left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly to a 1-year deal ($4 million with incentives), and if you’re wondering why, it’s obviously for depth.
Tyler Anderson’s recovery from knee surgery might delay his debut until after Opening Day. Jeff Samardzija is a year older. Johnny Cueto’s effectiveness in the Statcast era post-Tommy John might not amount to much, and the rest of the rotation options are unproven or, stuff-wise, lackluster. Kevin Gausman will earn $9 million and will first get a shot at cracking the rotation, but he could also very well be the next Drew Pomeranz, being a better option out of the bullpen.
So, that means the Giants are better off cultivating multiple options when it comes to a 5-man starting staff, if not for permanent pieces, then to better put themselves in situations where they can be flexible. There’s a decent chance will be seeing a lot of opener starts or piggyback situations. This could very well be the Giants’ experimental phase.
Beyond that, acquiring Smyly, who missed two years because of Tommy John and subsequent rehab, falls in line with Zaidi’s m.o. with the Dodgers in terms of stockpiling depth. Gausman, Anderson, and Smyly fall neatly into the Brett Anderson / Rich Hill / Scott Baker / Scott Kazmir / Brandon McCarthy mold of just trying to find guys who could be good, when healthy, and hoping that either one of them really has a in-season glow up or their IL stints simply follow each other’s rather than overlap.
Smyly had an 8.42 ERA in 13 starts with the Rangers last season before they released him in June. The Brewers signed him and then released him before he ever threw a pitch for them at the major league level. The Phillies grabbed him and gave him 12 starts, four of which were actually good. For Gabe Kapler, he posted a 4.45 ERA in 62.2 IP, with 68 K and 21 walks.
He’s not a hard thrower — 91.2 mph average with his four-seamer — but he relies on his fastball quite a lot (47.5% last season, per Statcast). His big out pitch is a curveball (29.2% of the time; 38.9% Whiff rate). He also has a cutter and changeup. He does not feature a high spin rate, either. But spin rate and velocity aren’t everything!
There’s the idea of “pitch design”, which usually involves grip and approach. Smyly’s effectiveness in 2019 (9.5 K/9 despite a 6.26 FIP) was largely due to the perception of his pitches. For instance, that 91 mph four-seamer had 11% greater vertical “rise” against the average four-seam fastball thrown, 58th-best in baseball.
If none of that makes sense to you, here’s Statcast’s Mike Petriello attempt to explain it (this post is from May):
Every pitch drops, remember, thanks to gravity. Four-seam fastballs, depending on their velocity and movement, drop something like 10 to 25 inches on their way to the plate.
That’s what the new pitch movement leaderboards at Baseball Savant attempt to account for, reporting movement numbers in inches, with gravity included, and also showing context by comparing movement against similar pitches of that type (defined as pitches within plus/minus 2 MPH of velocity, and within plus/minus half a foot of extension and release point) to reflect what a batter sees from his perspective.
These are the top five in rise added — and remember: “rise” is something of an illusion, as it’s really more about a pitch that ‘drops less than expected.’ Every pitch drops.
The way to read this is “inches in rise above average at a similar velocity and release point,” also shown in terms of percentage.
1. Marco Estrada, OAK: 4.4 inches
2. Tyler Thornburg, BOS: 4.1 inches
3. Sean Doolittle, WSH: 4.0 inches
4. Neil Ramirez, CLE: 3.3 inches
5. Josh Hader, MIL: 3.3 inches
No one throws more fastballs than Doolittle does (92.4%); this helps explain why, and also that it’s about more than raw spin rate, which for Doolittle is actually low, just 36th percentile — it’s likely that his spin axis is near-perfect.
The more obvious way to understand this is that the Giants signed the Statcast era’s version of the crafty soft-tossing lefty.
The work ahead for Brian Bannister, Andrew Bailey, and the baker’s dozen of coaches the Giants will deploy in 2020 involves harnessing this savviness to gain some consistency. Pitching in Oracle will certainly help Smyly — whose .379 wOBA against was in the bottom 5% of baseball and 38.6% hard hit rate was in the bottom third — but even if the Dodgers are susceptible to left-handed pitching, having to face them and pitching in Coors Field don’t suggest the Giants have found a hidden Cy Young pitcher on the scrap heap.
But that’s okay. The Giants aren’t trying to win anything. They’re just trying to fulfill the 162-game schedule they’re contracted to play and along the way, if they can find some hidden gems — or, better yet, create some of their own — then they will be able to look at their development team and program and feel good about it for whenever the day comes that the Giants will be good enough to try to win a few games.