2019 Stat Line
4-7, 6.24 ERA, 6.26 FIP, 114 IP, 120 K, 55 BB, 32 HR, -0.4 bWAR
Saturday, Drew Smyly froze both Mike Trout and Justin Upton to get called third strikes and end the first inning of his second spring training start for the Giants. He powered through 1.2 scoreless innings in his first spring training start, too. Say — a 0.00 ERA through his first couple of spring starts is good, right?
The Giants think so much of Drew Smyly as a winning lottery ticket that they were willing to commit $4 million to him this offseason, no small feat for a team not interested in guaranteeing anything to incoming players. But the Giants need starting pitching help, because even though Madison Bumgarner is not a Gerrit Cole-level pitcher, his absence on a team thin in talent, especially at the top of the rotation, would be crushing.
Drew Smyly is not Madison Bumgarner, of course, but the offseason’s acquisition of a three-headed monster of sorts, between Kevin Gausman — who may wind up filling in for Will Smith instead — Smyly, and Tyler Anderson, all look like lottery tickets that have the potential to equal or exceed Bumgarner’s 3.2-win 2019.
Gausman and Anderson’s paper projections have a lot more to do with their recent track records (IP, WAR), whereas Smyly is all about projection based on his stuff. It’s never been overpowering — a 91-92 mph fastball with flashes of 94 — but he’s managed to sequence it rather well across six major league seasons: his 8.84 K/9 from 2012-2019 (~684 IP) is 26th-best in baseball, just ahead of Charlie Morton (8.79) and Zack Wheeler (8.72), and four spots behind Bumgarner (8.92).
Batters crushed Smyly last season — 45.4% by FanGraphs’ hard hit rate, the sixth-highest (or worst) rate in baseball. He played for three organizations last year: Texas, where he put up an 8.42 ERA in 51.1 IP; Milwaukee, who released him before letting him throw a major league inning for them; and then the Phillies, who went 8-4 in his 12 starts despite opposing hitters putting up an .820 OPS against him.
Smyly’s arsenal spin rates aren’t elite, but spin rate isn’t everything. His 19+ whiff rate on his four-seamer and 39% on his curveball shows that sequencing and location can go a long way towards being an effective major league pitcher. He demonstrated last year in returning from Tommy John surgery that his hard fastball-fluttering curveball combination can be devastating to major league hitters.
Here he is striking out 10 Nationals in his final start of 2019:
So, for as on-paper bad that Smyly was last season and despite the fact that he hasn’t pitched a full season, really, since 2016, when he was below league average despite throwing 175 innings (82 ERA+), this move is all about the Giants finding a hidden gem in the landfill that is the bottom of the market of free agency, and your projection will be motivated in large part by your confidence in Zaidi, Harris, and Kapler.
Smyly doesn’t turn 31 until June and he spent two full seasons rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. There’s a decent chance that he, like Johnny Cueto, is fully healthy and ready to contribute. What that might ultimately look like is unclear, of course, but before surgery, Smyly was an above league average pitcher (107 ERA+). When Smyly is at his best, he’s not walking batters. But again, he hasn’t been at his best since 2015.
The Giants are his sixth organization in four seasons (Mariners, Cubs, Rangers, Brewers, Phillies), too; so it’s understandable if you want to project that this experiment will be a total failure. But like our Gausman projection, consider that Smyly represents yet another opportunity for the Giants’ pitching staff to test the efficacy of their pitching program.
Drew Smyly went two more scoreless innings, allowing a hit and striking out two. That's now 16 1/3 innings without an earned run for Giants starters.— Mark W. Sanchez (@MarkWSanchez) February 29, 2020
That’s a very early return, but in a season that figures to be dripping with dreadful news and cataclysmic baseball, I’ll take it. Drew Smyly won’t be a savior, and there’s definitely nothing sexy about the signing, but in a vacuum it was a solid gamble; in context, he could be one of the few positive footnotes to a very, very, very, very long and painful season.
Oh god yes.