How's Smyly (Re)Adjusting to Starting?

The Tigers bumped Drew Smyly from the rotation in 2013 for a very good reason: They re-signed one of baseball's best starters in Anibal Sanchez. Smyly had a fine debut season in 2012, but spent 2013 tearing it up in the bullpen waiting to be called back to the starting staff. After a fine start on Tuesday night, Smyly's 2014 ERA is down to 3.19. Is this a sign of a step forward?

Any savvy fan or observer knows that earned run average, especially over a sample as small as 70 innings, isn't going to tell you the entire story. There's so much variation in defensive quality, batted ball luck, and the enigmatic allocation of errors that looking at how many earned runs a pitcher has allowed leaves out a great deal of information about their performance.

Drew Smyly has cut his ERA this year by 0.80 compared to 2012 (a season in which he was mostly a starter but served as a reliever a few times as well), but most of his other indicators are quite similar. He's striking about slightly fewer batters (22.6% to 20.3%), but his walk rate remains an identical 7.9%. His batting average against and his WHIP are almost carbon copies of what we saw in 2012. His BABIP against is slightly lower and he's stranding runners a little more effectively.

Given that his numbers in most departments are striking similar to 2012, you would figure that Smyly's ERA should be about the same when in reality it's much lower. If that isn't confusing enough, Smyly's allowed more home runs per nine innings (1.23 to 1.09), which normally tanks a pitchers runs allowed.

Smyly is basically the same pitcher with a few more home runs, yet somehow, his run prevention has improved. And while defense can usually play a role in something like this, he's a fly ball pitcher with a very poor outfield defense behind him.

Given that, should we expect Smyly to pitch to his 3.19 ERA or his 4.16 FIP the rest of the way? His history says the latter, but might there be hidden signs of improvement somewhere?

He's a lefty fly ball guy who holds runners well, so that's always going to give him a chance to out-pitch his peripherals, but there doesn't seem to be marked change in either of those abilities. Smyly's using the breaking ball a little more often than his changeup relative to 2012, and it's a better pitch, but overall the mix isn't terribly different between his secondary pitches.

This is largely about sequencing, it appears, and pitchers tend to have very little control over the order in which events happen. A single, single, and home run in that order lead to three runs and one run if the homer comes first. Smyly was better with the bases empty in 2012 (.306 wOBA to .340 wOBA) and worse with men in scoring position (.343 wOBA to .270 wOBA). A dramatic shift like that is very rarely attributable to the pitcher's ability. Pitchers can absolutely get better from the wind up or the stretch, but it almost never coincides with getting worse in the other.

Smyly's become even tougher on lefties (.178 wOBA in 2014, .293 wOBA in 2012), even compared to his performance out of the pen in 2013 (.212 wOBA), but he's also gotten hit around by right-handed batters (.368 wOBA in 2014). He's getting the ball down and away to lefties more effectively this season and likely taking advantage of the lefty strike, but he's catching a little more plate against righties.

Any changes to Smyly's approach and skill set appear to be quite small when comparing 2012 and 2014. It's unlikely he's become a player capable of beating his peripherals to this degree and some regression is likely coming for the Tigers' lefty. That said, his regression is going to leave him firmly in line to be a major league starter.

He's probably a back of the rotation guy on a quality team, but that's still a very useful player. Look around at the other teams in the league and you won't find many number five starters with his ability. The Tigers would be better off with Doug Fister in the rotation and Smyly in the bullpen, but their rotation is still in very good shape with Smyly around.

Unfortunately, we probably can't get excited about a step forward from Smyly, but having the old version of him around is still quite good.

Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, and the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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