Braves: What’s wrong with Drew Smyly?

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For the second-straight time, lefty Drew Smyly failed to get past the 4th inning in a start for the Braves as the 31-year-old was knocked around to the tune of six runs — five earned — in Atlanta’s 13-5 loss to Toronto on Friday night. Despite a solid start to the outing, featuring a pair of strikeouts through the first pair of innings, Smyly’s effectiveness once again went downhill… and in a hurry. By the time his night ended — after just 84 pitches — Smyly’s final line was ugly (4 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 3 K, 3 HR). 

Against Smyly, the Blue Jays wound up with five batted balls of at least 95 MPH in exit velocity, three of which registered 100+ MPH, including Toronto’s hardest-hit ball — a first-inning single by George Springer that came off the lead-off hitter’s bat at 109.7 MPH…

https://twitter.com/BlueJays/status/1388279753891844097?s=19

 

The other two hits that surpassed that mark versus Smyly were home runs by Toronto, the first of which was an 89-MPH cutter that Bo Bichette absolutely crushed. Bichette’s dinger traveled at 105 MPH over the center-field wall, and it was at that point in the game — bottom of the 3rd inning — that Smyly’s night instantly went to crap…

https://twitter.com/BlueJays/status/1388288944584937474?s=19

 

The next homer was also a no-doubter, a 109.4-MPH line-drive by Alejandro Kirk — who finished with two long balls in the game — that came off another 90-ish MPH fastball-cutter-type pitch by Smyly…

https://twitter.com/BlueJays/status/1388294129675907074?s=19

 

The Jays definitely had the Braves starting pitcher’s number Friday night; granted, Toronto ended up belting three more homers off Atlanta’s bullpen. Not only was Smyly serving up majestic home run balls, but his command was also simply atrocious in general as seemingly any time he got himself in a decent pitch count… he’d follow it up by throwing multiple pitches nowhere near the strike zone.

Smyly had absolutely nothing going for him against Toronto. His almighty cutter induced zero strikeouts, zero whiffs… and… zero strikes in general, and unfortunately, this has become a rather consistent trend for him now. Smyly’s poor outing last night now gives him 15 earned runs in his last 13 innings pitched, including a whopping eight homers and 18 hits allowed, spanning his last three starts. All those long balls have Smyly’s homer-rate at an unsightly 4.26 HR/9 this season, not to mention opposing batters are currently up to a 1.017 OPS against the southpaw.

It’s safe to say; this has been a horrific season so far for Smyly, so much so that what he’s done has never happened for a Braves pitcher in the Modern Era. His nine long balls allowed through his first 19 frames in 2021 — four starts — is the most homers allowed by a Braves pitcher in that span of innings since at least 1920; two more than Atlanta pitcher Josh Collmenter in 2017 — in his first 17 IP — and Will Smith last season — in his first 16 IP. 

With Smyly’s 2021 ERA now north of eight (8.06) after Friday’s beating, is there a way he can turn this kind of start to the year around? Can he be fixed?

If you recall, this is a guy that FanGraphs ranked no. 25 in its Top 50 Free Agents series for the upcoming 2021 campaign, thanks to a 2.6-MPH velocity improvement to each of his pitches a year ago, coupled with a 2020 season in which he struck out by far a career-high 14.3 batters per nine and posted a 3.42 ERA in 26 ⅓ innings with the Giants. 

 

Anyone who looked at Smyly’s body of work from last season could tell that he’d made some positive changes to the way he pitched. This winter, many of us in Braves Country didn’t flinch when — on November 16 last year — it was reported the team had signed the lefty-pitcher to a one-year, $11 million contract, although that sentiment changed a bit when considering a trio of better-known starters — Corey Kluber ($11 million), Garrett Richards ($10 million) and James Paxton ($8.5 million) — signed for the same amount of money… or even less. 

 

Atlanta’s general manager Alex Anthopoulos understandably chose, before anything else, to first shore up Atlanta’s starting rotation as quickly as possible this past offseason, with the addition of Smyly and Charlie Morton; and the latter of those two has been just fine so far in 2021. However, while committing to a free agent at the starting bell of the hot stove can give you a bit of certainty in reinforcing a weakness among the roster, it can also at times lead to overpaying a player, even if the realization comes after the fact. 

And I’ll be honest… the chances of an old-fashioned bounce back by Smyly this season look doubtful, especially when examining how his numbers have trended. 

Even during that notable 2020 season that caused him a ton of national attention within the industry, Smyly was allowing a career-high 13.3% barrel rate. Sure, his other-worldly curveball was generating whiffs at a 50% clip, and his cutter was allowing a .143 AVG, but the warning signs regarding his improved fastball were already there — despite a .237 AVG against —  as Smyly’s four-seam allowed a .370 xwOBA in 2020 — an expected mark that, per Baseball Savant, computes to a much-better .282 xAVG when accounting for quality of contact (exit-velocity and launch-angle). 

I’m sure at the time of the signing, Anthopoulos and the Braves were plenty aware of the fact that Smyly had benefited from a bit of luck in 2020, but I don’t believe he or anyone else expected this much regression. However, it appears last year’s warnings have now evolved into reality for Smyly. 

That career-high Barrel% listed above from his 2020 campaign is even higher in 2021 — as high as 15.6% before Smyly’s start on Friday and surely even higher once his stats are updated Saturday morning. If he had enough innings to qualify, Smyly’s barrel rate would rank as the highest mark in the majors.

Also, so far this season, opposing batters have posted a 57.8 HardHit% against Smyly, which again, if the lefty qualified it would easily be the highest rate in the sport; of qualified starters, Cole Irvin’s (A’s) 49.4 HardHit% is the highest mark, nearly 8% lower than Smyly’s. And we already know about the home run issue that’s killing him as Smyly 4+ homers allowed per nine is roughly twice as high as the qualified starter with the next-highest rate, who, entering Friday was Minnesota’s Kenta Maeda at 2.7 HR/9 — a pitcher that, as expected with that many long balls allowed, is sporting a 6.56 ERA / 6.18 FIP so far in 2021. 

On a pitch-mix level, it’s evident just how crucial Smyly’s cutter was to his success last season… and how much it’s holding him back in 2021. Thrown nearly 18% of the time in 2020, the offering allowed a sub-.150 AVG from opposing batters and generated a 32.5 Whiff% as Smyly almost perfectly located his cutter below the knees and inside to lefty-hitters (low-and-outside to righties).

But this season, he just can’t seem to locate it, oftentimes getting too wide with the pitch (arm-side). And in his outing Friday, Smyly seemed unable to get on top of his cutter and was even missing vertically with it; the Bichette homer in the 3rd inning looked to be a result of Smyly missing with his cutter as the pitch ended up flat and near the higher portion of the zone (not a good combination when thrown at just 89 MPH). 

With middling command of a pitch that finished last year as his best, in terms of wOBA allowed (.198 vs. his cutter), Smyly has instead been forced to throw his fastball roughly 10% more in 2021, relative to ’20. Without the necessary velocity to get enough swing and miss with the heater, Smyly’s below-average four-seam so far has been hit to the tune of a .371 wOBA. It’s like the perfect storm of worst-case scenarios: what once worked really well… is no longer working… at all.

Usually, in these types of write-ups, I generally try to provide some reason to remain optimistic. These early-season struggles are usually attributed to noise from small sample sizes or some chronic case of bad luck. But that’s just not the case here for Smyly. 

Leading up to the game on Friday, I was anxious to see if Smyly could rebound from back-to-back poor outings.

I, like many others, believed some of the hype surrounding the lefty’s breakout in 2020. And given every pitcher in the Braves rotation has had a bad performance at some point this season, I’ve been willing to give Smyly the benefit of the doubt. But I’m afraid that optimism has changed to skepticism, and honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the coming days, Atlanta announced some phantom IL stint for Smyly or something that results in him missing a turn or two in the rotation. 

It’s a tough situation for sure. As noted above, the Braves are paying Smyly $11 million in 2021, and he can’t provide much value if he’s on the bench or minimized to mop-up duty out of the bullpen. However, Atlanta can’t just keep taking a loss once every fifth day. 

With Max Fried expected back for next week’s series against the Nationals and the consensus that staff leader Mike Soroka will return before July, perhaps the Braves will be in a better position rotation-wise in the coming months. In turn, dependence on Smyly will start to ease up. Having Fried back all by itself will be a tremendous boost. But until then, Smyly’s underwhelming pitching is just something Atlanta must deal with. Unless Anthopoulos is willing to make a drastic move, it’s likely that Smyly continues to get opportunities to right the ship… even if it’s obvious something certainly isn’t right. 

Maybe the Braves give more looks to Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson (a plan that has NOT worked very well so far), or perhaps — since he’s pitched well this season — give former starter Sean Newcomb a spot-start next time Smyly’s turn comes up (this!… because… why not?!). The options are minimal right now, but you have to believe the team’s willingness to try something other than what Smyly’s provided thus far. We’ll see what happens, but at this point, even though I hope I’m dead wrong, unfortunately, I don’t believe Drew Smyly can be fixed. 

Photographer: Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire

 

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