Drew Smyly: Old School Relief Ace

The Tigers bullpen has been a running punchline for a while now, and if you were to identify a flaw on their team — besides corner infield defense, anyway — you’d point out their shaky ninth inning options when being asked to hold a lead. Bruce Rondon showed he wasn’t ready for the gig, then Jose Valverde tried and failed once more, so now it’s Joaquin Benoit‘s chance to hold down the closer role.

However, the modern singular focus on the closer as representative of a team’s bullpen strength can be misleading, and Detroit is a prime example of why the guy getting the save doesn’t have to be your best relief pitcher. The Tigers might not have a closer, but in Drew Smyly, they have something even better: an old school relief ace.

Smyly has appeared in 26 games this year, which isn’t a remarkable number. In fact, 26 appearances ties him with Cesar Ramos and Kyle Farnsworth for the 124th highest total on the season. However, Smyly has pitched multiple innings in 17 of those 26 appearances, tying him for the fifth most multi-inning appearances among MLB relievers this year, and of the relievers ahead of him, only one — Pittsburgh’s Justin Wilson — is regularly asked to hold leads. Jim Leyland is deploying Smyly in the role that relievers used to play 30 years ago, and it’s working really well.

Here’s Smyly’s last three outings, as an example of how he’s being used:

June 17th, vs Baltimore: Enters to begin 7th inning with a 5-1 lead, Smyly retired nine straight batters to finish the game.

June 20th, vs Boston: Enters with two on/no out in 8th inning, team trailing 3-2, strands both runners, pitches two scoreless innings, Tigers win 4-3 on ninth inning walkoff.

June 23rd, vs Boston: Enters to begin 6th inning, team trailing 4-3, throws 2 2/3 scoreless innings, Tigers win 7-4 after taking lead in eighth inning.

Because of the messed up Hold/Save statistics that do less to inform understanding about a player performance than just about any other statistics in any other sport, Smyly’s performances in these three games are barely noticed. He got a Save for holding the 5-1 lead against Baltimore, but only because he pitched the final three innings, and that was the least useful outing of the three. Because he entered with the team trailing in both of his two outings by Detroit, he doesn’t get credit for a Hold, even though his performance was critical in keeping the gap at one run so that the team could mount a late inning comeback.

Smyly, though, got credited with a Shutdown for all three outings here on FanGraphs, bringing Smyly’s total for the season to 10 shutdowns against just two meltdowns. Those 10 shutdowns rank second on the Tigers — Benoit has 13 — and are all the more impressive because of the quantity of batters Smyly is facing in getting those shutdwons.

10 times this year, Smyly has entered a game in the 6th inning or later and faced at least eight batters in that appearance, and the Tigers are 8-2 in those 10 games. Because they don’t have a lot of bullpen depth outside of Benoit, the safest way for Leyland to preserve middle inning leads has been to ask Smyly to bridge the gap between the starter exiting and the ninth inning, and Smyly has been excellent in that role.

His numbers speak for themselves. He’s racked up 46 strikeouts against just 12 walks in 46 innings, and he’s allowed just one home run all year, so his FIP comes out to 2.19. Given that he was similary excellent as a starting pitcher last year, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Smyly has performed well in relief. He’s probably somewhat wasted in that role, and there’s no question that other teams will be asking for him in nearly every trade conversation Dave Dombrowski has over the next month.

However, the Tigers should rebuff those advances. While Smyly should get another crack at the starting rotation at some point in the future, he’s turned himself into a highly valuable member of a bullpen that can’t afford to lose him. In his last three outings over the last week, Smyly has racked up 0.41 WPA, the eighth highest total of any reliever in baseball during that stretch. In this role as a multi-inning bridge, Smyly is a highly valuable weapon.

While I’m sure some will raise concern about Smyly’s “heavy” usage, we should remember that this is how relievers were used for the better part of baseball history. This year, only 27.3% of all relief outings have been multi-inning appearances, but 30 years ago, that number was 59.9%. In 1983, Dan Quisenberry finished second in the Cy Young voting by racking up 45 saves and posting a 1.94 ERA, but he threw 139 innings and had 51 multiple inning appearances that year. That was part of a four year run where “The Quiz” threw between 129 and 139 innings each season and finished in the top four in Cy Young voting all four years.

The game was different back then, sure. The Tigers probably shouldn’t ask Smyly to throw 130 innings in relief. But what’s wrong with 100? He threw 99 in the big leagues last year after throwing 18 in the minors, and he threw 125 in the minors in 2011, so it’s not like his arm can’t handle throwing that many pitches in a year. Bullpen innings probably aren’t the same as starting innings, due to the higher stress and effort exerted on each pitch, but Leyland has done a good job of giving Smyly days off, as he’s only pitched in back-to-back games twice all year.

The Tigers could use another quality reliever as they march towards October, but they shouldn’t give up Drew Smyly in order to get a “proven closer”. The old school relief ace is just as valuable pitching multiple innings earlier in the game, and with the way Leyland is deploying him lately, Smyly is a piece that the Tigers can’t afford to be without.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


46 Responses to “Drew Smyly: Old School Relief Ace”

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  1. catswithbats says:

    Great post, and thanks for validating what I’ve been thinking (and tweeting) about Smyly all season. People, particularly those in the F.O., keep saying Smylyl’s future is in the rotation but I think he’s really excelled in this super-relief role and wouldn’t mind if they kept him in it.

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    • SB says:

      Of course he’s excelled in the relief role. If you’re capable of excelling as a starting pitcher, you’re going to excel as a reliever, where you can dial it up a few extra MPH and don’t have to face hitters a 2nd and 3rd time through the batting order. That doesn’t mean it’s Smyly’s optimal role. I bet Clayton Kershaw would excel as a reliever. Or why not Scherzer? I’m not saying Smyly is Scherzer or Kershaw, but I do think he’s got a bright future as a starter and good starters are worth more than good relievers. It’s great to see Smyly excelling, but I do think they need to get him another shot at the rotation at some point before they settle on him as a reliever. They’d only be hurting themselves if they didn’t.

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      • catswithbats says:

        Okay? I’m quite aware good starters are more valuable than good relievers. I was merely commenting that Smyly has been pretty darn good as a relief ace.

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        • SB says:

          I apologize if I got the wrong impression, but it seemed to me that you were not only pointing out that he’s been good in relief, but also advocating that the Tigers keep him in that role. You said, “he’s really excelled in this super-relief role and wouldn’t mind if they kept him in it.”

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        • Lee Panas says:

          He’d probably be more valuable as a starter, but he has not yet shown that he has the durability to be a full-season starter. He has never pitched 130 innings in a season and has had a number of injuries throughout his amateur and pro career. I hope he gets another chance to start but if he ends up in the bullpen as a super reliever due to durability issues, he could be quite valuable.

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  2. Neil says:

    Smyly is excellent, but the move to use him as a relief ace is VERY recent, however. Leyland has brought him in during a lot of blowouts too and then couldn’t use him the next two days while he was recovering from 30 pitch outings in 7 run games earlier in the season.

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  3. It should be weird that it’s taking this long to figure out this is how Smyly should be used after what Lincecum did to us in the 2012 World Series. But then again this is Jim Leyland we’re talking about who still calls in his pitching changes a few seconds ahead of time to make sure the bullpen car is warmed up.

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  4. Jay29 says:

    Dave, is there a real reason why Smyly shouldn’t throw more than 130 innings? I know that most pitchers throw harder in relief than they do when they start, but does that necessarily have to cost them 80-100 innings over a season (compared to a starter)? Why isn’t it worth just 30 or 40 fewer innings?

    I just think the current convention operates on way too many assumptions, as far as pitcher usage. It seems that plenty of pitchers with good mechanics and workout regimens still develop injuries we tend to associate with overworked arms. What sound research is there that actually supports pitch counts at 100-110, the 5-man rotation, and the 1-inning reliever?

    Don’t you think this could be yet another market inefficiency on the horizon? If a team could successfully and repeatedly stretch its best starters to 275-300 IP and its best relievers to 120-150 IP, they’d stand to gain a ton of value over the competition (not to mention the extra couple bench spots not used on bullpen arms).

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    • detroit4lyfe says:

      In response to:

      “Bullpen innings probably aren’t the same as starting innings, due to the higher stress and effort exerted on each pitch” from Dave

      and

      “I know that most pitchers throw harder in relief than they do when they start” from Jay.

      Pitchers in general are not really supposed to nor are they expected to TRY to exert any extra energy or throw harder out of the pen vs. starting. If you look at Smyly’s velocities, he’s actually throwing slower this year vs. last year, which is probably due to the fact he’s not acclimated to being a reliever, as he needs to be ready every other day now as opposed to every fifth day. Any added stress Smyly’s putting on his arm likely comes from the lack of rest in between throwing sessions, not him trying to exert any extra energy because he’s a reliever now and he has to change how he shoots the pill.

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      • Joebrady says:

        Probably less about throwing harder, than about having a higher average velocity when you only throw one inning rather than 6 innings. One of the reasons that some starters become relievers is because they lose velocity quicker than others, or sometimes cannot maintain the pitching motion as consistently for as long.

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    • Joebrady says:

      Take a look the OPSa for AL pitchers by pitch count in 2012.
      1-25 .710
      26-50 .725
      51-75 .748
      76-100 .773

      The 100-110 is probably less about the health of the arm, and more about figuring out what your BP can deliver over a full season. The average reliever had an OPSa of .685. Except for the fact that you’d burn out your BP, most SPs would probably sitting down after 75 pitchers. In most scenarios, you’re probably far better off with an average BP arm for one inning, than one inning an average SP after 100 pitches.

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  5. Metsox says:

    Alex Torres is challenging Smyly in emerging relief ace department. He has pitched 20 scoreless innings this year with a FIP of 1.10. He started in mop up duty but has been given more shutdown responsibility of late. His numbers are pretty crazy so far. Makes you wonder why he wasn’t given a look as a starter….

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  6. Brett Cecil says:

    Where’s the love for me?

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  7. Joebrady says:

    I appreciate what Smyly is doing, but Aceves has already done this twice, in 2009 and 2011. AA was 10-1 with a 3.35 an ~ 1.85 IP per appearance, and again 9-1 in 2011 with a 2.03 with 1.85 IP.

    I am tempted to suggest every team try this, if only because looks like ‘success in the search for a rationale’, aka, non-duplicative. It isn’t much more than just another long reliever with an extremely good year.

    And while I admire what Quisenberry did, it should be noted that his career effectively ended at age 32.

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    • Funk says:

      He’s not being used as a long reliever anymore. He’s being used as a setup man that is capable of going 3 innings on any given night.

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  8. Blockhead says:

    Why didn’t you write about [insert reliever from commenter's favorite team], he’s been better!

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  9. DetroitSun says:

    Tigers had a series in Anaheim in April. The Saturday game, the 20th, Rick Porcello was the starting pitcher for that day. Angels got 9 runs off him in the 1st inning. Porcello only recorded 2 outs before Smyly was brought in. Smyly gave up 4 hits, including a double to Pujols AFTER Porcello was taken out, but nobody was on base cause Smyly was brought in after a Grand Slam to Trout. Aside from 4 hits, Smyly didn’t give up a run, and struck out 7 in 5.2 innings of relief. His pitching ratio was amazing as well, 64 strikes, 23 balls, having thrown 87.

    In total, he’s given up 9 ER, K’d 46 and BB’d 12 in 46.1 IP.

    IMO, Smyly is best as a long relief pitcher, knowing if we’re in trouble, we can use him, but know we can’t do that every game. I know there’s a lot of fans who want to see him as a starter, but until we know we have a couple guys who can do long relief, I’d like Smyly to stay in that role, no matter how long of relief he’s given.

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  10. Dave S says:

    The White Sox used D.J. Carrasco in a similar role in mostly 2009. His FIP was around 3.5, which yea, is pretty good for pitching in that park, but the reason he had a very good reliever WAR was because of the 93.1 innings (there was one spot start in there, which I think didn’t even last 5 innings and wasn’t even effective either). It seems like a very smart strategy to me.

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  11. CabreraDeath says:

    Employing Justin Wilson in a similar capacity as this article effectively describes the use of Smyly……has been Clint Hurdle’s most productive and creative move all year. Yes, that’s a low bar, but he still deserves credit for doing so.

    Great stuff, Dave.

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  12. John Hiller says:

    LMCAO!!

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  13. AJT says:

    I remember when Dusty Baker had Chapman doing something like this in 2012. Then Chapman became closer.

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  14. atoms says:

    This makes me wonder about reliever use in general. Instead of having a “7th inning guy”, “8th inning setup man”, and “closer”, would it be better to have 3 or 4 (if you can find 4) different shutdown relievers, and then just rotate them so that they pitch 2-3 innings every few days? The rest of the bullpen can be there for mop-up duty and maybe one LOOGY.

    I guess what I’m getting at is, what would an “ideal” bullpen construction look like? Sure, there’s probably no single ideal and it depends on what types of relievers you have, but I just wonder if it makes more sense to do it that way. I also wonder if it would be better for your pitchers’ health to pitch a little longer but less frequently than have to warm up and be called upon 3 days in a row, or 4 days out of 5.

    I mean, it could really simplify things for the manager as well. If the game is close (let’s say within 2-3 runs), and your starter is running out of gas in the 7th, put in one of your 3 back-end guys and let him finish the game.

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    • Joebrady says:

      If you use these guys for 2-3 innings at a clip, you won’t get the same results. It isn’t like x for one inning = 3x for 3 innings. Probably more like x+.75x+.5x.

      Probably what you need are two closers in two different roles. Ideally one that excels in the 9th, and one that doesn’t mind coming in with the bases loaded and no out. They often aren’t the same.

      As a RS fan, I have at 3 guys that I feel very comfortable pitching the 8th, but I would try DLR or Webster in the 9th before my three setup guys.

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      • atoms says:

        I agree with your premise that they won’t be the same for 2 or 3 innings as they would be for one inning. On the other hand, even pitching one inning, having to warm up and enter at the end of a close game 3 or 4 days in a row, pitchers are probably likely to be less effective in those last few outings. Having a system like this would regularize it a little bit so that they could be virtually guaranteed a day or two of rest between appearances.

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        • LimaTime says:

          Very rarely do managers have relief pitchers go 3 days in a row. Very rarely. Most of the time, it’s every other day. So saying they pitch 3 or 4 days in a row is quite a stretch. I’d be willing to bet there isn’t a single reliever in baseball this season that has pitched in 4 consecutive games.

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        • atoms says:

          Most reliable relievers end up going 3 days in a row at some point during the season. I agree it’s not something that happens every week, but it’s still a regular occurrence. And there are definitely some guys who have pitched 4 days in a row, so you’d lose that bet. Here are two I found pretty quickly from just this season so far:

          Joel Peralta, 5-25 through 5-28 (and again on the 5-30, for 5 appearances in 6 days)
          Wilton Lopez also had 4 appearances in a row from 5-24 to 5-27

          Plus, Mark Melancon didn’t have 4 in a row, but he had 5 appearances in 6 days between 6-14 and 6-19.
          Brad Ziegler also had 5 in 6 days between 4-22 and 4-27.

          And that doesn’t count warming up for games where you might not get an official appearance, but that’s still extra wear and tear.

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  15. jyharris says:

    SO far this season, he has had great value in such a weak bullpen. Based on his past performance, there is no reason he can’t continue. The Tigers need at least one set-up RP & one closer this trade deadline. Too much has been spent and they are too close not to make moves. Anyone in the minors is tradeable.

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  16. Ruki Motomiya says:

    “He’s probably somewhat wasted in that role”

    Is that really true? If he kept up his current pace over circa 100 innings, he’d end up with around 3 WAR, wouldn’t he? That is about the same as he would project out as a 200 inning starter last year (About 3 vs. 3.6, without me having done exact math). And in addition, Smyly in the pen can be used in high WPA situations, which might corrolate very well with wings. So are we sure that Smyly isn’t equally or more valuable in the pen than out of it?

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    • SB says:

      He’s a young pitcher who’s still developing. You really have no clue how he good he could be as a starter, so putting him down for 3.6 WAR is kind of silly. Of course, he might end up worse than that. The point is, if you never give him an extended look in the role, you’ll never know. And based on what he did as a rookie, I think that’d be a big mistake.

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  17. Dreamin says:

    Josh Collmenter is serving a very similar role with very similar results in AZ.

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  18. rusty says:

    Seems to me that bullpen usage is one of those things that’s muddled by measuring what’s easy to measure (innings pitched, or pitch counts if we drill down to them) instead of measuring what’s important (total arm usage and fatigue). Can Smyly throw 100 bullpen innings? 130? Well, if he gets rest days in between multi-inning appearances — including not being asked to warm up his arm and then not enter the game, this role sounds a lot like four-man-rotation member.

    But if he has to get up and warm up every time there’s a close game, but only gets the call when guys get on base, his performance will undoubtedly suffer.

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  19. taft's wild pitch says:

    Doesn’t Smyly have something about blisters when he starts…?
    http://www.mlive.com/tigers/index.ssf/2013/05/detroit_tigers_drew_smyly_blis.html

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    • catswithbats says:

      Yep. He had that problem a few times last year, IIRC, and I think I recall hearing about him having it in college?

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  20. Kevin says:

    Excellent article. Smyly really is one of those silent stories that only people folowing Leyland can pick the rotation for the ASG, and maybe Smyly will be one of those chosen in relief. He isn’t the “proven closer” but he really has been incredibly valuable to the team so far.

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  21. Aidan says:

    Smyly has made it clear (although not in any insubordinate way) that he wants to be a starter and thinks very little of his relief role. Does his success in relief make it more frustrating?

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  22. Aidan says:

    (and) I don’t know that Leyland has been good about not throwing him on consecutive days so much as Detroits rotation has been a factory of quality starts this year and really fantastic on the bullpen

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  23. Rich says:

    Do we think that MLB will ever get past the “holds” and “saves” thing and start deploying their best relievers in the highest leverage situations? These teams spend tens of millions of dollars on relievers and then fail to optimize their usage. In any other business this sort of inefficient resource allocation would get people fired.

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    • Joebrady says:

      You are assuming that your closer is your best BP arm. The guy that pitches the 9th is your best closer, not necessarily your best pitcher. I started with the ALE out of force of habit, but the RS, TO, BA, TB, Det, WS, (I stopped at that point) all have better BP arms than their closer.

      The commonly accepted fallacy at FG is that everyone can close. They can’t. As a RS fan, there isn’t a single guy they’ve had since 2007 that I wanted to close other than Paps. And they’ve had some excellent setup guys, but none of the setup guys have looked comfortable in the 9th.

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      • Dave says:

        Pretty sure the Jays don’t have a better bullpen arm than Janssen… (especially adjusting for platoon splits)

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      • snapper says:

        Every good relief pitcher can close, unless they have a big platoon split. There’s no magic to the 9th inning.

        The only thing that distinguishes the job of modern closers from 7th and 8th inning RPs is that they don’t get used based on batter handedness.

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        • MediumNick says:

          I agree that any decent reliever can close, but given finality of the 9th inning, you want one of your best there.

          In my opinion, Smyly makes a much better starter than Porcello, who would be worth a shot at closer. In a one inning role, Porcello could be more effective.

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        • Joebrady says:

          Not really. You are assuming that all minds work identically. Some pitchers, and no small amount either, just don’t do well with the game on the line. As a RS fan, even when Bard was great, he never had the same look in the 9th. I see this with a lot of guys.

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  24. gnomez says:

    Now if only Matheny would use Rosenthal in the same way.

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  25. Rube Waddell says:

    Rumor has it that a “shutdwon” (end of ninth paragraph) is a relief pitcher with an extra chromosome.

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