The Rays, Drew Smyly, and the Changeup

In 2013, Baseball Prospectus chronicled the Rays’ “changeup revolution,” explaining how the Rays’ pitching development has succeeded in part because they teach pretty much everyone to offer a plus changeup in unusual situations. But while successful small market teams have thrived off using analytics to find market dislocations on players, the Rays’ changeup prowess has actually allowed them to create them.

Recently, the Rays were ridiculed for giving up David Price for a package whose most proven player was Tigers’ 5th starter Drew Smyly. At the time of the trade, Smyly had a 3.93 ERA and 4.08 FIP. In other words, he was an average starter. But looking closely, one can see that he pitches to a drastic LHH/RHH split, with opposing wOBA’s of .196/.355, respectively. The reason behind his inability to get righties out could very well be the lack of a good secondary pitch to use on them. For his career, his most effective pitch has been his slider, with hitters putting up a meager .226 wOBA against it. His worst pitch was none other than his changeup, which has been crushed to the tune of a .488 wOBA.

Knowing that his organization specializes in teaching the changeup, I don’t believe for a second that Rays GM Andrew Friedman gave up their ace without thinking that Smyly was essentially a good changeup away from being a potent starter. A free agent in 2019 at the earliest, Smyly should easily provide more long-term value than Price will over the next 1.5 seasons. (Obviously, the Tigers will try to extend Price, but the Rays did not have that option.)

The key takeaway here is that to most teams, Drew Smyly was probably viewed as a league-average pitcher without a secondary pitch that could put righties away. But to a team like the Rays, who have proven to be adept at implementing a changeup, Smyly’s ceiling can appear to be much more feasible. So far with Tampa (small sample size warning), Smyly has thrown 36 innings in 5 starts with an ERA/FIP/WHIP of 1.50/2.82/0.69. He will certainly come back down to earth, but a valuable lesson can be derived from this trade that appeared to be a blatant ripoff. By having an organization’s pitching development specialize so much, the Rays actually manufacture their own list of “buy low” pitchers, many of whom may have plateaued in the minds of other teams.

When they traded Matt Garza, they got current front-end starter Chris Archer in return. From Prospect Instinct’s 2011 scouting report:

The Rays got a haul for Matt Garza from the Cubs and Archer was considered the Cubs top pitching prospect. He has a plus fastball and above average slider, but he still has a lot of work to do before he becomes MLB ready. His changeup is lacking and his command has been erratic. But with enough time he does have #3+ upside.

With a Tampa Bay Rays changeup in his arsenal (.198 wOBA against it in 2014), Archer has done very well for a 3 starter, with a 3.15 ERA and 3.49 FIP over 286 innings since 2013.

Many have noted that Yankees’ starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has experienced so much success because he is one of the few pitchers who regularly throws a splitter in the MLB. Perhaps an organization can do what the Rays have done with the changeup and make the splitter a cornerstone of their pitching development. Obviously, such a plan comes with inherent risk. Making the splitter a more commonly offered pitch could take away some of its unfamiliarity-related effectiveness. Also, the splitter is believed to be very taxing on the elbow, a definite red flag given the recent wave of Tommy John surgeries. However, doing what the Rays did with the splitter could make it so that pitchers who are one additional plus pitch away from reaching their ceilings are safer to bet on.

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4 Responses to “The Rays, Drew Smyly, and the Changeup”

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  1. Sandy Kazmir says:

    I said this at the time, though Chris Archer’s change up is an endangered species.

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  2. Jim S. says:

    Very nice job.

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    • Paul says:

      Agreed. The only thing it could have used was some gifs, but that would only be icing on the cake.

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  3. KK-Swizzle says:

    Yes, well written! I had some of these same thoughts when I heard about the Price trade…it’s nice to see them laid out here, and absolutely fascinating that Smyly seems to have improved already!

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