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Smiling on Drew Smyly

Drew Smyly wasn’t supposed to be here. Going into the season, it was the more heralded Jacob Turner that was supposed to move into the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation. But then shoulder woes felled Turner, and the young southpaw with the happy last name and 46.1 innings in the high minors got the call.

The response was muted. Smyly was supposedly the kind of polished college lefty that would give Minor League hitters the fits — but then possibly have muted upside in the Major Leagues. His fastball is low nineties, not mid nineties. Maybe his secondary stuff isn’t the whiffiest. Maybe he’ll be forced to come into the zone more in the Majors.

So far, though, he’s been smiling in the face of his detractors. Well, he did have a bout with lesser control in his debut, but since then he’s been in a groove. Should we re-evaluate his upside? Should mixed-leaguers be picking him up?

One thing that stands out is that 91.5 MPH gas is no longer anything to sneeze at. The only qualified lefty starters that beat that number last year were Clayton Kershaw (93.2) and Madison Bumgarner (91.5). Derek Holland (94.2) would have had he qualified. [Must have had some strange settings on my leaderboard — of course David Price (94.7), CC Sabathia (93.9), Matt Harrison (93.0), Gio Gonzalez (92.8), Jon Lester (92.6), Ricky Romero (92.0) and John Danks (91.6) qualify.] Being right around Cliff Lee (91.4) doesn’t seem so bad. So, if Smyly’s control and secondary stuff hold up, maybe the velocity isn’t really a problem right now.

Do they?

Right now, it’s best to focus on per-pitch numbers since he’s at least thrown 291 of those. It’s not great that he’s thrown first strikes less often than average (51.5%, average is 59.2%), since starting out with an 0-1 count would put him ahead of the eight ball. And he’s also not in the zone as much as average (42.7%, 46.3% is average), so maybe he has been a little timid in the early going.

Don’t let that grin disappear. Even if he’s not going to show the plus-plus walk rates he showed in the Minor Leagues, it does seem like his repertoire might elicit more whiffs than expected. His contact rate is better-than-average by both BIS and PITCH f/x rating systems on this site, and his 10.0 swinging strike percentage is also above-average. That would have placed 14th among starters last year.

Smyly uses a slider, cutter and split-change in that order. The slider gets the whiffs. By Harry Pavlidis’ benchmarks for pitch types, the average slider gets 14.9% whiffs per pitch. Smyly’s racks up 20.63% whiffs. Cutters get about 10.1% whiffs, Smyly’s manages only a 7.3% rate. He’s thrown 16 split-changes, and none has been put in play — but all have either been taken (for a ball 62.7% of the time) or fouled off. Once that pitch gets put in play, it should help the lefty keep his 50.1% ground-ball rate steady, since split-fingers are known for inducing worm-burners, but it is notable that he hasn’t gotten a whiff on it yet. How about that fastball? Your normal fastball gets 6.9% whiffs, but Smyly gets 9.2%.

So maybe Smyly has a good fastball — not in terms of velocity, but movement. Both his vertical movement and horizontal movement on the pitch would show up in the top 30 for each leaderboard. And the pitch also gets whiffs. His slider is top-notch. The cutter is okay, and the split-change gets an incomplete.

Given some of the uncertainty, it’s probably a bad idea to drop an established yet struggling starter for Smyly. In the leagues in which I own Smyly, I either drafted him (AL Scoresheet, 18-team 20-keeper) or picked him up for a similar young high upside player like Kyle Drabek (14-team keeper) or Jake Arrieta (14-team roto). John Danks is staring at me in my 12-team dynasty, but even though he’s not very exciting, it seems like a stretch to drop him for Smyly when my team is competitive (three straight wins and a second place last year). Maybe I’ll find a way to pick up a smile, though.