Fantasy Baseball: Figuring out Drew Smyly
Drew Smyly is off to a quick start and, despite some initial apprehension, Chris Towers is starting to come around on the lefty's Fantasy appeal.
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There's no denying that when Drew Smyly is good, he's really good. When he has been healthy over the last couple of years, he's been exceptional, and he was arguably at his best Tuesday against the Red Sox.
Smyly tossed eight shutout innings in the win over the Red Sox, limiting them to just one hit and a pair of walks, while striking out 11. As the resident Smyly skeptics in our office, I caught a decent amount of flak on social media after that game, and it's not undeserved. I have, perhaps, been too harsh in my judgment of Smyly.
So, in the interest of fairness, it is worth taking a look at the reasons for my skepticism, and why it may or may not matter. He's got ace potential, to be certain, so let's look at what might keep him from getting there.
Shouldering a load
First things first, we have to start with Smyly's health. Smyly's shoulder was a real issue last season, as he hit the DL to start the season with tendinitis in his shoulder, and then suffered a torn labrum after three starts upon his return. He opted to forgo surgery to repair the tear, and instead rehabbed the injury, eventually making it back in August to post a 3.24 ERA with 56 strikeouts in 50 innings over nine starts.
Smyly made it through that return without any setbacks, and has reported none since, which is great news. His velocity was fine in those nine starts, and has actually increased to open this season, as he is averaging 92.2 MPH on his fastball so far. By all accounts, Smyly's shoulder is perfectly healthy right now.
But it's hard to just brush that off. Shoulder injuries in pitchers are obviously a reason to be cautious, and two in one year is typically cause for great concern. That he is cleared to pitch is a sign that he is healthy right now, but you have to consider him a greater risk for re-injury than a typical pitcher. In a study done in 2013, Baseball Prospectus showed that shoulder injuries in the previous year have historically increased the risk of similar injuries in the following year, by 32.4 percent.
Of course, we should remember that we are talking about a pitcher here. Smyly's injury risk might be higher than the average pitcher, but that's no guarantee he gets hurt. And there's also obviously no guarantee a pitcher with a previously clean bill of health will make it through the upcoming season unscathed. Pitching is an inherently risky activity, and if Smyly is at more risk for another injury, it might still be worth the risk.
If you think he's good enough.
Keeping it in the yard
The other big red flag for Smyly is his groundball rate. Or rather, his relative lack of a groundball rate. Just 38.5 percent of batted balls against Smyly in his career have been hit on the ground, and that rate has dipped below 37 percent in each of his last three seasons; it's no surprise he is a homer-prone pitcher.
The problem is, it's really tough to be an ace when you give up as many fly balls as Smyly does. From 2010 to 2015, there were 85 pitching seasons with a groundball rate between 35 and 40 percent. This group had a median ERA of 3.91, compared to a 3.66 mark for the total group of pitchers as a whole. Additionally, just six of those 85 pitchers (7.1 percent) managed an ERA below 3.00 over the course of a full season; 16.7 percent of the total population managed that.
So, it's tough to be an elite pitcher while giving up as many fly balls as Smyly does. If you do, you probably need to have elite control -- five of the six pitchers in the low-ERA, low-groundball group walked fewer than 2.5 batters per nine. Smyly is at 1.70 this season, and 2.51 for his career, so that's a check mark in his column.
The other thing you need to do is miss a lot of bats, and that is certainly something Smyly has going for him. He is striking out 29.4 percent of batters since the start of last season, well above the league average. If you're looking for a potential mentor for Smyly, Nationals' ace Max Scherzer shows what the road map looks like for a flyball ace; Scherzer has struck out at least 10 batters per nine in each season since 2012, and has a 3.12 ERA in that time.
The problem there, of course, is that "Max Scherzer" is an awfully high bar for anyone to aspire to. A more realistic comp might be Indians' starter Danny Salazar, who can be as unhittable as anyone in baseball when he's on, but can suffer from whiplash watching balls leave the yard when he isn't.
Still, I was probably too dismissive of Smyly's Fantasy prospects early in the season. He is unlikely to be an ace, but hey, Danny Salazar is a valuable Fantasy piece too. I might still try to sell high on Smyly, but it's not a priority if I have him on my team.
The bad news for me might be that I don't have Smyly on any of my rosters this season. My bad.
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