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How long is Drew Smyly’s leash?

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It’s not clear if the Braves are going anywhere, but it’s also not clear that Drew Smyly is helping

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Boston Red Sox Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Drew Smyly’s start last Wednesday eventually turned disastrous, but even before it did, it got me thinking. There was a point in that game where Smyly had a 3-1 lead and had retired six straight batters. In fact, at that point, Smyly had failed to retire just one batter all game (and that batter, of course, hit a home run). But then, on a dime, the game turned. With two outs and none on, Smyly issued a four-pitch walk to Xander Bogaerts. (The first pitch of that sequence probably should have been called a strike, but Smyly missed badly with his 3-0 fastball.) He got ahead of Rafael Devers 0-2, but then hung a curveball dead center, and Devers hit it out to dead center at 107 mph. That got me wondering: how long is Drew Smyly’s leash?

Before the season started, I outlined some questions that, when answered, would (I figured, anyway) govern how well Smyly would perform in 2021, and ultimately determine whether his one-year, $11 million deal was a successful one. Paraphrasing, these questions were:

  1. Can Smyly stay healthy?
  2. Was 2020 a new talent level, or was it a small-sample thing that just made it appear that he had unlocked a new talent level?
  3. Did his curveball find a new gear in 2020, or was it just the sort of thing that happens all the time across 26 innings, but we don’t notice because we don’t break things into 26-inning chunks?
  4. Can he get anything else out of his four-seam fastball?

Honestly, the answers to none of these questions have been favorable. When it comes to Smyly’s 2021 so far, even the answers to other questions beyond the ones above haven’t been favorable.

Can Drew Smyly stay healthy? Well, kinda. He’s had a stint on the Injured List already, though in all honesty, that was more of a blessing in disguise, given his performance. In any case, it doesn’t appear that he’s chronically hurt — he’s just been ineffective.

Was 2020 a new talent level, or a favorable blip? In short: you are going to have a real hard time convincing me of the former. 2021 Smyly is dramatically worse than 2020 Smyly in basically every way.

With respect to Smyly’s curveball, we’ve essentially seen the regression in full. I noted before the season:

There’s also that whole pesky regression-to-the-mean thing, as it applies to basically everything. Of the 17 pitches with whiff rates of 50 percent or higher (minimum 50 PAs) from 2019 that also appeared in 2020, only six had whiff rate increases the following season, and the average whiff rate change was a decrease of 5.6 percent. More of these pitches had double-digit whiff rate decreases than increased in any way... If you look at it in terms of xwOBA, pitches in the 95th percentile of eliciting the best (worst for hitters) outcomes in 2019 had xwOBAs ranging from .121 to .205. The average xwOBA-against for these 56 pitches was .185. In 2020, these same 56 pitches allowed a .234 xwOBA — more than twice as many got worse xwOBA-wise than got better, with an average change of .049. If that happens to Smyly’s curveball in 2020, it’ll go from devastating to a league-average breaker, still effective and part of a decent hurler’s arsenal, but not much more.

The whiff rate on Smyly’s curveball has fallen 4.8 percent. The put-away rate (outs recorded on two-strike pitches thrown) has fallen 11 percent. The xwOBA against increased from .210 to .286 — an increase of .076. In 2021 so far, league-average xwOBA on curveballs is .262 while the whiff rate is 34 percent; Smyly’s at .286 and 45 percent. Smyly’s curveball is now an effective, average-y pitch; it is no longer devastating.

Smyly has not gotten anything more out of his fastball; he’s gotten less out of it. His velocity boost from 2020 is gone; he’s throwing harder than 2019 and earlier, but has lock more than a tick from 2020. The spin rate is down, the whiff rate is down 10 percent, the put-away rate has been halved. The motion and pitch shape is fundamentally unchanged but for the velocity drop. Given that in 2020, Smyly had great “rise” on his fastball with weak results, it’s not surprising that after losing a tick, he still has good “rise” but with even weaker results.

Beyond this, Smyly’s problems have extended beyond these considerations, like the sad enigma that is his cutter. In 2020, he threw it 18 percent of the time — it didn’t get particularly great outputs (.338 xwOBA-against) but it had good whiff and put-away rates, and worked decently enough as a third pitch. It disappeared nearly entirely from his arsenal to begin 2021, as he threw it less than five percent of the time in his first few starts. (At the time, I thought there was a classification error happening.) Over his next two starts, he threw the cutter much more, between 10 and 20 percent of the time, and it got crushed — Smyly gave up three homers in each of those outings, and in each game, one of those homers came off a cutter. Since then, he’s gone back to using it very sparingly. He didn’t get a single whiff on the cutter until May 14, his sixth start of the season. The current xwOBA-against of his cutter is an unthinkable .679; that’s almost as bad as if every single cutter he threw resulted in a walk. There are only five pitches in baseball that have been thrown as “often” as Smyly’s cutter with a more dreadful xwOBA-against.

This has rendered Smyly as fundamentally a two-pitch pitcher, with a fastball that should be good but isn’t, and an okay curveball. There are ways to ameliorate this problematic state of events, but neither the Braves nor Smyly have taken any steps to do so. Despite the praise for his curveball, Smyly is barely throwing it more in 2021 than he did in 2020 (37.8 percent to 36.5 percent). For some reason, everyone has apparently decided that with the cutter no longer a serious option, the solution was more fastballs (which Smyly is now throwing over 50 percent of the time for the first time since his pre-lengthy injury layoff, 2016 season) instead of more curveballs. This, even though the curveball is the primary reason he drew the Braves’ attention in the first place.

Even more bizarre is that the Braves haven’t demonstrated that they particularly care about these developments and his inability to work through a lineup multiple times given that he really only uses two pitches at this point.

  • Start 1: Smyly faced five batters for a third time in a 4-4 game, retiring all five. (Yay!)
  • Start 2: Smyly faced two batters for a third time in a game the Braves trailed by a run, retiring both. (Yay!)
  • Start 3: Smyly faced two batters for a third time in a blowout he was already losing by six runs, retiring one of them. (Meh.)
  • Start 4: Smyly faced six batters across two innings for a third time when trailing 4-0. He walked three of them and allowed a homer, while retiring the other two. (Bad, but meh.)
  • Start 5: Smyly faced seven batters across parts of three innings for a third time with a two-run lead. He retired five of them, including a double play ball, and was pulled after issuing a leadoff walk (that did not come around to score).
  • Start 6: Smyly faced five batters across two innings for a third time with a three-run lead. He retired three of them, including a double play after hitting a batter with a pitch.
  • Start 7: Smyly faced six batters across two innings for a third time. He started the sequence with a one-run lead, a solo homer tied the game; he retired every other batter.

This brings us to Start 8, that same game that was knotted up after Devers’ homer, and then promptly unknotted when Austin Riley hit one over the Green Monster to give Smyly another lead. Smyly faced five batters, retired one of them, and departed with the one-run lead having turned to a one-run deficit.

In aggregate, this is what Smyly’s splits are, by time through the order.

He has literally pitched to at least some part of the order a third time in every single start he’s made this season. The Braves are not using an opener for him. They are not limiting him to two times through the order. They are not using him as some kind of pseudo-bulk guy who faces a lot of lefties, even though he has a 2.90 xFIP against them so far. Will any of this change? This goes back to my question: how long is Drew Smyly’s leash?

In the end, Smyly has been both astoundingly horrific as a Brave, but also, in a not-that-weird way, understandably not as bad as it seems. He has an unplayable 161 FIP- through eight starts, but his xFIP- is “only” 120. Among pitchers with 40 or more innings this season, he has literally the worst FIP- in baseball, but his xFIP- is “only” 11th-worst. Smyly has -0.5 fWAR on the year; no pitcher with 40+ innings has cost his team more than 0.2 wins by this measure. Logan Allen has been the only starter in baseball to pitch worse than Smyly this year, and he was optioned to the minors after giving up three homers in back-to-back starts. Smyly has had back-to-back three-homer starts, but the Braves don’t have that luxury with him. So, again, how long is Drew Smyly’s leash?

It is very tempting to point to the 22.0 percent HR/FB rate of Smyly’s as his main bugbear. That has to come down, right? You probably should point to that rate, as it’s the ninth-highest in baseball for any pitcher with more than 40 innings. But, on the flip side:

Yes, when you look at the actual fly balls allowed, Smyly “should have” allowed something like 15 homers, not the 13 he actually has. I don’t know if xHR is more predictive than xFIP and a league-average HR/FB rate; I suspect it may not be. But it’s not much consolation in any case, since again, it’s not like Smyly’s 120 xFIP- is anywhere close to average, either.

Later today, Smyly will face Jon Lester, pitching on three days’ rest. It will be Smyly’s third time facing the Nationals this season. By FIP, by Game Score, and by homers allowed, two of his three best starts of the season have come against Washington, whose offense was stymied by Charlie Morton and the bullpen on Monday, but who obliterated Max Fried and the bullpen on Tuesday. We’ll see what happens tonight, but I still have the same question: how long is Drew Smyly’s leash?

The Braves are acting like they have the luxury of having it be pretty long... but with playoff odds now at a season-low 24 percent, I’m not so sure.