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Drew Smyly’s struggles give Braves reason to rethink rotation

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Smyly’s struggles come at a time where Atlanta is thinking about a six-man rotation

MLB: AUG 31 Braves at Dodgers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Drew’s Smyly’s roller coaster ride of a season continued Monday night in a 5-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. With the NL East race tightening, his performance could force the Atlanta Braves to rethink their starting rotation.

Smyly allowed nine hits and five runs in just 4 2/3 innings. Four of those nine hits left the ballpark and he has now allowed seven home runs over his last 9 2/3 innings. He has a 6.08 ERA and a 6.54 FIP in five starts in August.

“It wasn’t a great outing for him,” Brian Snitker said when asked about Smyly’s performance. “We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance to win which is a good thing but you know it’s just hard to come back when you get down that far.”

Smyly’s season got off to a rough start and homers were a big part of his struggles. He allowed 13 over his first eight starts while his ERA approached six and his FIP exceeded it. He appeared to settle somewhat at the start of June and allowed just five homers over his next 10 starts while posting a 3.08 ERA and a 3.83 FIP over that stretch. However, his xFIP budged much less (4.95 to 4.62) across these stretches, so the results were moving around even while the pitching quality was pretty similar.

Smyly’s regression comes at a time where the Braves are toying with the idea of a six-man rotation with Touki Toussaint a possibility to start later this week in Colorado. Toussaint’s track record is short, but he has pitched reasonably well this season (86 ERA-/117 FIP-/101 xFIP-) which gives Atlanta options.

Smyly has seen a velocity drop across the board in 2021. He is averaging 92.1 MPH on his four-seam fastball, down from 93.8 mph a year ago. His cutter has seen an even sharper decline to 87.5 mph.

“It may be that he had a limited year last year and now it’s getting extended and maybe it’s has something to do with it,” Snitker said when asked about Smyly’s velocity loss.

Smyly made just seven appearances (five starts) for the Giants in 2020 logging 26 1/3 innings.

While the velocity drop is one thing, his command Monday night was clearly an issue as well. The first three home runs he allowed all came on pitches that were in the heart of the strike zone.

“I don’t think it’s arm strength, I think it’s just executing pitches,” Smyly said after the game. “I thought the life on my pitches was better today than it’s been in quite a little while. Sometimes you just don’t get the results.”

Smyly’s challenging 2021 campaign stems from more than just a velocity drop. The cutter has been missing in action and obliterated when it does get thrown, having lost a lot of its horizontal differentiation from his four-seamer. The curveball is still an effective weapon, but has lost some drop and is not getting as many whiffs as it did in 2020.

Given the current situation, the Braves don’t have the time to wait around for Smyly’s results to come around, and he really hasn’t done much in terms of underlying peripherals to suggest there’s any reason that they should. While his xFIP (4.44) is nearly a full run better than his FIP (5.35), there isn’t much upside in his profile unless he suddenly morphs into the harder-throwing, usable-cutter possessing version of himself from last season’s 26 innings of work.