Drew Smyly’s Situation Hasn’t Really Improved

After a flurry of recent moves, the Mariners ended Wednesday with starter Drew Smyly as a new member of their rotation. Smyly has long been one of my favorite unheralded pitchers in the game, primarily because of his strikeout and walk rates, which Dave Cameron explained had him on the short list of baseball’s best starters in recent seasons.

Smyly’s actual results haven’t lived up to those peripheral stats, and the knee-jerk reaction to his trade to the Mariners is that Seattle should be the perfect situation for him to finally reach his potential. Safeco Field has long been a pitcher’s haven, and the Mariners’ other recent acquisitions of Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger should help create one of the fastest defensive outfields in baseball. Good outfield defense should be especially helpful for Smyly, who had the second-lowest groundball rate of qualified starters in 2016.

Lowest GB%, Qualified Starters, 2016
Name Team GB%
Jered Weaver Angels 28.8%
Drew Smyly Rays 31.3%
Dan Straily Reds 32.0%
Max Scherzer Nationals 33.0%
Ian Kennedy Royals 33.2%

Unfortunately, that optimism for Smyly doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. As it turns out, the Rays outfield defense headlined by likely the best defensive outfielder in baseball, Kevin Kiermaier, wasn’t too shabby behind Smyly. As a unit, Rays’ outfielders saved their pitchers 21 runs above average in 2016 according to Defensive Runs Saved. That didn’t quite measure up to the 35 runs the Royals’ and Cubs’ outfielders saved their teams, but for Smyly, the effect was much the same. On air balls hit to the outfield, Smyly allowed a .321 BABIP in 2016, which was 10th-lowest among qualified starters who pitched for one team. Not coincidentally, that had him just beside a pair of starters from the Royals and Cubs, Danny Duffy and Jon Lester.

Lowest Outfield BABIP, Qualified Starters, 2016
Player Team Outfield Runs Saved BABIP
Ian Kennedy Royals 35 .273
John Lackey Cubs 35 .284
Justin Verlander Tigers -29 .286
Dan Straily Reds -9 .287
Julio Teheran Braves 4 .292
Brandon Finnegan Reds -9 .295
Marco Estrada Blue Jays 10 .296
Danny Duffy Royals 35 .315
Jon Lester Cubs 35 .321
Drew Smyly Rays 21 .321

Perhaps the Mariners’ outfield will become the best defensive unit in the sport, but Smyly himself probably can’t expect to see a dramatic improvement on the results of his air balls compared to the success he saw last season.

Meanwhile, following the changes in Safeco Field’s outfield wall dimensions in 2013, the Mariners’ home park has ceased being one of the pitcher-friendliest in baseball. Actually, it’s the Rays park of Tropicana Field that is in the top five in the AL in limiting opposing home runs, specifically by 11 percent compared to an average park.

Lowest HR Factors, AL, 2014-16
Team HR Index
Athletics 74
Royals 75
Astros 81
Rays 89
Twins 98

Over the last three seasons, Safeco Field has actually allowed 16 percent more home runs than an average park. Only the Indians and Yankees have a homer-friendly park among AL teams. So don’t expect Smyly’s home run per flyball rate to fall from its 12.7 percent mark last season unless the mysterious power trend of the last year and a half abruptly ends, dropping the overall 12.8 percent home run per flyball rate in 2016 back to its recent historical norm of around 10 percent.

Really, most of Smyly’s peripheral statistics last season came close to supporting his ugly 4.88 ERA. His overall BABIP (.291) and home run per flyball rate, for example, were a bit better than average. And so despite a solid 8.6 strikeout and 2.5 percent walk rate, Smyly’s FIP and xFIP were still pretty poor at 4.49 and 4.51.

The one peripheral stat Smyly can count on improving is his strand rate, which at 67.7 percent was the sixth-worst among qualified starters. Just don’t count on Smyly repeating his low-3.00 ERAs from 2014 and 2015 because of regression because his ERAs in both of those seasons was more than half a run worse than his FIPs.

Smyly is a really good pitcher who found a great fit in the Mariners, but he was a pretty great fit for the Rays, too. Don’t overrate the change and rush him into your top 30 starters. I wouldn’t be surprised if James Paxton has a better fantasy season, and he’ll be available 100 picks later in many fantasy drafts.

Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt

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Cory Settoon
6 years ago

It seems less about the park and defense and more about not giving up homeruns to RHH. His BAA and OBP isn’t terrible, but the SLG is devastating.

2014 – .264/.324/.447
2015 – .246/.303/.448
2016 – .256/.315/.458