Both Tanner Scheppers and Drew Smyly have a chance to be starting pitchers in 2014. Scheppers has a shot at the rotation because Derek Holland is out until the midway point after injuring his knee while supposedly playing with his dog. And Smyly is even more likely to make the Detroit rotation because the Tigers inexplicably traded Doug Fister for some questionable young pieces.
They both pitched exclusively as relievers last season and each threw about 76 innings. Scheppers has never started at the major league level and only started eight games in the minor leagues. Smyly pitched exclusively as a starter in the minor leagues, and his first 16 major league appearances in 2012 were as a starter. So Smyly has more experience as a starter and a higher likelihood of actually being in the rotation, but because I’d like this post to easily surpass 500 words and because of the alliterative title they’re last names allowed me to use, let’s consider their viability as starters together.
To get a general idea about what statistical differences there are between starters and relievers, I compared the league stats on our leaderboards for starters and relievers last year. Most of the significant differences show up in numbers that relate to the ability of a reliever to use his best stuff more often and the fact that the best stuff of a reliever is better than it would be if he had to throw 100 pitches per outing. This isn’t anything revelatory, but velocity is higher so contact is lower and strikeout rates are higher for relievers. Home run rates are lower and infield fly ball rates are higher for relievers presumably because weak contact is easier to get when you get to go all out for short bursts.
The biggest difference between starters and relievers is pitch usage. Again, I’m not breaking any news by saying that starters need to have better secondary stuff, but the difference in pitch usage is the thing that stands out most when you compare the average stats of starters and relievers. Starters used fastballs 56.4% of the time last year, but the reliever percentage was up at 60.6%. Starters had three secondary pitches that had an average usage of 10% or higher, but relievers had only one secondary pitch that had an average usage higher than 8%.
When you look at the pitch usage of Scheppers and Smyly their viability as starters gets a little iffy. According to our pitch usage numbers, Scheppers is almost exclusively a fastball/curve pitcher. He did throw a change occasionally in 2012 but almost completely abandoned the pitch last year. If you look at brooksbaseball.net, you’ll see that Scheppers is really throwing two fastballs, a four seamer and a sinker, in addition to his curve.
Smyly, by our pitch usage numbers, has three fastballs, a four seamer, two seamer and cutter, that he leaned on heavily last year. He also has a slider he threw about 13% of the time and a change he used very sparingly. Brooksbaseball.net has him just throwing just two fastballs, a four seamer and a cutter, along with the slider and the occasional change. I looked specifically at the time period in 2012 where Smyly had 16 straight appearances as a starter hoping to see that he mixed the change in a bit more as his third pitch. He did throw his change about twice as much, but that only means he used it about 5% of the time. Strangely, he leaned quite a bit more heavily on his slider in his string of starts.
In their time as relievers, each of these guys have thrown a version of a fastball over 75% of the time. If you include cutters as fastballs, the average fastball usage for starters last year was 62.2%. Among the 79 qualified starters, the average was 60.8%. Only seven qualified starters threw 75%-plus fastballs. Admittedly, several of those seven pitchers are really good. Cliff Lee is by far the best pitcher in that group, but he had a the third best wFB/C in the league last year at 1.46. Scheppers and Smyly have career wFB/Cs of 0.52 and 0.61, respectively. They’re not going to have success as starters if they use fastballs of that quality so frequently. That’s especially true when you factor in the average difference of 1.2 miles per hour between starter and reliever fastball velocity.
There’s certainly a chance, in fact it’s probably likely, that Scheppers and Smyly will try to use their secondary stuff more if they do join their respective rotations. But neither one has given us any indication that they have overly effective secondary stuff. Smyly has a positive pitch value on his slider, but his little used changeup has been downright awful when he has used it. Scheppers’ primary secondary pitch, his curve, has a negative career pitch value, and his changeup has been almost as bad as Smyly’s.
Both guys are fairly young (Scheppers is 27, Smyly 25), so they still have time to develop some secondary stuff. But until we see them using it and using it effectively, they’re risky options as fantasy starters. Of the two, Smyly is easily the more interesting name. As mentioned, he’s been used more as a starter both in the big leagues and in the minors. He’s also much more likely to actually be in his team’s rotation. And his second best pitch, his slider, has been better than Scheppers’ curve. He’s also flashed his third pitch, the change, a bit more than Scheppers has, and he used it a bit more in his time as a starter.
Scheppers can safely be ignored as a fantasy starter option if he even ends up in the rotation. But Smyly currently has an NFBC ADP that places him behind only 47 starters. I’d readily shy away from him as a top 50 starter. He might have that upside if his change comes along, but he’s nothing more than spot starter until then.