MLB.com Columnist

Mike Petriello

Smyly stands with elite in combining whiffs, popups

Lefty one of two pitchers with whiff rate above 26 percent, infield-fly rate above 13 percent

Smyly stands with elite in combining whiffs, popups

On the surface, Drew Smyly's short Tampa Bay career to date hasn't looked particularly notable. He arrived in 2014 as part of the immediately unpopular David Price trade, then began 2015 on the disabled list due to left shoulder woes. After returning to make just three starts, Smyly was shut down for three months while rehabbing his shoulder and attempting to avoid surgery. All told, he's made just 19 starts for the Rays over the past two seasons.

But that sort of obscures a larger truth about just how effective Smyly has been when he's been on the mound, pitching to a 2.52 ERA in 114 1/3 innings for Tampa Bay -- and finding himself listed squarely among the best pitchers baseball has to offer when looking at the most important things a pitcher can do.

It goes without saying that more than anything else, a pitcher wants to miss bats. Strikeouts don't turn into bloop singles, crushed homers or men on base. But there's a type of contact that a pitcher can induce that's basically as good as a strikeout: the popup. When we looked at batted balls tracked by Statcast™ as being hit with a launch angle higher than 50 degrees (where zero is right back at the pitcher, and between 10 and 25 degrees are line drives), the MLB average was a mere .017 -- and even those few "hits" were mostly charitably scored defensive disasters involving the sun or player collisions.

So if you can miss bats and induce low-percentage popups, you're in a good spot. We ran a list of pitchers who can do exactly that, and, well … let's say, you may recognize some of the names.

We took the 186 starting pitchers with at least 50 innings thrown in 2015, and asked two very simple questions. First, how many of them struck out at least 26 percent of the hitters they faced? Just 15 of the 186, or about 8 percent, managed to do that:

2015 strikeout percentage (starters, minimum 50 innings pitched)

Clayton Kershaw, 33.8 percent
Chris Sale, 32.1 percent
Max Scherzer, 30.7 percent
Jose Fernandez, 29.8 percent
Stephen Strasburg, 29.6 percent
Carlos Carrasco, 29.6 percent
Chris Archer, 29.0 percent
Smyly, 28.0 percent
Corey Kluber, 27.7 percent
Noah Syndergaard, 27.5 percent
Jacob deGrom, 27.3 percent
Jake Arrieta, 27.1 percent
Raisel Iglesias, 27.0 percent
Madison Bumgarner, 26.9 percent
Francisco Liriano, 26.5 percent

So that's a good start, because the names on that list are almost universally baseball's elite. Then, of those 15, how many of them also managed to turn at least 10 percent of their fly balls into infield flies, or those nearly guaranteed popups we discussed earlier?

2015 infield fly ball rate (among pitchers with whiff rate of 26 percent)

Strasburg, 14.2 percent
Smyly, 13.0 percent
Scherzer, 12.9 percent
Bumgarner, 12.1 percent
Syndergaard, 10.5 percent

...And when you see those names, suddenly you see what the Rays saw in Smyly when they insisted on getting him in the Price deal, and why he's so important to a team that, if healthy, has a fascinating young rotation with budding superstar Archer, Smyly, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore, Erasmo Ramirez, and soon enough top prospect Blake Snell and injury rehabber Alex Cobb.

It's not an accident, either. It was well-reported that the Rays asked Smyly (and others) to throw more high fastballs, as part of an ongoing trend -- we've seen how well that's worked for Justin Verlander as he rebounded and Chris Young as he survived. We've seen the results. All that matters now for Smyly is health, and so far this spring, he's thrown 10 innings, allowing one run and striking out 10.

Spring Training stats don't really matter much, of course. But health does. If Smyly has that, then he's already proven he can perform like baseball's best. The rest of baseball just needs to start noticing.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.