Crafty Smyly holds value as part of Tigers' staff
The adage that a baseball team can't have enough quality pitching remains very true today. Being around the Tigers' spring camp, one could sense the competition for the fifth-starter role between right-hander Rick Porcello and left-hander Drew Smyly.
More than likely, the club will need them both in the starting rotation before the season is complete.
Their story is unusual and intriguing, because both are very young to be pitching at such a high level. After having pitched only 153 Minor League innings, Porcello made his first outing for Detroit at the ripe age of 20. He has already completed four seasons as a big league pitcher.
Smyly, now 23, made his Major League debut as a 22-year-old on April 12, 2012.
When I saw Smyly pitch for the first time this spring, he reminded me of former Angels pitcher Frank Tanana. Smyly used the same type command of a complete repertoire, competitive mound presence and finesse as the Angels' lefty.
Smyly went to Little Rock (Ark.) Central High School, the same school that produced the great Brooks Robinson. Smyly was not selected in the First-Year Player Draft out of high school. Instead, he went to college and became an important component of the pitching staff of the University of Arkansas.
As a redshirt freshman, Smyly came within one out of pitching a no-hitter against the University of Oklahoma in a 2009 NCAA Tournament game. An unplayable slow chopper to shortstop was the only blemish.
Following his outstanding career at Arkansas that included being named to the All-Southeastern Conference team in 2010, Smyly became a professional baseball player. The Tigers selected him with their second-round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. Nick Castellanos and Chance Ruffin (now with Seattle), both highly regarded, were selected in the supplemental first round ahead of Smyly.
At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds -- an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Tanana -- the tall and lanky Smyly is a crafty pitcher. That, too, is very much like Tanana. Both know how to use the entire plate to change eye levels while keeping hitters off balance.
Smyly can work well into games, because he is economical in his pitch count. Getting ahead in the count by throwing strikes and putting the hitter on the defensive is the core of Smyly's approach. His economy puts less stress on the bullpen and subsequently gives his team a chance to use fresher and more well-rested pitchers when they are most needed.
Overall, it is fair to say that Smyly is not a strikeout pitcher. He pitches to contact. He knows his strengths and pitches accordingly. Like Tanana, he's a pitcher and not a thrower. There's a huge difference. Smyly knows where the pitch is going. He has a plan on the mound, and he executes it well.
Given his age and experience, Smyly's mechanics are sound and he is advanced in his pitching approach. His mound demeanor is outstanding. One aspect I really admire is Smyly's willingness to pitch inside and use the entire plate as fair game to be claimed either by the pitcher or the hitter. Usually in his matchups, it's by Smyly.
Smyly's pitch repertoire and velocity aren't going to blow the roof off. He doesn't have any one "signature" offering or overpowering pitch. Rather, he has an above-average four-seam fastball that generally sits at 92 mph, and a two-seam sinker that he throws at 90 mph. He complements those pitches with a cutter that is very effective against left-handed hitters and a slider that comes in about eight mph slower than the 80-mph cutter. I also saw a changeup that wasn't as perfected as the other pitches. I'm sure he throws a curveball as well, but I didn't see that pitch. His secondary and offspeed pitchers have to work for him to be at his best.
If there is any concern about Smyly's performance, it may be brief lapses of command. That occurs if an umpire's strike zone is inconsistent. However, Smyly can recover quickly if he puts men on base. He has the skill and poise to work out of trouble with minimal damage. That's why his brief career ERA in Detroit's Minor League system is 2.57 and his WHIP is a solid 1.18. Those statistics cover 143 2/3 innings and offer a nice sampling of his pitching ability.
Smyly was named the Tigers' Minor League Pitcher of The Year in 2011.
Last Spring Training, Smyly pitched well enough to earn a spot in the starting rotation. Pitching for the Major League club in 23 appearances, including 18 starts, he allowed 93 hits in 99 1/3 innings and had a 4-3 record. He threw to a 3.99 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP.
In addition to pitching in Detroit's rotation, Smyly was effective out of the bullpen. In fact, in the 2012 American League Championship Series, he won Game 1 against the Yankees, throwing the final two innings of the game.
This Spring Training, Smyly has started five games, with a 3.86 ERA in 16 1/3 innings. His WHIP is a solid 1.10. Smyly has had some injury concerns in the past, including a stress fracture in his elbow, elbow tendinitis and issues with blisters. But from what I saw this spring, he looks healthy and sound.
It is likely the Tigers will benefit from having the services of Porcello and Smyly on the same staff. They are engaged in a friendly competition now, but both will be valuable as the season progresses.
No team can have enough quality pitching.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.