Who is this year's Corey Kluber, the pitcher who kind of comes out of nowhere to win the Cy Young Award or at least enter the discussion?
I give you Drew Smyly.
Smyly isn't quite the anonymous pitcher Kluber was entering 2014. He reached the majors with the Tigers in 2012 and pitched pretty well as a rookie starter (3.99 ERA, 94 strikeouts in 99 1/3 innings), and then he had an excellent year in relief in 2013. Moved back to the rotation in 2014, he was good but not great with Detroit (3.93 ERA) and then traded to Tampa Bay as part of the David Price deal.
In Tampa, everything came together for the young left-hander. In seven starts with the Rays, he posted a 1.70 ERA with 44 strikeouts, 11 walks and just 25 hits allowed in 47 2/3 innings. He was shut down in early September, having pitched a career-high 153 innings. Was this just a hot streak or a real change in performance, similar to Kluber posting a 2.63 ERA over nine starts down the stretch in 2013?
Based on Smyly's splits with Detroit and Tampa Bay, it looks kind of like a batting average on balls in play issue, which is often attributed to good fortune:
Detroit: 20.0% K rate, 7.0% BB rate, .313 BABIP
Tampa Bay: 25.4% K rate, 6.4% BB rate, .186 BABIP
His strikeout rate did increase, but his hit rate was insane. No starter allows a .186 BABIP over more than a few starts, let alone a full season. So just a small-sample fluke, right?
Not necessarily. A few days ago, I came across this article by Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs, talking about how the Rays like pitchers who throw high fastballs. Jeff wrote that 14 of the 17 pitchers on the Tampa Bay depth chart throw four-seam fastballs with more vertical movement than average -- aka a "rising" fastball.
I looked up Smyly's fastballs before and after the trade (as it turns out, Jeff and others had written about this in September, so I'm behind the curve). Sure enough, he threw more high fastballs with the Rays. Here are his heat maps:
The red areas are similar but not the same. At ESPN, we chart pitch location as up, middle or down. Here are his fastball locations (Smyly throws a four-seamer almost exclusively) with Detroit and Tampa Bay:
Up: 34.1 percent
Middle: 34.1 percent
Down: 31.7 percent
Up: 52.1 percent
Middle: 33.2 percent
Down: 14.6 percent
More high fastballs, fewer low fastballs. With the Tigers, opponents hit .296/.363/.436 against his fastball and right-handed batters hit .331. With the Rays, opponents hit .194/.247/.333 against his fastball and right-handed batters hit .222. There was a fundamental change in approach, and it worked. Smyly has always crushed lefties (.192 average allowed), so if the improvement against right-handed batters is real, he can take his game to the next level.
Are high fastballs a new market inefficiency? Pitchers today are trained to keep the ball at the bottom of the strike zone -- not only is the bottom of the strike zone increasing in size but those pitches are harder to elevate -- but batters actually hit worse against high fastballs. Data from 2014:
Throwing up in the zone results in fewer hits (fly balls are outs more often than ground balls) and more strikeouts. The isolated power figures were nearly identical as well (.128 on high fastballs, .127 on low fastballs). Of course, this can be a little misleading. Pitchers with better velocity are going to be more willing to throw up in the zone, and pitchers who throw harder tend to be better pitchers.
As Jeff wrote, this is the Tampa Bay philosophy. As a team, the Rays led the majors with 39.2 percent of their fastballs up in the zone. And the Rays usually have good pitching, so this philosophy seems to be working.
The interesting thing about Smyly is that he doesn't throw exceptionally hard. His average fastball velocity was 89.8 mph, ranking 117th out of 148 pitchers with at least 100 innings.
I'm not suggesting Smyly is going to post a sub-2.00 ERA. He certainly had some good luck with his hits allowed. Maybe hitters will figure out that he has changed his approach and start looking for more high fastballs. But the early indicators are that the new approach has made Smyly a better pitcher. If you want a good pickup for your fantasy team, he's your guy.