Drew Smyly has been kind of a forgotten man amid all the talk of how the Cubs’ pitching staff will round out. I mean, sure, he’s mentioned when it comes to guys who will work long relief and maybe pick up a start here and there, but it’s more just a matter of necessity because he’s on the roster. But what if Smyly could be a legit impact arm this season?
It’s not much of a stretch, especially since the lefty is going to have a shot to move back into the rotation this spring. Whatever role he fills, Smyly has been putting in a lot of work with the folks at Driveline. Rather than working on upping his velo, which is kind of the default thought when you mention Driveline, the 34-year-old has focused on developing a splitter and a slider.
While you will see those two pitch types in his arsenal several years ago, the volume was so incidental that it was probably the result of classification errors. These new pitches, however, are highly intentional as Smyly looks to improve his results in 2024.
— Driveline Baseball (@DrivelineBB) December 16, 2023
You can see in the video above from back in December that his splitter is actually cutting a little, at least relative to his fastball, which led North Side Baseball’s Matt Trueblood to dub it a splutter. There’s a ton of uber-nerdy stuff in there for those who are into such things, so check it out in more detail when you’re done here. We’re going eschew any real analysis of the slider for the time being because it wasn’t part of a more recent highlight reel that featured several splitters.
Note that I didn’t call them splutters because this new video of Smyly throwing to live batters appears to show two different split variations. Now, it’s possible the disparity is simply a matter of the small sample and a lack of familiarity with the pitch. As Brendan Miller noted, one has 10:30 spin direction with -5 inches of induced horizontal break while the other is at 12:15 with 1 inch of break. But maybe it’s intentional.
Drew Smyly looking great in a recent live at bats ? pic.twitter.com/hXi9HPiXqu
— Driveline Baseball (@DrivelineBB) February 4, 2024
What if Smyly has ditched the slider, perhaps because it wasn’t achieving enough separation from his curve in terms of either shape or velocity, and has instead turned his attention to two different splitters? That would be akin to Kyle Hendricks manipulating his changeup differently based on the situation. Smyly has a “unicorn” curve that has served him very well over the years because it acts as more of a churve with low spin and late fade.
“Hitters are so good at envisioning where the ball is going to end up,” Smyly explained. “Because it fades, I think a lot of times, when hitters swing and miss, they get pissed off. They feel like they should’ve hit it.”
While the slider was getting more sweep than the curve, it was in a similar mid-to-upper 70s range and ended up low in the zone. The curve works well because hitters are expecting it to have a little glove-side run, so the slider might be very hittable unless he can get more sweep. And does anyone remember how things worked out for Jameson Taillon when he tried to tweak things to get a big sweeper last year?
The splitter(s), on the other hand, had more unpredictable movement and sat around 83 mph. Keeping his fastball at around 92 with the curve below 80 and the splitter a little higher could help Smyly correct splits that got way out of hand last year. Typically a mild standard-split pitcher, left-handed batters crushed Smyly for a .338 average and .981 OPS. Yikes.
This is one of the things I’ll be watching in spring training and throughout the regular season.