Rays Tales: Smyly has been worth the Price

Rays left-hander Drew Smyly’s pitching prowess is a result of a deep arsenal and a deceptive delivery out of his 6-5 frame.
Rays left-hander Drew Smyly’s pitching prowess is a result of a deep arsenal and a deceptive delivery out of his 6-5 frame.
Published Apr. 24, 2016

The Rays got LHP Drew Smyly from the Tigers as part of their three-player return for unloading LHP David Price in July 2014.

And there have been times when Smyly has looked as if he could be every bit as effective as the former ace.

Health has been the biggest issue for Smyly, who was shut down the final month of the 2014 season and was limited to 12 starts last year due to shoulder issues.

But when healthy, Smyly, 26, has been impressive, going 8-5 with a 2.58 ERA in 22 starts and striking out 148 in 139 innings, with a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of less than 1 — 0.941.

What makes him so good?

There are a few things, starting with a wide repertoire of pitches and a delivery that creates deception for the hitters.

"He's a 6-foot-5 left-hander and throws from over the top — that's a very difficult combination," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "He's aggressive, he's obviously confident, he's just friggin' good."

From that unusual release point, Smyly can effectively throw four, or maybe five, pitches: fastball, curveball, changeup and a cutter/slider combo that can look at times like two different pitches as he varies the speed and depth of the break.

He has the command to throw the cutter/slider to both sides of the plate, the courage to throw the curve and changeup when he's behind in the count and the arm strength to throw the fastball, which he tends to elevate, by a lot of hitters.

"His fastball is sneaky quick, and it gets on you," Hickey said. "If you just look at the empty swings over the last two starts, that's pretty impressive — 37-40 swings and misses, that's an incredible amount."

Hickey said that from his usual bullpen vantage point, behind the mound, Smyly doesn't look all that special. But when Hickey stands in at the plate for the end of Smyly's throwing sessions, he has a much better perspective, noting the way the fastball finishes and the curve breaks.

"It's a whole different ballgame," Hickey said. "It's no surprise that he's pitching as well as he is. I think the big surprise is how kind of unaware of him people are. They did a heckuva job identifying a target."

Here are some other things you may not know about Smyly:

Hoop it up

Basketball runs in Smyly's family, as his father, Todd, played four years of college ball at Jacksonville (Ala.) State then coached for a total of 12 seasons at Truett-McConnell Junior College and Berry College in Georgia, and, from 1993-96, at Saint Leo College up the road in Pasco County. Drew played plenty of hoops growing up but got a sense that his future was on the field. "It was very apparent in high school I needed to go another direction," he said. "It was obvious I was best at baseball, so I put all my effort and energy into that."

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Happy camper

Smyly had good numbers his junior year but wasn't much of a prospect coming out of Central High in Little Rock, Ark., barely over 150 pounds, short of 90 mph on the radar gun and limited by a small stress fracture in his elbow. There were 1,453 players taken in the 2007 draft, and his name wasn't called. That turned out okay, though, since he had the chance to play collegiately at Arkansas. He had some interest from small Division I colleges but decided to aim high during the summer before his senior year. He got his parents to cover the $200 cost and a couple of other buddies to go along for the 2½-hour drive and attended a Razorbacks camp. "I pitched well, I think I hit 90 and they gave me like a partial scholarship," he said. "I kind of knew then I was going to go there. All my friends were going there. Home state. It was a pretty easy decision." It turned out to be a good one, too, as after two solid seasons he was a second-round pick by the Tigers in 2010.

A painful start

Smyly has overcome his share of hurdles, including a horrific and painful injury his freshman year at Arkansas. Having dealt with a stress fracture in high school, Smyly was on the mound for a preseason intrasquad game when he threw a pitch and his left elbow broke. "I threw it and I was like, 'Owww!!' and it just stuck, it froze, in this (bent across his chest) position," Smyly said. "I couldn't extend it, I couldn't pull it up, it was just there. It was so painful." Smyly, who would need surgery and miss the season, was reminded of his trauma a few weeks ago when Braves RHP Dan Winkler sustained a similar injury. "I saw the video and it just brought back a lot of memories," Smyly said. "It was almost the same exact expression, and he did the same thing, he just ran off the mound (holding his arm)." Longtime Rays fans will remember a similar trauma with LHP Tony Saunders in May 1999.

Name game

Smyly's given name is Todd Andrew Smyly, but he has gone by Drew "as long as I can remember" and has no interest in going back. His father's name is William Todd, and he goes by Todd.

Shy guy

Smyly can come across as disinterested and dour in interviews, but he says that's just a product of his low-key personality and nothing more. "I'm just a shy guy," he said. "I'm not a man of words I would say. I just enjoy playing baseball, man. I don't like to be in the spotlight too much. I just like to go about everyday life and enjoy it, have fun and don't take it too seriously."

In his spare time

Smyly doesn't hunt at all ("I love animals too much") nor fish much, but he spends a lot of time on the golf course and in front of the TV in the offseason. "I'm a big TV series guy," he said. "I love Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Homeland, all of those."

Where's the Beef's?

Smyly chipped in with his dad to buy a Beef 'O' Brady's restaurant in Maumelle, Ark., that is near their family home and where they would often eat after youth league games. Todd runs it as Drew lives in the Dallas area.

More about Smyly

His baseball highlight is pitching in the 2012 World Series as a rookie reliever with the Tigers. … He has a 6-year-old Labrador retriever named Tye. … His prized baseball possessions are a signed Derek Jeter jersey and the ball from his first win. … He was teammates at Arkansas with Rays 2B Logan Forsythe and roommates (and still good buddies) with Astros Cy Young Award winner LHP Dallas Keuchel.

Short stops

• Given the lack of performance to this point by 1B Logan Morrison and C Hank Conger, here's a question: Would you rather have 1B James Loney and C Rene Rivera, whom the Rays released at the end of spring training? Or maybe it's not really much of a question.

• In deciding to move on from 1B James Loney, did the Rays also miss out on a better option they had right in front of them? John Jaso has played surprisingly good defense for the Pirates at first base, while hitting .368 with a .431 on-base percentage, after signing an $8 million, two-year deal.

Rays rumblings

Noted baseball writer and stats guru Bill James had some lavish praise for Rays CF Kevin Kiermaier, writing on "Kiermaier looks like what I imagine Joe DiMaggio must have looked like — tall, strong, extremely fast and incredibly graceful." … If the Rays are serious about making a playoffs run, maybe they should more seriously consider a trade for Brewers C Jonathan Lucroy. Even if the price is a couple of elite prospects. … Former Rays INF Wil Rhymes is now scouting for the Dodgers. … Former Rays manager Lou Piniella is doing his autobiography with noted writer Bill Madden.

Got a minute? Steve Pearce

Best meal you can make? Steak on the grill.

Dream vacation spot? Some exotic ski resort that's remote.

Band you'd like to be on stage with? It would be some '80s rockers — Guns N' Roses, Journey, REO, Bon Jovi.

Movie you like to quote most? That's my thing — I quote movies all the time. It depends on the situation. You can't just drop one, it has to be spot on and one everybody knows. I'll drop them from all the Major League series, Happy Gilmore, Dumb & Dumber.

Celebrity crush? Emilia Clarke (an actress on Game of Thrones).