When the Chicago Cubs brought back Drew Smyly this winter, other than his solid season in 2022, I knew something more made them target him over other free agents this winter. Looking at the surface, his numbers are sufficient, as he posted a 3.47 ERA in 106.1 innings of work. His FIP of 4.26 was higher than you'd like for it to be, but it was, in fact, lower than his FIP the year prior and his ERA in 2021. Truthfully, if you received this production from Smyly year in and year out, you'd take it and not complain. There are, however, some interesting notes to dive into regarding an extra step forward in 2023.
Starting first with the pitch arsenal. In 2022, Smyly completely eliminated his four-seam fastball. He threw the pitch 998 times in 2021, allowing a line of .329/.392/.586, along with a BABIP of .330 and .257 ISO to opposing hitters. For reference, in 2020, he threw the pitch 220 times and allowed a .237/.333/.263 line, but the velocity averaged out to 93.8 mph, 1.7 mph faster than the 92.1 he averaged in 2021. in '22, Smyly only utilized a knuckle curve, sinker, and cutter. He did throw six changeups on the year, but at a utilization rate of just 0.3%, we'll go ahead and leave it out as it's too small of a sample to analyze.
Upon those three pitches, Smyly utilized his curveball at a career-high 42.95%, his sinker at 36.97%, and his cutter at 19.73%. After irradicating his fastball altogether, it's not surprising to see these three pitches spike in usage; however, moving forward, it will be interesting to see how long he can sustain success the more privy hitters become.
Smyly debuted in 2012 with an arsenal that consisted of a fastball, curveball, cutter, changeup, sinker, and slider. After he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017, he came back with a mix of a fastball, curve, cutter, and change. In 2020, he removed the changeup altogether and stuck with the three, where he found his best run of success since 2015, recording a 3.42 ERA in 26.1 innings.
What sticks out first in '22 is that the cutter was an ineffective pitch. With a line of .268/.322/.537 allowed the .537 slug percentage is the statistic that must be corrected moving forward. He allowed five home runs and seven doubles off the pitch with a utilization rate of 19.7% and 22 hits total in 88 ABs. Considering he threw his curve and sinker at a combined 79.95% clip, we're nearly looking primarily at a two-pitch mix at this point.
It may become problematic if this trend continues, as hitters can start sitting on these two pitches. As a hitter, it won't be incredibly challenging to pick up the forward or backward spin to identify a sinker or curve coming down the shoot more often than not. Therefore, Smyly will need to not only shake up the percentages of his pitches but perhaps add another pitch to keep hitters on their toes.
Sprinkling in a few more changeups or reestablishing the use of his slider, if he can get a good feel for it, could be one possibility. Smyly hasn't thrown a slider in a big-league game since coming back from Tommy John in 2019. In 2022, it is worth noting that the usage spike in sinkers and curves yielded positive results, in which he recorded a higher groundball rate of 40.1% vs. his career mark of 36.1%.
On the flip side, Smyly's fly ball rate was 42.3%, his highest mark since 2019. It will prove highly beneficial if he can get that groundball rate closer to around 45.0% or 50.0%, especially when you have an elite defense up the middle. For reference, Justin Steele (3.18 ERA) induced a GB rate of 51.2% while keeping his FB rate down to 27.9% in 2022.
Of course, none of this is a knock on Smyly in the slightest. Instead, an observation that will lead to more success. 2022 marked a resurgent year for the southpaw. Now, building on that success is critical for the Cubs moving forward. Yan Gomes and Tucker Barnhart are both good game callers behind the plate, which is a luxury in itself. We knew back in May that Gomes was having success with Cubs pitchers, and that trend only continued throughout the season.
Smyly was quite successful in 2022; if he can put up the same number he did in 2022, he's a perfect candidate for the back of the starting rotation. Any further steps will see him lower his ERA and increase his inning count in the process. All of which vitally help the Cubs compete in 2023.