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Drew Smyly: The Celtic god of pops

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Drew Smyly's new approach to pitching combined with his already high pop-up rate could position him for a surprisingly great season.

After a late-season burst of infield fly balls, it might be time to start reassessing Smyly's future.
After a late-season burst of infield fly balls, it might be time to start reassessing Smyly's future.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In the book Moneyball, Oakland's GM Billy Beane refers to then-prospect Kevin Youkilis as "the Greek God of Walks." Beane, looking for a competitive edge, coveted the third baseman for his under appreciated plate discipline skills (that is, under appreciated by the league, not Boston). Youkilis finished his MLB career with a .382 OBP and helped the Red Sox win a good many games without ever breaking Boston's bank.

Drew Smyly might be that same thing.

We have already seen Smyly is pitching up in the zone, and we believe that new process contributed to his improved results in the latter half of 2014. What we haven't discussed in as great of detail is form and power of why. Why is higher better? And how important is that answer?

Here's the answer: He's getting more pop ups. He's getting a lot more popups.

In his career Drew Smyly has faced 1337 batters, and he ended 52 of those encounters with popups. That's pretty good. That's a 3.9% pop up rate, which is near the top range of what we see from starting pitchers (Chris Young and his stupid high popup rate aside). But then we look more closely at 2014, and realize that -- in just 173 total batters faced (TBF) while playing for the Rays -- Smyly had 13 infield fly balls (IFFB). In other words, in just 13% of his career, he collected exactly 25% of his career IFFBs.

Comparing his pop up rates against starting pitchers from 2014, we see Smyly is a special case indeed:

Smyly vs Starters

But maybe those 173 plate appearances from 2014 were a fluke. Especially with pitcher rate stats, we expect lots of fluctuation and randomness. So I went ahead and expanded the scope of my inquiry to any 2014 pitcher with at least 40 IP. This captures a lot of relievers too, the types of pitchers we expect to be capable of maintaining extreme splits and rates.

Smyly's performance as a Ray stands out even more:

Smyly vs 2014

In other words, his 47 IP with the Rays were beyond extraordinary. We can even look over the last three years, 2012 through 2014, and see that only Smyly is in the 7.3% to 7.7% range.

Granted, Smyly's 2014 season isn't actually in that range; only his sliver of time with the Rays is in that range. And for all we know, Chris Young or some of these other pitchers managed to jumped up there for a 40 IP chunk only to normalize later. So I am by no means saying Smyly did something no one else has done over the last three years. But still. That's 1,101 pitcher seasons, and only 2013 James Russell (7.0% in 52.2 IP) came close.

Why does this matter? Why do we care about an absurd pop-up rate?

Because pop ups are basically strikeouts. They result in an out 99% of the time, and they are a repeatable skill. And more than just that, they allow a pitcher like Chris Young to sustain a career .250 BABIP. That means Smyly could carve out a nice career as a FIP-beater, a pitcher whose performance will always be better than his peripherals.

Turning one last time to Chris Young, we see how a career as a pop-up pitcher can tangibly improve the player's performance:

Career ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Chris Young 93 109 114

In other words: Chris Young, through no other means than his ability to induce weak fly balls, has been 7 points better than league average instead of either 9 or 14 points worse than league average, as his peripherals would suggest.

And if Smyly can harness some of that late season infield-fly insanity, then the Rays could very well need an alter to the Celtic god of pops.