Drew Smyly Needs to Turn Frown Upside-Down in Hurry, Financial Factors Could Color Usage Decisions

Drew Smyly had a perfect game going for seven innings against the Dodgers back on March 21, his third start of the season. That probably would have been the highlight of his season no matter what happened subsequently, but each passing appearance makes his gem look like an aberration.  Though he continued to pitch pretty well for another month, including a solid effort in a win over the Mets at Wrigley on May 23, Smyly has been nothing short of terrible over his last 13 appearances.

Beginning with a loss to the Reds on May 28, the veteran lefty has a 7.22 ERA with 81 hits and 27 walks allowed over 62.1 innings. It gets even worse when we zoom in closer, as Smyly has a 9.00 ERA over his last eight appearances (six starts) dating back to a loss to the Phillies on June 28. For what it’s worth, Marcus Stroman has the exact same ERA over his last seven outings.

Those performances have elevated Cubs starters’ ERA to 5.53 over the last six-plus weeks, a mark that is only slightly elevated by a .332 BABIP allowed. Smyly is 3-7 over his last 13 appearances, though the Cubs managed to win two of his three no-decisions. Not that a 5-8 record is acceptable, mind you, but it’s apparently enough for David Ross to maintain a measure of faith in Smyly.

“I don’t think we have to measure everything to perfection every time,” the manager told the media Monday night. “It is a long season. Just like hitters, pitchers go through ups and downs in a season. We’ve got a lot of games left.”

That seems a little strange when Seiya Suzuki has been benched in order to work on his swing mechanics and, perhaps more importantly, his plate approach. That makes sense when the acquisition of Jeimer Candelario means starting Cody Bellinger in center every day and making room for Mike Tauchman to play as often as possible in right. For as much as he’s struggled of late, however, Suzuki is still at a 95 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR on the season.

What’s more, one struggling player in the lineup isn’t typically going to make or break any individual game. But when that struggling player is your starting pitcher, the outcome is very much in question. That’s particularly true when he gives up early runs, as win probability hinges greatly on which team scores first. Including the games in which he served as a bulk guy, you have to go back to July 3 against the Brewers to find a game in which Smyly did not allow a run in his first inning of work.

Even more concerning is the fact that he gave up a home run in the initial frame of all but one of the six games in question. That the Cubs somehow won half of those games is a credit to the offense, which generated 37 runs of support for the pitching staff. The offense has been humming since June and has really kicked into high gear in the second half, but the Cubs can’t be expected to keep outscoring Smyly’s mistakes.

Only five qualified pitchers have been saddled with a higher rate than Smyly’s 1.76 HR/9 on the season and only two have a mark worse than his 2.45 since May 28. Over his last eight games, that number has jumped to an untenable 3.09 HR/9 which stands as the worst in MLB (min. 30 IP). While his groundball rate has dipped only marginally from 35.3% to 33.3% from that early hot stretch to the subsequent cool-down, his home run/fly ball rate rocked from 8.3% to 20% since late May.

It’s all the way up to 26.7% since that outing in late June, so things aren’t getting better at all. I have no idea what the solution is, but I can tell you that my first thought wasn’t correct. My initial hypothesis was that Smyly has been throwing too many strikes and that hitters were simply able to tee off as a result. But he’s actually working in the zone much less overall in his last 13 appearances (37.8%) than he did in his first 10 (42.9%). Even more confounding is that he’s getting a higher percentage of whiffs in the latter period (10.7%) than the former (10.1%).

The real problem may be the types and timing of the strikes he’s throwing, specifically when it comes to first pitches. Smyly has dropped from nearly 65% first-pitch strikes to just over 60%, and his walk rate has gone way up to boot. When forced to rely more heavily on his fastball and cutter rather than the curveball that should be his bread and butter, the lefty runs into trouble.

Rather than just continuing to run him out there with fingers crossed in the hopes that he’ll somehow figure it out, Ross needs to consider removing Smyly from the rotation. That’s easier said than done with Stroman still nursing his hip issue, but a team trying to push for a playoff spot can’t keep rolling a guy out there who is almost guaranteed to give up runs in the 1st inning.

The bigger picture is that Smyly is starting to look a lot like Trey Mancini what with the $11 million he’s got remaining on his two-year deal. He’s owed $8.5 million next season and then has a $2.5 buyout on a $10 million mutual option for 2025. There’s also the matter of his performance bonuses for innings pitched, which might factor into decisions being made from those above Ross in the organizational food chain.

Smyly has already earned an extra quarter-million for surpassing 110 innings (he’s at 117.2 now) and he’ll get another such kicker once he reaches 120 innings. Those payouts jump to $750K for hitting 130 and 140 innings, then $1 million for 150 innings. That would be another $2.75 million, which he could easily collect if he’s able to go just four innings over what could be up to nine more starts on the season.

But wait, there’s more. Smyly’s contract also includes salary escalators that mirror the bonuses, so reaching 150 innings in 2023 would earn him $3 million in incentives this year while also bumping his ’24 guarantee from $8.5 million to $11.5 million. Not a bad deal at all for someone pitching at a mid-rotation level, but that’s not who we’re talking about right now.

Based on the numbers from Roster Resource, the Cubs are sitting just about $6 million below the $233 million CBT threshold for this season and shouldn’t be in danger of hitting it even if Smyly earns those bonuses. While a $3 million bump in pay shouldn’t have much impact on this winter’s spending, adding it to the potential for another $3 million of incentives would eat up a good chunk of Jed Hoyer’s budget. The Cubs are projected to have a little under $82 million under the first luxury tax level for next season, and Hoyer may want to preserve as much as possible after already burning about $10 million to DFA Mancini.

None of this would be an issue if Smyly was pitching well, but I would be very surprised if it’s not a topic of conversation at the higher levels of the organization. Not that they’re necessarily talking DFA as much as a change in role to limit Smyly’s usage with the goal of getting him right while stifling his earning potential if he can’t recover his form. Please understand that I’m not saying the Cubs should be trying to prevent him from maxing out his deal, only that this is a business and team management will obviously to treat it as such.

How about Smyly just starts shoving again and we can forget this whole conversation even happened?

Ed. note: The initial version of this post said the Cubs were projected to be $98 million under the CBT threshold for next season, but there was some bad math involved there.

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