You trust what your scouts tell you.
Late in January, at a public appearance, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski dropped a hint that his minor league staff were telling him that a left-handed pitcher he’d not seen live, a pitcher who’d appeared in just eight games above the Single-A level in his only professional season, might be ready to make the monumental jump to the big leagues.
They weren’t kidding.
That pitcher, Drew Smyly, the team’s second-round pick in 2010, won the job as the fifth starter in the Tigers’ rotation in spring training, and has been arguably their second most-dependable pitcher through the first month of the regular season.
So far, he’s done nothing to disprove that assessment by the Tigers’ front office.
“I don’t think this is a big surprise. I think we all thought he’d do OK. And he’s certainly doing OK. I felt comfortable when we named him,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
“I don’t know if you ever really win a job in spring training. But I think, judging everything that you saw and projecting a little bit, he was the guy that was the choice. I think it made a lot of sense.”
It also makes a lot of sense to figure that Smyly may not be able to maintain his current torrid pace. Even with a guy as composed and sure of himself as Smyly will have to deal with failure at some point.
“I think you just have to wait and see, when it doesn’t go so well, how does he react then? That’s when you know what you’ve got. ... When he gets banged around a couple of times, how does he respond then? I hope it doesn’t happen, but it will, at some point,” Leyland said. “Even (Justin) Verlander struggled. (Rick) Porcello struggled. The best struggle. So it’s just a matter of the process. That’s part of the process you go through. Some guys make the adjustment mentally to handle it better and quicker than others, and some guys don’t.
“But they’re all going to struggle at some point. You can take that to the bank.
“It’s just mentally having confidence in themselves, ‘I know I’m good enough, my stuff’s good enough to get them out.’ ”
He hasn’t had to deal with failure much so far.
Through five starts, he’s 1-0, having allowed five five earned runs in 28 innings, giving him an ERA of 1.61 that’s tied with LA’s Jered Weaver for best in the American League.
For reference, Weaver’s a Cy Young contender coming off a no-hitter. Smyly is a rookie.
And a rookie who threw just 126 innings spread over 22 starts, split between Class A Lakeland, and Double-A Erie. One who had just 161 total innings pitched in two collegiate seasons at Arkansas (103 of those innings in 2010), and 73 2/3 innings as a junior in high school.
For that reason, the Tigers are putting a plan in place to make sure they’re prepared to keep him healthy, starting conversations already to set an innings limit for his rookie season.
That will include skipping him for a start here or there, using the off days in the schedule in their favor, so they can save as many innings as possible for the stretch drive.
“I was just talking about him, gonna have to watch him during the course of the season, monitor his innings a little bit. He’s just a baby, so I’m going to have to watch him a little. I’m putting a plan together, almost as we speak, when to back him off — we’re looking at the All-Star break, how many days we can (rest him). I want to make sure I don’t do anything crazy and abuse him,” Leyland said, noting that it doesn’t mean that Smyly is guaranteed to stay in that role, if somehow he should start to struggle, or look overmatched.
“It doesn’t mean anything other than I have to have it, just in case. I’m planning on him continuing to do well, but if he doesn’t, then you make an adjustment.
“You have to cover your tracks. If Oliver had won the job, or something, well he pitched a lot of innings last year, so you wouldn’t have that problem. Casey Crosby, you probably would’ve watched a little bit, because he’s had some injuries in the past. But with this guy, it’s just a common sense thing. It’s not some sophisticated plan. But you’ve gotta plan. If you don’t, you’re foolish.”
The Tigers had a similar plan in place in Porcello’s rookie year, putting his outstanding debut on hold for a 15-day span in July.