Smyly's ascent marked by quiet confidence
After making club as non-roster invitee, lefty to debut Thursday
David Chadd says he can vividly remember the first time he scouted Drew Smyly. That's partly because he was there to scout somebody else.
Chadd, then the Tigers' scouting director, went to Baton Rouge, La., two springs ago to watch a few LSU players going into the 2010 First-Year Player against an Arkansas team that had the lanky left-hander starting second in its rotation.
Normally, Chadd said, a scout watching a pitcher will settle behind home plate to watch how the pitches move. Just a few scouts were behind the plate when the game started, he said, and Chadd wasn't one of them. By the fifth inning, he had moved.
Smyly had a blister that day that left him throwing almost all fastballs, but he was throwing them with bite and getting guys out. Moreover, he was doing it on the road against a national powerhouse.
Arkansas lost, but Smyly won people over.
"He just pretty much totally dominated LSU in a very hostile environment," Chadd said. "I guess it was from that point on that we really started scouting Drew aggressively and just followed him. I just really liked how he went about his business -- pretty much what you're seeing him do now."
Smyly will get his chance to do that in the big leagues against the Rays at Comerica Park on Thursday, barely two years later. He was the 68th player selected in the 2010 Draft, but he'll be just the fifth to rise to the big leagues and the second to win a rotation spot.
The southpaw has had the kind of meteoric rise seen in Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Jeremy Bonderman, only he's had to pick up the high regard on the way. To those who know Smyly, he thrives on that.
"He's always been that way," said John Novack, who coached Smyly in American Legion ball in Maumelle, Ark., and has worked with him ever since. "I think he loves those games where he has a chance to prove himself. Drew's always been the guy who felt like he had something to prove."
Novack remembers a scrawny 15-year-old throwing maybe in the upper 70s, but learning how to compete. Smyly's back gave him trouble in high school, but his ability to mix pitches gave hitters trouble as well.
"He's always had the 'it' factor," Novack said.
According to Smyly's bio from Arkansas, he was Baseball America's 16th-rated prospect in the state coming out of high school. Sixteen Arkansans got drafted, but not Smyly. But then, he didn't necessarily look like a pro.
"Like, 150 pounds probably, and like 6-foot-0 maybe," Smyly said. "I was a late bloomer."
He missed his freshman season with a stress fracture in his elbow, then spent 2009 trying to earn a starting spot before nearly throwing a no-hitter in the NCAA Tournament. But he also hit a growth spurt to 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds by his junior season.
Smyly moved into Arkansas' top-starter spot, which earned him a matchup with Mississippi and top prospect Drew Pomeranz six weeks after that LSU game. The Tigers had two scouts there.
Pomeranz was the guy with the overwhelming stuff. Smyly was the guy with the numbers. Smyly, knowing the stage, pitched six innings of two-run ball with six strikeouts.
Detroit didn't have a first-round pick, but had two sandwich picks and a second-rounder. By taking Smyly in the second round, the Tigers took a different approach.
"When we went and scouted him, it was the really quiet 0-for-4 [games] that you'd see the hitters take," Chadd said. "He was always in the strike zone, and they were always putting it in play and his team played good defense. To watch him pitch in college, it was really something to see. He didn't overwhelm you with his stuff.
"His style, I like. I like pitchers who get it and go, who work quick, who have confidence in any pitch, any count. And that's what he did."
Fast-forward to last July, when Smyly nearly had a rematch with Pomeranz in Smyly's debut for Double-A Erie. He had been promoted, but moved up on short notice when Detroit called up top prospect Jacob Turner.
Hours before the game, Akron pulled Pomeranz, who had been traded by Cleveland to the Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez. The Tigers, who had also been interested in Jimenez, didn't meet Colorado's asking price on young arms.
Smyly tossed seven scoreless innings with eight strikeouts. He posted a 1.18 ERA in eight games for Erie, made the USA national team for the Pan Am Games, pitched solidly, and officially hit the fast track.
"I'd be lying to say it didn't surprise me," Chadd said. "It always surprises me when players rise that quick. But it says a lot about his ability to pitch."
Smyly proved himself again this spring. The only starting candidate without a 40-man roster spot, the one with the least pro experience, won a rotation spot with the most consistently effective camp.
"I wouldn't say [I was] confident that I would be the guy," Smyly said last week, "but I was definitely confident that I could show them that I was capable of being the guy. And then it was up to them to pick who they wanted to be up there. But from the first day of Spring Training, I was just excited to get to show everybody what I had."
Smyly will have a crowd of family and friends watching Thursday, including Novack. Chadd, no doubt, will be tuning in from somewhere. And depending on the outlook, Smyly will have something to prove again.
With the same agent as Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee, Smyly has developed a friendship with his fellow Arkansas native. Nobody would say he's the next Lee, but they share some traits. Quiet confidence is one.