LAKELAND, Fla. — This season is all about the change for Detroit Tigers left-hander Drew Smyly.
There’s the changeup — a pitch that he’s finally developed to the point where it enabled him to get out of jams in Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the New York Mets.
Then there’s the change in role — moving from bullpen to rotation, which isn’t easily accomplished.
Consider this: With the regular season and playoffs included, four of the five pitchers in the Tigers rotation reached the 200-inning plateau in 2013. Smyly has thrown exactly 200 pitches in the majors and minors during the last two years combined.
As a result, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus will ensure he doesn’t overwork him. Smyly’s spot in the rotation will be skipped most times when an off day allows for that, and his pitch count in games will matter far more than with the other starters.
"You don’t want to all of a sudden hit 200 innings with him," Ausmus said.
Smyly threw 76 innings as a reliever last season. He was then moved back into the rotation when Doug Fister was traded to the Washington Nationals during the offseason.
Smyly totaled 117 innings with Toledo and Detroit in 2012, and 99 1/3 of those came primarily as a Tigers starter. In 2011, Smyly’s first season of pro ball, he totaled 126 innings in the minors.
He definitely has some major ramping up to do for his endurance, and the Tigers will watch him closely to keep him healthy.
When asked if Smyly had an inning limit for the season etched in stone, Ausmus said, "There is no hard number."
Smyly threw three innings against the Mets, allowing no runs on three hits, but none of those hits left the infield. He walked one and struck out three.
"There were positives and negatives out of it," Smyly said. "I made myself work too hard by getting behind hitters. But the positive was that I was able to work out of it."
Smyly went to a full count four times, and three of those began with 2-0 counts. Major leaguers usually look like Miguel Cabrera with that count, but Smyly ended up with two strikeouts and a fly out in those three situations.
"You are going to have to battle and make pitches when they count," Smyly said.
That’s where the changeup came in handy. Smyly said that was a pitch he leaned on when in trouble. It’s also the pitch he needs to complement his effective curve and cutter to keep right-handed hitters off balance.
You don’t want to all of a sudden hit 200 innings with him.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said of lefty Drew Smyly
"It’s a huge pitch for me and righties," Smyly said. "I’m feeling more confident with my changeup, and today it was my best off-speed pitch. And I never thought I’d say that. It’s a great pitch to throw when you are behind in the count."
He worked with Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones on the pitch, and also credits his success with it on repetition and gaining a feel.
"I’m really just trusting throwing it," Smyly said. "I was timid to throw it."
Smyly, 24, had been working on the changeup before last season, but shelved it as a reliever. In that role, two pitches are enough to get through one inning or one batter.
"Pitching in relief is awesome," said Smyly, a second-round pick from Arkansas in 2010. "But after a while, it gets under your skin to come in and face one batter."
What are his thoughts on the team paying close attention to his innings and pitch counts?
"That’s up to them," Smyly said. "I’m just excited to be starting and be back in the rotation. I’m not worried about the innings. I just want to build my arm up and pitch every fifth day.
"I’m confident in our bullpen, and just want to get it to the fifth or sixth inning with a lead. And then hand it over to them."
Smyly was actually very effective in relief. He posted a 6-0 record and 2.37 ERA last year.
However, the Tigers want to get him back onto the long-term path they see for him as a starter. They also get the added bonus of finally having a lefty in their rotation.
Smyly was 4-3 with a 3.99 ERA in 2012, when he had 18 starts among 23 appearances.