PHOENIX — Drew Smyly pondered the question, thinking back 10 years ago to his rookie season in Detroit.
What is the biggest difference in you as a pitcher from your first big-league season to now?
The left-hander, then 23 years old, advanced to the 2012 World Series while learning his craft as part of a Tigers rotation that has since combined to win five Cy Young Awards.
Smyly, now 32, still relies on the same three-pitch combination — cutter, sinker and curveball — and overall believes he is the exact same pitcher than a decade ago.
That doesn’t mean Smyly hasn’t evolved.
When his career began, it was early in the analytics revolution and he didn’t really understand beyond locating his fastball down and away while mixing pitches. Over the course of eight stops in different organization, Smyly has picked up things along the way. He learned his fastball played well up in the zone with Tampa Bay. His road back from Tommy John surgery tested his resolve over a three-year stretch. He reinvented himself in Philadelphia after being released twice in less than a month, throwing more off-speed stuff.
Those ups and downs culminated in hitting 10 years of service time in Major League Baseball last week.
“A lot of people can also lose motivation after a certain time,” Smyly told the Tribune. “It’s been hard, too, once you start to build a family and you’re gone, it makes it more challenging. But most people at this level, you just love the competition so much. It’s so hard. I don’t take it for granted. I’m really grateful that I get to do this.”
The MLB Players Association estimates less than 10% of major-leaguers hit the 10-year mark. Smyly entered the season needing only 29 days on the roster to reach the milestone. He received a bottle of Armand de Brignac Ace of Spades Champagne from his Cubs teammates.
Beyond the financial benefits of receiving a full pension post-playing career, the achievement is an acknowledgment of Smyly’s journey from a highly-ranked prospect to respected veteran and the work he has put in.
“It’s a big honor for me because the baseball world is pretty small,” Smyly said. “If you get a certain reputation it kind of stays with you and people get weeded out really quickly just on their work ethic, their attitude, personalities, a lot of different factors.
“Obviously, you’ve got to get the job done on the field, and that probably matters the most, but being a good player in the clubhouse and trying to help a team win and knowing that all of these teams see value in me, whether it’s on the field or in the clubhouse, that makes me feel pretty good.”
He has certainly earned it, grinding through plenty of tough moments and often uncertain job security. Injuries could have derailed Smyly, but he kept coming back, most notably from a torn left labrum in 2015 and Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss two MLB seasons (2017-18). He was released twice and traded three times, including part of a three-team deal in July 2014 when the Tigers sent him to the Rays to acquire left-hander David Price. His deal with the Cubs in March represented his third straight one-year guaranteed contract.
“It’s not easy signing a one-year deal, going from new team to new team,” Smyly said. “Once you get out there on the field, it’s the same game. It’s me versus him. And that’s what I love the most about the game. But everything else is pretty challenging: making new teammates, new coaches, new fan bases, trying to win over all of that can get pretty taxing.
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“Perseverance, longevity — it’s not easy. It wasn’t smooth sailing by any means, but just keep believing and keep trusting and keep going out there.”
Smyly was reminded how frustrating baseball can be Friday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks. A few well-placed balls by Arizona’s hitters and defensive plays the Cubs couldn’t quite make combined to spoil Smyly’s outing in a 4-3 loss.
“I might pull out some of my hair out tonight, but that’s just baseball,” Smyly said. “Sometimes you don’t get the results you want, but when I replay the game, I was making really good pitches throughout the whole night.”
Aside from three well-struck balls in the Diamondbacks’ three-run third inning, Smyly didn’t allow much hard contact in six innings, his longest start of the season. He allowed four runs on 10 hits with one walk and four strikeouts.
“That third inning was honestly pretty ridiculous,” Smyly said. “They had two balls down the line just fair. One guy hit it in front of the plate and bounced 40 feet in the air for an RBI single. … They kept getting a lot of people on base, but I thought I did a good job of managing it and getting us back in there.”
Despite Smyly’s final line, manager David Ross thought Smyly pitched well and was indicative of what he gives the Cubs.
“When he takes the bump you feel like you’ve got a really good chance to win,” Ross said. “He’s been one of our more consistent starters for me, just the length, pace. … (He’s) really consistent. I thought it was a good showing for him.”