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‘Scared to get hurt’: Behind new mindset that has Giants starter ready for comeback

Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Two years after Tommy John surgery, Drew Smyly’s body and arm were just about recovered.

Three years after, he hopes his mind has healed, too.

The Giants pitcher, a front-runner for a rotation spot after landing a one-year, $4 million deal this offseason, is in camp with a seventh different major league team, a former Tigers and Rays standout whose career took a plunge when his left (throwing) elbow started groaning in Mariners spring training in 2017.

A few months later he was another victim of the elbow procedure that kept him down until last season, when he reappeared with the Rangers. His velocity returned — he was never a flamethrower and still had his easy, low-90s heat — but even during a late-season surge with Gabe Kapler’s Phillies, Smyly never felt truly like himself.

“I was still a little bit scared to get hurt,” the 30-year-old told KNBR on Wednesday, the first day of pitchers and catchers workouts. “I was a little timid and just kind of easing into it. … But after pitching healthy all last season, I just feel stronger and revived and ready to go.

“The mindset is way different [now]. Going into last year, it was just don’t get hurt, stay healthy. That was my main goal going into the season. I lost sight of how competitive it is and to bring it.”

It’ll be brought with San Francisco, which offered so many peripheral advantages beyond the contract. Smyly “loved” Kapler as a manager during his 12 starts in Philadelphia, appreciating both his intensity and communicative nature. A flyball pitcher who gave up 32 home runs in just 114 innings last season with pitcher-unfriendly parks in Texas and Philadelphia knows some of those longballs will turn into outs in the cool Oracle Park air.

And he knew the reputation that the Giants are gaining in being a forward-thinking organization that can maximize pitchers’ potential. He already had begun meeting his new pitching coaches (Brian Bannister, Andrew Bailey and Ethan Katz) before camp, including a lunch get-together.

“Talking philosophy and how to improve and stuff like that. That’s one of the main reasons I signed here,” said Smyly, whose best season came in 2014, when he posted a 3.24 ERA in 153 innings with Detroit. “I knew they were analytically advanced and would put me in a really good position to succeed.”

In addition to a mindset that wasn’t all-in, Smyly said he worked through both mechanical and pitch-usage tweaks last season, seeking what had worked in the past and what could work with an arm that was still gaining strength. He flamed out with the Rangers, appearing in just 13 games with an 8.42 ERA, which dropped to 4.45 with the Phillies.

His last start was a beauty, a 6 1/3-inning, two-run, 10-strikeout effort against the to-be World Champion Nationals. Kapler brought up the performance right away, saying he “didn’t look timid to me at all.”

“What we saw from Smyly last year was a durable, dependable body and one that showed flashes of the form that made him so good both in Detroit and Tampa Bay,” said Kapler, who went on to praise a curveball with almost a screwball movement. “… He does a really good job of elevating his fastball at appropriate times and he’s crafty, but also lively armed with a lot of upside. One more year out from his Tommy John surgery, there’s a lot of reason for optimism, and I know a lot of people in our camp are excited for what Smyly can accomplish this year.”


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