"He gets 'em out," Leyland said. And that was a solid summary of Smyly's brief, but impressive Major League career to date.
Smyly turned in his fifth straight commendable start for the Tigers on Friday night, pitching six more-than-solid innings, leaving with the score tied at 2, in the Tigers' eventual 5-4 victory over the Chicago White Sox.
The two runs were the high-water mark for the opposition against Smyly this season. He had given up one run in each of his first four starts. Smyly's ERA is 1.61. His only decision has been a victory.
Smyly has walked eight and struck out 29 in 28 innings. In six innings against the White Sox, he had zero walks and seven strikeouts.
Earlier, Smyly gave up one run over six innings against the Rangers, and then one run in six innings against the Yankees, in back-to-back starts against two of baseball's most difficult lineups.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that Smyly is 22 years old, and only in his second season of professional baseball. He had 21 Minor League starts in 2011, the last seven at Double-A.
A second-round Draft choice out of the University of Arkansas in 2010, Smyly has the mound presence and command of a much more experienced pitcher. Friday night, he commanded both sides of the plate with his fastball, mixed pitches and locations, changed speeds effectively.
"He did a terrific job," Leyland said. "He's pitched very well.
"He's shown a lot of poise and a lot of charisma on the mound for a young kid. But his stuff's good. I mean, he gets to 94 [mph] sometimes. He changes speeds pretty good. He's got a good feel for pitching. And if you can do that, you can pitch anywhere. The true test on him will be when he gets roughed up a couple of times, which will happen, and then you see how he'll respond. That's when you find out what you got."
Smyly fully understands just how big all of this is. But by nature, he says, he is not easily fazed.
"That's just my natural personality; I've been that way my whole life," Smyly said Friday night. "You have to be able to go out there and compete. I thought [the White Sox] did a really good job of putting good swings on me and making me work hard. It was a battle the whole night, but you just can't give in. You have to go back out and go back at them."
The Tigers are resisting temptation and are taking a cautious approach with Smyly's development. He has not been allowed to throw more than 101 pitches in any start. He finished with 99 Friday night.
With one out and one on in the sixth, and a run already in, Leyland came to the mound to tell Smyly that A.J. Pierzynski would be his last hitter. Smyly responded by getting Pierzynski to ground into a double play. This was a good test of Smyly's resolve, but it was also an indication that the Tigers are serious about limiting his pitch count.
"He's going to be about 100 pitches all the time, that's going to be it," Leyland said. "We're going to watch him. I'm going to talk to my general manager [Dave Dombrowksi] about how many innings he wants him to pitch this year. We're going to watch him, at some point back him off, maybe miss a start. I don't know when that will happen. We're just getting started. This is a grueling situation for a kid that's never pitched much. "
Leyland pointed out that Smyly has had an advantage in that big league clubs are seeing him for the first time. But that doesn't detract from the obvious quality of Smyly's work with the Tigers.
He'll make the necessary adjustments. He already made one adjustment in the summer of 2009, leaving his native Arkansas for a summer in the aptly named Northwoods League, a wood-bat league for college players. Smyly found himself playing for a team in Duluth, Minn.
"That was a little bit of an adjustment," Smyly said with a smile. "It was the first time I had been that far north. It was cold when I got up there and it was like July maybe, or late June. But I actually liked it. It was very woodsy, right on [Lake Superior]."
Once again in the Great Lakes region, but working at a much higher level, Drew Smyly, is pitching like an accomplished veteran, giving the Tigers performances that have varied only from very good to outstanding.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.