2020 Braves Player Review: Will Smith

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget to get your pick in for next Free Agent to sign with the Braves. Winner will get the new Hammers shirt!

Southwest of Atlanta, he was born and raised. On the diamond is where he spent most of his days. Chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool…

OK, that’s probably enough of that. In case you haven’t picked up on it, the subject of this exercise is Atlanta Braves left-handed reliever Will Smith. To my knowledge, he has never been to Bel-Air, but he does have a really fun name for really corny story ledes.

Smith, of course, came to the Braves as a very noteworthy signing this offseason. A hometown kid from Newnan, the former Giants closer was perhaps the biggest piece of Alex Anthopoulos’ clear effort to make sure the bullpen was never an issue for the 2020 Braves. He signed a three-year deal worth $39 million with a $13 million team option for a fourth year and joined Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin to headline the most formidable bullpen in baseball.

Then 2020 happened.

When baseball resumed play in late July, Smith had tested positive for COVID-19 and didn’t pitch for the Braves until Aug. 9. And after posting a 2.76 ERA and 1.026 WHIP for the Giants in 2019, he struggled through his first nine appearances for the Braves. After surrendering a run in a third straight appearance on Sept. 4, Smith had a 6.23 ERA in 8 2/3 innings with eight hits, one walk and five home runs.

Fortunately for the Braves, things turned around some from there. Smith pitched 7 1/3 innings in his final nine appearances of the regular season, posting a 2.45 ERA with three hits, three walks and just two home runs.

When the playoffs began, it looked like the Braves were finally getting the Fresh Prince that they paid for. In his first five games, he covered 5 1/3 innings of perfect baseball, striking out seven batters with no runs and no baserunners. Like many of the Braves relievers, Smith seemed to run out of gas from there, though. In his final two appearances, he lasted just 2/3 of an inning total with two hits, three walks and three runs allowed.

The question from all of that is simple: What should the Braves take away from a very volatile season for Smith?

To me, the answer is also simple: They should essentially forget it happened, at least for now.

Smith had a very unusual season, probably moreso than any other Brave. He has been a workhorse reliever for the last half a decade, carding at least 50 appearances in five straight seasons and twice eclipsing 75 appearances. For the last couple years, he’s spent time as the closer for the Giants, so he had a very clear role with the team.

But by the time he joined the Braves’ active roster, other members of the bullpen had already solidified those higher-leverage roles. And while he got his opportunities to serve as a setup man for Melancon in games the Braves were winning, he also had some middle relief appearances and pitched in games the Braves were trailing. In just 18 appearances, he pitched in every inning from the fourth through the eighth.

All that on a new team with a new staff after a weird start to the season. Perhaps it should come as no shock, then, that Smith carded career-worst numbers – other than his rookie season when he was still a starter – in ERA, homers per nine innings, strikeouts per nine and FIP.

So honestly, the Braves would probably be better off giving Smith a fresh look for 2021. With Greene and Melancon both hitting free agency, there’s a reasonable chance that Smith will have a more consistent role, and even if not, he’ll hopefully have a more normal preparation for the season and whatever role he is to fill. If that’s the case, I expect Smith to look more like the pitcher we saw down the stretch and to start the postseason.

18 thoughts on “2020 Braves Player Review: Will Smith”

  1. Yes, I’m on board with memory-holing his season. His track record speaks for itself.

    Of course, fool me twice, shame on me. So we’ll see.

  2. Coop, if you’re around, I sent you an email. I need your address to ship out shirt.

    I’ll be shipping out more Hammers shirts next Friday. Send me an email if interested (cothrjr at gmail dot com).

  3. The Marlins just hired a female GM! Look at the NL East getting all the attention this offseason! :)

  4. That’s awesome. Kim Ng is brilliant and she’s been on every GM shortlist for about 15 years. For the next 24 hours, I hate the Marlins a little less.

    (I interviewed her on Fangraphs in 2011. Seriously, don’t read the comments.)

  5. Yep… Forget Smith’s 2020. But if you believe that, you probably ought to forget O’Day’s and Minter’s as well. There’s not much 20 innings in a relief pitcher’s life can tell you about them. (OK… Robbie Erlin’s 23 innings were dead-accurate.)

    In college football news: my defending champion Yale Bulldogs, who were awaiting news of whether the Ivy League would have a conference-only schedule in the spring, found out yesterday that the plan was scrapped. No football until Fall 2021. The good news: they were undefeated in 2020 and the defense did not give up a single point. The last time a season was cancelled: 1918, which combined a pandemic with a World War. So 2020 looks pretty good — no World War (although there’s still a month and a half to go.)

  6. @7
    I disagree. Statcast’s data points can really paint a pretty great picture on effectiveness and both O’Day and Minter were effective in limiting hard contact.

    However, Will Smith’s signature pitch, the slider, got lit the heck up. In 19 PAs against his slider, he gave up 2 singles and 3 home runs, but was remarkably lucky to only give up 5 hits as the exit velos were off the charts in a lot of these PAs: 94.9, 105.1, 106.7, 102.9, 107!, 96.3, 95.4, 104.4.

    Unfortunately, his other pitches weren’t any better and he gave up 2 of the hardest hit balls in all of the MLB at 110 MPH exit velo.

    There are pitchers that defy the numbers in their results and those are the samples that we should pay attention more closely to, but Will Smith was actually quite lucky to only have a 4.50 ERA.

  7. Ryan, I sent you an e-mail.

    Jeremy, thanks. 60 games does mot a season make, I guess, unless you’re Freddie or Marcell. Then the sample’s large enough to base your last big contract on.

    JonathanF, yet. Stick around.

  8. Given Smith’s struggles and my being in denial on the fact MM is not coming back, I would bet on Chris Martin closing games in 2021 with an honorable mention to Minter.

  9. @ No. 7 & 11
    Well, I wouldn’t rule out short-season results for everyone, particularly if it was consistent and similar to what they do in full seasons. But when Smith has been a consistently solid reliever with remarkably consistent numbers across the board, and then they all spike in a shortened season that he starts later than others because he had a weird virus, I’ll give him a pass.

  10. @9, 14: My only point is that 60 games has a lot of inherent instability about it. I don’t doubt that Statcast can tell you exactly how well (or poorly) someone pitched, and that will, to some extent, squeeze out the luck of the Gods of Babip. And I grant that if you pitched right at the level of long-term observed performance you can safely say: “that’s another typical year from this guy.” But everything either better or worse than that long-term performance has a number of possible causes that might not might not be replicable. I agree on Smith, but pitching is not a ratchet… you can make adjustments that improve your performance (either actual or Statcast) for a period of time that turn out to be unsustainable. When the performance is worse for a while, like Smith, it’s easy to forecast a return to a normal level. But I doubt that Minter is really a 0.83 ERA long-term pitcher, no matter what Cole Hamels taught him.

  11. I know I promised you guys weekends i the offseason of only 1 post, but there’ll be 2 this weekend. Sorry, not sorry. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *