Braves 2021 Player Review: Will Smith

One of the brightest stars in the entire Braves’ postseason run was elite closer Will Smith. Smith had an adequate first three-fourths of the season, but found much better stuff during the manic September push for the title; by the time the playoffs started, Will was pitching on another level entirely. His consistent ability to baffle hitters was instrumental to the World Series campaign. Although his contributions are often overshadowed by some of the Braves’ mammoth home runs, Smith was undoubtedly one of the most valuable components on the team.

The regular season was certainly a forgettable one for Will, as his performance was perhaps slightly above mediocre. Maintaining a .198 opponent batting average (OBA) and averaging 1.13 walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) landed Smith solidly in the middle of the pack for relief pitchers. Will’s 37 season saves places him fourth on the save leaderboard, but that number becomes less impressive considering that he also had six blown saves.

However, during the month of September, things started to take a discernible turn for the better. It’s very interesting to contrast Smith’s August with his September; in both months, he had 10 save opportunities, 8 saves, and therefore 2 blown saves. Both months also had an equal strikeout total of 17, and Will pitched 12.0 innings in August and one-third of an inning more in September. At first, these look like two nearly identical months; however, beneath the surface, they couldn’t have been more different. His opponent batting average more than halved, plummeting from .217 in August to .105 in September. In stark contrast to 10 hits surrendered and 8 earned runs in August, Smith only gave up four hits and two earned runs throughout September. Both blown saves in that month were unfortunate appearances in which he surrendered a single hit but failed to preserve a one-run lead—although in both cases, the Braves had an opportunity to win the game in extra innings, and succeeded in one of them.

After the success of September came the postseason, and a version of Will Smith that humanity had never before seen was unleashed. Through 11 appearances, he surrendered no runs—earned or unearned—and achieved a save in all six opportunities. That .198 regular-season opponent batting average plunged almost 60 points to a jaw-dropping .139 during the playoffs. (For context, the two best OBAs during the regular season were .126 and .148, from Josh Hader and Craig Kimbrel, respectively.) Of course, 11 postseason appearances is quite a small sample size compared to Smith’s 71 regular-season games, but it’s the only data we’ve got, and more importantly, the only data that’s relevant. Additionally, every playoff game is (by definition) against an opponent that’s proven themselves to be in the top third of the league in their ability to win games, so that more than makes up for the small sample size. Any way you slice the data, Will Smith dominated, completely and totally shutting down the high-powered offenses of the Dodgers and Astros, as well as the lukewarm Brewers hitters.

Smith is under contract for $13 million through the end of the 2022 season, with an additional club option for 2023. At 33 years of age, he’s still got a handful of good years left as a closer; with his continued reliance on the lower-velocity slider, his pitching performance will not be negatively impacted by age for quite a few seasons still. That slider averaged 82.2 miles per hour this season, and even his fastball only averages 92.8 mph—almost completely unchanged from his 2013 velocity. This is a great sign, because it means Smith is finding ways to improve without having to rely on raw athleticism. As pitchers age, it becomes critical for them to work on their mental game and their lower-velocity pitches to stay competitive on the mound; I would love to see Smith incorporate another off-speed pitch to help his longevity. Regardless, what he’s throwing now sure seems to be working, and barring anything unforeseen, we can expect to see big #51 taking the mound in the 9th for at least the next two years.

Author: Michael Kasper

Sportswriter, stats fanatic, and social media manager here at the Braves Journal.

17 thoughts on “Braves 2021 Player Review: Will Smith”

  1. Big kudos to Brian Snitker for sticking with him in the 9th and freeing up the other arms to pitch in situations where they were needed most.

  2. I see that one of the items of one of the recent proposals is that if an amateur agrees to a pre-draft physical and is then drafted, that player must be offered 75% of slot. Might as well call that the Carter Stewart rule, huh.

    Is anyone following the actual proposals back and forth? Do you find value in it? Of what has been proposed so far, what do you see making the final product?

  3. I went to the Cobb Chamber of Commerce Marquee Monday event this morning that featured Dansby and his family. He used a joke we often use around here, but he used it unironically.

    Dansby said that when people around here say, “We won the World Series,” he thinks “Well, you didn’t win anything. I’m the athlete.” Based on that and many other things he and his family said, the guy’s just a narcissist. I guess many of the players are. They’re great at something and have been told that for many years, so it’s natural for some to get that way. I just didn’t think it would be him.

    Dansby also came off as a little depressed when he unenthusiastically said, “I really didn’t get to enjoy the championship. We had the parade, I spent some time with Mallory in Chicago, took some time off, and then started preparing for the next season.”

    Who knows? Maybe he drank too much at a Super Bowl party. Although he isn’t described by me this way, it reminds me to “never meet your heroes.”

  4. I haven’t really been following too many of the nitty-gritty details, but some of the more impassable issues (which I summarized here: are the bonus-pool money and raising the minimum salary. Union wants $775,000/year minimum salary, owners are only willing to go $615,000 for the first year, which then increases to $650,000 in the second year and $725,000 afterwards. Owners have also proposed a $630,000 minimum which lets the teams give players raises afterwards; I don’t think the union will bite on that though.

    There’s also the issue of the bonus pool; by mutual agreement, the top-30 players in a to-be-defined-later Wins Above Replacement stat every year will be entitled to bonuses from a bonus pool put aside from the league’s revenue. The Players Association initially wanted that to be $105 million, but they’ve dropped that to $100 million; the owners have increased their initial offer from $10 million to $15m. That’s a BIG gap, and a lot of money there; we’re talking a difference of $85,000,000 between what both sides want! Since both sides have already agreed to have this bonus pool in place, but since the gap is still so significant, it seems unlikely (to me) that we’ll get a compromise there anytime soon.

    I personally really like the bonus pool idea, it provides a good way to recognize individual performances even for players who might still be on first- or second-year contracts. In the 2020 shortened season, Luke Voit led the MLB in homers while still being on a $234,815 contract (would’ve been about $575k if the season was full-length). Or Dansby, who was tied for #13 on the 2020 WAR leaderboard but only made $1.6 million that year. The bonus pool lets those type of guys get compensated for incredible performances with multi-million-dollar bonuses.

  5. @4

    That bonus pool gap is pretty much the prime example of the ridiculousness here. That’s pretty clearly gonna wind up near $50 million, I would think, so how’s about we skip to the part where the owners propose at least $35M and/or the players propose at most $65M so that we can actually get some negotiable numbers on the table? At this rate, it’ll take two years for them to negotiate away that $85 million gap. A gap which only started that wide because each side put a ridiculous number in that spot to begin with because neither wanted to show any give whatsoever. The owners’ $10 million initial offer on that was especially laughable IMO. They get an average bonus of a third of a million dollars? Really?

  6. Just pointing out that an $80 million gap divided among 30 teams doesn’t seem that big to me. Think of it as $1 ticket surcharge.

  7. @6 I think Nick is referring for the time it takes for them to volley small amounts back and forth. I agree with Nick; unless those volleys start getting bigger, then this is going to take a while.

    There are a million ways to skin this cat where everybody gets close to what they want, but the inertia is so weak. I hate to say it, but I really don’t see this season starting on time, which is really disappointing.

  8. @7

    Correct, Rob. There’s no inertia and, in fact, both sides are going out of their way to avoid even the appearance of inertia. The appearance of inertia makes you look weak or whatever.

    You can already essentially see what the deal is gonna look like. The bonus poll will be around $50 million. The players will probably get their wish on the minimum salary, especially if they let the owners have a 14-team playoff (which I am not excited about, but it’s probably happening). Draft pick compensation (at least the direct kind) is going away. Universal DH. There will be a draft lottery of some sort (need to negotiate the specifics on that). Service time manipulation will be eliminated in some way. It’s not hard to see where we’re going here. It’s just going to take forever to get to the place where it was always going to wind up anyway.

  9. @5 Exactly, $10,000,000 is an insulting offer for that kind of bonus pool; we’ll pay the Home Run Derby winner a $1,000,000 bonus, but the 30 best individual players only get a $330k bonus each? I hope they find a good compromise somewhere in the $40-60 million range. $1.3-2 million per player (on average) seems like a nice bonus without being excessive.

    @6 Many teams are generating hundreds of millions in revenue, but “only” tens of millions in profit; that $2.83 million they’d have to contribute to the bonus pool would be a substantial portion of their profits right there. The margins on owning a team aren’t great, in terms of percentages, even though the actual profits are. And the owners would rather cut expenses to raise profits rather than raise ticket prices to keep profits the same place they’re at. I also think that for both sides, it’s an ideological issue as well; the owners just fundamentally don’t want to cave to a triple-digit millions bonus pool.

  10. I think we lose games in 2022. The players want to stick it to the owners, and the owners want to stick it to the players. Both sides eventually come to their senses, but I feel like we’re looking at a June 1 opening day.

  11. @10 I agree. Pitchers and catchers not reporting today pretty much ensures that Spring Training won’t start on time. You can always shorten ST and still start the season on time, but only by so much. If Spring Training games haven’t started by March 6 or 7, I’d imagine that Opening Day is as good as delayed.

  12. @2, I’ve seen that referred to in several places as the Kumar Rocker proposal. Because, of course, whatever involves a New York team is more important than whatever involves any other team.

    @4, I was sorry to see that the owners wouldn’t give on something like free agency after 6 years of service or age 29, whichever comes first. It wouldn’t affect too many players, but it would make a big difference for some. Adam Duvall comes to mind. Max Fried too, though he may not be hurt as much the current rules because I think teams see early-30s hitters as much more likely to decline than age-29 hitters and see early-30s pitchers as almost as good a gamble as age-29 pitchers.

    As a fan, I also think the constant shuttling of relievers between AAA and MLB hurts the game because it makes it more difficult for fans to identify with the teams. When I was an obsessive fan as a kid, I could pretty well know most of the 24 players on all 24 teams, but now when 30 teams each use 35 or more players, there’s no way. There are a number of ways to address that, and I haven’t really thought about which would be best. (I would also go back to only letting four division winners in the postseason and no DH with 8-man batting orders, but those won’t ever happen.)

    A few years ago I tried to design board games as a hobby. (More or less finished one and got stuck on a second.) One of my main challenges was avoiding situations where the optimal strategy for winning would not lead to the best playing experience. Since then I’ve seen that dilemma often in terms of baseball. Sometimes it’s the optimal strategy for winning that doesn’t lead to the best experience for the fans (AAA shuttles, trying to draw walks, maybe shifting or openers?), and sometimes it’s what’s best for the players (huge rosters, accelerated arbitration) or what’s best for owner profits that doesn’t lead to the best fan experience.

  13. @6: Wait until folks find out that the owners aren’t going to pass those “savings” to the fans in any form. In fact, they’ll raise ticket prices no matter what.

  14. It is what he’s saying. And I’ll say something else. This pitching of this negotiation as greedy owners vs. greedy players (or vice versa) largely ignores the issue that every deal between them is paid for, in the longish run, by direct contribution from fans, either in ticket prices or in streaming/cable prices. I’m fine with that!

  15. Will Smith’s moment of total redemption came in the last game with San Diego with the final three hitters he had to face to protect a one run lead. One after the other he got them all, none knew how to handle what he had that day.

    It was a crucial and stunning performance. Fittingly, it also marked the time when the tide of opinion within our own ranks began a grudging reappraisal of what he represented to us. Not our finest moment hitherto.

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