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Braves need bounce back season from Will Smith in 2021

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How big of a role will Will Smith play in the Braves’ bullpen in 2021?

MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Most of the focus of the Atlanta Braves’ offseason thus far has revolved around the starting rotation and the team’s pursuit of Marcell Ozuna or another power bat to slot into the lineup. Alex Anthopoulos was aggressive early in the offseason securing starters Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton on one year deals. The market for hitters is expected to start moving eventually as only a handful have signed so far.

Another area of potential focus for the Braves could be in the bullpen. Atlanta’s bullpen led the NL in innings pitched in 2020 and ranked ninth in fWAR overall. The depth of that group helped the Braves cover up a leaky rotation on the way to another division title. While Atlanta’s bullpen still appears to be in good shape, it has lost some of its depth on paper as Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day are all free agents this winter. (Still, and while they aren’t worth too much, bullpen projections have the Atlanta relief corps as a solid top-ten unit even with these departures and no out-of-house replacements.)

There is still time for the Braves to seek reunions or bring in other arms, but the reemergence of Will Smith could go a long way to quieting any lingering concerns about the relief corps. Smith was one of last offseason’s big additions when he agreed to a three-year, $40 million deal that also includes a club option for a fourth season. While Melancon was still slotted in as the team’s closer, the plan was for Smith to see high leverage opportunities and to help solidify the back end. He was coming off a solid season in 2019 in which he averaged over 13 strikeouts per nine innings while posting a 2.76 ERA and a 3.23 FIP in 65 1/3 innings with the Giants.

Smith’s Braves debut was delayed as he was one of four players who tested positive for Covid-19 at the restart of Summer Camp. That derailed him for several weeks and he never seemed to catch up once he rejoined the club. Smith appeared in just 18 regular season games, logging 16 innings. He allowed just 11 hits but seven of those left the ballpark. In the postseason, he made seven more appearances, totaling six innings. Once again, he allowed just two hits, but one of them was a massive backbreaking go-ahead homer to another Will Smith.

A closer look at Smith’s pitch tracking shows the average velocity of his fastball and slider were identical to his 2019 numbers. The difference came in his slider’s movement profile, which was very generic in 2020. Compare between 2019 and 2020, with 2019 on the left and 2020 on the right:

The change is not dramatic, but seems to be localized to his slider, which lost two inches of movement on both axes. (By comparison, neither his fastball nor curve lost noticeable movement on both axes.) Smith has always used his sweeping slider to his advantage, and the relative lack of sweep could have been a problem.

Slider location was another struggle for Smith. In 2019, he mostly pounded the same corner with it, going down-and-in to righties and down-and-away to lefties. In 2020, he likely intended to do the same, but his location was off, meaning pitches were either not close enough to draw offers or hanging over the plate. Again, 2019 is on the left, and 2020 is on the right:

Opponents hit just .124 with an expected batting average of average of .134 against Smith’s slider in 2019. Additionally they slugged .240 with an expected slugging percentage of .231. The xwOBA against the pitch was .183, which is incredibly good. Fast forward to 2020 and opponents hit .263 with an expected mark of .266. However, they slugged .737 with an expected slugging percentage of .642. The xwOBA against the pitch was .350, which is very poor for a slider and actually worse than what Smith’s fastball allowed over the shortened season.

We are talking about a very small sample size so keep that in mind, but Smith’s slider did not move as much in 2020, it was placed much less effectively, and altogether, it got hit very hard.

So what should we expect from Smith in 2021? It is not unreasonable to expect a bounce back who will hopefully be healthy and get a more normal Spring Training even if the regular season is delayed. Steamer projects Smith to be worth 0.6 fWAR while posting a 3.69 ERA and a 3.79 FIP in 63 innings. ZiPS has Smith pegged for a 3.40 ERA/FIP and an ERA- of 75. ZiPS also has his K-rate jumping back up to 12.9 which would be a welcome sight. Both of these projections essentially see Smith as a quite-good-but-not-great reliever, somewhere around the 80th-90th percentile.

Will Smith Projections

System Innings K/9 ERA FIP ERA- fWAR
System Innings K/9 ERA FIP ERA- fWAR
2020 18.0 10.13 4.50 7.38 99 -0.6
Steamer 63.0 10.88 3.69 3.79 0.6
ZiPS 50.3 12.90 3.40 3.40 75 0.9

It was easy to forget that Smith’s season got derailed and then he was forced to try and ramp himself up without real games at the alternate site. Brian Snitker was recently asked about his bullpen and he said that he felt like he had four different players that could close games. Smith is part of that group along with Chris Martin, A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek. How the Braves feel about Smith may determine how hard they pursue a veteran addition to the bullpen. At any rate, he is going to be expected to play a much bigger part in 2021. Hopefully he is able to put his 2020 behind him and give the Braves whatever they were looking for when they handed him a sizable deal a year ago.