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2021 Braves player review: Kevan Smith

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Smith ended up playing a big role in filling the void left by Travis d’Arnaud’s injury, though he didn’t exactly make his mark on the franchise

MLB: JUL 22 Braves at Phillies Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Travis d’Arnaud went down with injury, the Atlanta Braves had to scramble to address the catcher’s position. They went through a number of veteran options, including Kevan Smith who stuck with the team from early May until the beginning of August when d’Arnaud returned. Unfortunately, Smith really struggled, and was probably one of the most-complained about members of the roster as the Braves scuffled for months in the early going.

How Acquired

Smith was a seventh round pick of the Chicago White Sox in the 2011 MLB Draft. He made his major league debut in 2016. The Angels claimed him off waivers in October of 2018 and he spent a season out west before signing with Tampa Bay prior to the 2020 season. The Braves acquired him from the Rays in exchange for cash considerations on May 19; he had played in three games and got five PAs as a Ray before the trade.

Expectations

Smith replaced Jeff Mathis on the active roster as their catcher shuffle continued. Expectations were low as Smith was a career backup and the Braves weren’t looking for much more than someone to adequately handle the pitching staff.

Interestingly, before he put on a Braves uniform, Smith could have been thought to be a move to add some relative oomph into a Braves lineup that wasn’t quite clicking. He came into the 2021 season with some poor defensive marks, but a career wRC+ of 91. On top of that, Smith had an average-to-above xwOBA in each season from 2018 through 2020, spanning over 430 PAs. While the overall expectation was a replacement level-ish, freely-available backup catcher, there was at least the faint idea that Smith could get there, or a little above, by hitting the ball rather than purely on defensive value, like many of his backup catcher compatriots.

2021 Season results

That whole offensive backup catcher idea? Yeah, that went over like a lead balloon with “thud” written on it in large, blocky letters. Smith paired with William Contreras while d’Arnaud was out. He appeared in 30 games and struggled mightily offensively hitting just .165/.248/.198 in 101 plate appearances. That’s a 17 wRC+, and while yes, he underhit his xwOBA... it was also a terrible .217, so there was no saving grace there. As Contreras slumped, Atlanta went out and acquired Stephen Vogt. Smith ended up sticking around until August 11 when he was designated for assignment to make room for d’Arnaud’s return to the roster. He was released two days later.

Kevan Smith 2021 Stats

Gms AVG OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+ wOBA xwOBA
Gms AVG OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+ wOBA xwOBA
2-Tms - 33 .168 .248 .200 9.4 28.2 17 .196 .220

What went right? What went wrong?

Smith flipped his own script in 2021, even though the result was still pretty negative. Smith’s career-to-date featured decent offense and some bad-to-awful pitch framing... so of course, in 2021, he was an average-to-maybe-better framer, especially per Baseball Savant, which uses the least-sophisticated methodology but still had him as one of the better framers based on how well he stole strikes on either horizontal edge of the plate. That likely played a factor into his hanging onto a roster spot for as long as he did.

However, everything else pretty much went wrong. Smith made exceedingly weak contact that had a bunch of pulled grounders. He took more strikes than average but also missed the strikes he swung at an elevated rate, while chasing a bunch. He had a higher meatball rate from opposing pitchers than league-average, but swung at fewer of those pitches than the average batter... although it’s not clear whether that would have mattered, since he only managed a .336 xwOBA in his 11 plate appearances that ended with a pitch right down the pipe anyway (league average is .401). In the end, Smith managed to rack up -0.5 fWAR in 101 Braves PAs, not hitting a single homer in the process. Interestingly, Baseball Prospectus valued his contributions at +0.1 WARP, as his DRC+ of 73 was very, very far from his wRC+ of 17. Given the way DRC+ works, controlling for a bunch of factors, suggests that perhaps Smith was at the center of some kind of vortex where it just so happened that all of his awful plate outcomes weren’t quite as much his “fault” as they seemed — or maybe it’s just a weird edge case. Still, that’s a pretty big gap between his DRC+ and other hitting metrics, and while it may be of minor consolation to Smith, it sure didn’t help the Braves much.

Road to the Title

Smith’s at-the-plate results were so awful that it’s not surprising that he accrued -1.53 WPA in those 101 PAs. That was by far the worst on the Braves offensively, and also a bottom-40 mark in MLB, which is again kind of horrifying given that Smith only played for the equivalent of a month or so.

Smith literally had just six games with positive WPA (or cWPA) on the year. His highest WPA/cWPA marks (0.05 / 0.03%) came in a blowout against his most recent former team on July 17: Smith had a one-out double in the third, was intentionally walked in the fourth, walked again to start the sixth, and grounded out in the eighth. Here’s his double, one of just three extra-base hits for him on the year:

Also, weirdly enough, one of Smith’s other doubles came off Jacob deGrom... but it probably would’ve been caught if not for some Mets-communication:

In fitting fashion, Smith’s highest single WPA play of the season came when he was walked to load the bases against the Reds, pushing the tying run to third with one out. However, Ender Inciarte struck out and pinch-hitter Pablo Sandoval lined out, and the Braves lost that game.

Outlook for 2022

Smith just turned 33 years old. He didn’t sign with anyone after his time in Atlanta ended but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a shot somewhere come Spring Training. An offensive-minded backup catcher who didn’t hit at all in his most recent season and had framing issues until that season is a bit of a tough sell, but everyone needs catching depth, even if that depth might be particularly brutal.