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2021 Braves Player Review: Drew Smyly

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While he was not a catastrophic liability, Smyly proved to be one of Alex Anthopoulos’s rare free agent misses.

MLB: NLCS-Atlanta Braves at Los Angeles Dodgers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We are once again in the month of November, and while the Braves and their fanbase have a much bigger reason to enjoy their time now than in previous years, this month has likely been the most active month, Trade Deadline aside, for player acquisitions since Alex Anthopoulos took over as the head Front Office honcho for the Braves. In most cases, the moves Anthopoulos has made have worked out even better than expected. However, when it comes to veteran southpaws, Anthopoulos and the Braves have not received the production they had hoped they would over the past few years. While Dallas Keuchel could be considered a decent pick up (if you look at his xFIP), Cole Hamels and Tommy Milone were clear misses. A year ago this month, when the Braves signed Drew Smyly, the hope was that he would be a solid contributor to the Braves’ successes in 2021. However, his season was more defined by consistent struggles than meaningful contributions.

How Acquired

The Braves signed Drew Smyly in one of the first moves of the 2021 MLB offseason to a one-year, $11M deal. Smyly was coming off an injury-shortened stint in San Francisco where he threw only 26 13 innings, but those innings were really good. The 32-year-old was a second-round pick in 2010, and the Braves were his sixth major league team.

Expectations and Projections

After being out of baseball for all of the 2017 and 2018 seasons and struggling mightily in his return to action in 2019, Smyly had hopes of regaining some success in 2020 with the San Francisco Giants. He did exactly that. Not only did Smyly see a significant uptick in his fastball velocity (an average increase of over two ticks from his career norms), he produced a strike out rate of over 37 percent while walking only around eight percent of batters he faced. The end result was a 2.01 FIP and 2.56 xFIP, showing that Smyly should have expected better results than his 3.42 ERA (though his xERA was 3.63). He totaled 0.9 fWAR in just 26 13 innings spanning five starts and two relief appearances, which is a pretty incredible rate of value accumulation.

Overall, Smyly had one of the more extreme bounce-backs of any arm in the game during 2020. However, entering 2021, he represented a pretty high-risk, high-reward signing. The risk was Smyly would not be able to carry over shortened-season, small-sample success, and/or that whatever the Giants did to Smyly, among other arms they’ve ennobled wouldn’t transfer to another team. The reward was the potential that Smyly’s San Francisco-based changes would stick and make him a very productive member of any rotation. The Braves were willing to make an $11M bet that, at worst, Smyly could fall somewhere in the middle.

Projections were pretty split on Smyly, which is a little interesting since often, they’re in alignment. Steamer saw him as a 2 WAR arm that could put up 3 WAR over 200 innings, i.e., an above-average starter that couldn’t take on a full workload. ZiPS saw more of an average starter — 0.9 WAR, and 1.8 WAR/200. Smyly, of course, undershot all of that.

2021 Season Stats

126 23 IP, 11-4, 4.48 ERA, 5.11 FIP, 4.39 xFIP, 8.31 K/9. 2.91 BB/9, 1.92 HR/9. 0.4 fWAR

It did not take long to figure out Smyly’s 2020 season was more of an outlier than a sign of good production to come. In three of Smyly’s first four starts, which sandwiched a short stint on the Injured List, he allowed five earned runs each. Though Smyly did find a bit off success in June and July as his sky-high HR/FB began to normalize, his overall struggles returned in August (hello, HR/FB over 40 percent) to the point he was out of the rotation for good by September.

While much of Smyly’s production simply regressed back to career norms, instead of repeating his outstanding 2020 numbers, the key issue for Smyly was the inability to keep the ball in the ballpark. Similar to his struggles in 2019, Smyly could simply not avoid the long ball in many of his starts. Of his 23 starts, 15 resulted in a home run being allowed. While it’s tempting to point to his 18.4 percent HR/FB rate and say he got unlucky (hence the 122 FIP- on a 103 xFIP-), he actually had an insane 33.7 xHR versus just 28 homers allowed. While we don’t know how predictive xHR is at this point, the point is that there’s at least some chance that he should’ve been bombed even more, which is a scary thought.

Smyly was relegated to the bullpen after getting bombed by the Dodgers on August 30. He pitched way better in relief, including a couple of “bulk guy” outings following an opener, in part because he was able to run his curveball rate to, or above, 50 percent.

What Went Right?

While Smyly struggled quite a bit in April, May, and August, he also had some good success in June and July, when the balls were staying in the park. Over 49 23 innings during this two month stretch, Smyly produced a 3.08 ERA and 46/20 K/BB ratio while only allowing five home runs. He was 5-0 over this two month stretch, and the Braves were 8-2 overall. In fact, in Smyly’s 23 starts this year, the Braves were 14-9. After Atlanta lost the first four games he started in 2021, the Braves were 14-5 in Smyly’s outings after that. Overall, while Smyly was far from effective, he also allowed the Braves to remain in a position to win in most of his outings from May through August. One of the maddening things was that because of his HR/FB, Smyly’s peripherals more or less stayed in the same place and then actually improved in August, which is when all the balls started leaving the park. So while the results were ping-ponging here and there, Smyly wasn’t really doing anything too differently other than continuing to improve his curveball usage over time.

The red line being allergic to the orange line is one of the most annoying Braves single-season pitching developments this side of Max Fried

What Went Wrong?

Overall, Smyly simply reverted back to his normal production rates instead of being able to carry over his 2020 success. His velocity did remain above average compared to his career before 2020 (92.1 FB avg MPH in 2021), but fell off considerably from the numbers he put up in 2020 (93.7 avg MPH in 2020). His contact numbers were similar-ish to previous marks in his career, though he did show an improved ability overall to keep the ball on the ground more frequently.

However, Smyly’s biggest issue simply centered on his inability to prevent home runs. His 1.92 HR/9 rate was the 7th worst mark of any pitcher that logged 120 or more innings last season. For much of the season, Smyly was in the bottom five of qualified starting pitchers for most home runs allowed, due to the HR/FB rate. He was also one of only ten starting pitchers to allow 3 or more home runs in a single outing on four or more separate occasions in 2021. It was almost poetic that the final straw for Smyly was allowing seven combined home runs, including four in his final start, over his last two two starts of the season before he was removed from the starting rotation for good.

There are a lot of things that feed into why Smyly’s 2021 was a disappointment. The curveball remained great but took a step back because of how poorly his other pitches worked, often making him a one-pitch pitcher. The cutter was either blasted (.434 xwOBA-against on the season) or nowhere to be found (used below 12 percent of time in 12 of 23 starts), which made sense because he couldn’t command it at all, and the shape was also a mess. The fastball lost too many ticks to empower the type of success he had in 2020. He was also very slow to shift to a curveball-first approach.

But, one thing definitely worth noting here is that the Braves just didn’t seem to adjust to Smyly’s limited arsenal until it was a little too late to salvage his season. Smyly was money the first time through the order, and blasted after that — yet he faced at least one batter for a third time in 21 of his 23 starts. He unsurprisingly did much better in shorter stints. This all worked out better for the Braves than Smyly himself, but it was still a bummer to watch.

Road to the Title

While Smyly was on Atlanta’s postseason rosters, his main value was simply as depth in case of emergency, or the need to eat innings. He actually did the latter effectively on multiple occasions, besides appearing in only three games overall. In Game 4 of the NLCS, perhaps Smyly’s most memorable moment as a Brave, he kept the Dodgers quiet enough to support a big win for Atlanta. In Game 5 of the World Series, he went over three innings to keep Atlanta from having to use their best relievers, a development that paid off quite well as the Braves clinched the World Series title in Game 6. Though not much was expected from Smyly, he did what he was asked to do when called upon.

Smyly posted negative WPA and cWPA during the regular season, and a negative cWPA in the posteason despite a barely-positive WPA. His best outing, cWPA-wise was that Game 4 NLCS appearance — he was charged with a couple of runs in the 3 23-inning outing with Chris Martin on the mound, but the Braves had scored five runs at that point and cruised to a win.

Smyly also had one pretty cool regular-season moment: on June 20, in a doubleheader against the Cardinals, he threw 5 23 scoreless innings in what was eventually a 1-0 win. He no-hit the Redbirds through those 5 23 innings, and when Paul Goldschmidt singled, he was pulled. Fortunately, this foray through the third time through the order didn’t hurt him or the Braves, as Luke Jackson was able to strand Goldschmidt and the Braves won in seven.

Outlook for 2022

The outlook for Smyly in 2022 remains in line with the numbers he produced in 2021, albeit with a little less victimization by homers. Steamer currently projects Smyly to produce a 4.74 ERA, 4.77 FIP, and 4.62 xFIP, or 1.0 WAR in 121 innings — better than 2021, but still below average. He also will likely be one of the higher risks for home runs when it comes to starting pitchers. In other words, there clearly is far more of a chance Smyly will remain the 2021 version of himself than produce like he did in 2020. Someone will take a chance, though probably not for $11 million.

If that is the case, there still could be value in investing in Smyly on a one-year deal. He can be someone that eats innings, and has shown the ability to be at least somewhat serviceable over an 8-10 start stretch of the regular season. However, if a team is looking for more out of him that being a fourth or fifth starter with limited upside, they likely will be disappointed... unless maybe someone they decide to use him in a not-quite-a-starter role. Wouldn’t that be something?

Smyly returning to the Braves does not seem like a great fit for Atlanta. The team has younger arms to develop in the back of their rotation, and having whiffed on getting great value out of Smyly, the team may feel that there may be a different affordable arm with upside in free agency. The Braves took forever to adapt to Smyly’s struggles and skillset, and while they might be quicker on the trigger on these sorts of things in the future, it’s hard to not be skeptical that a reunion with Smyly wouldn’t entail the same head-scratching usage. Overall, while Smyly had a bit of success and by no means was a complete failure of a signing, it seems other avenues are worth exploring for the Braves before they explore bringing Smyly back for 2022.