The 2021 Atlanta Braves bullpen was a roller coaster ride, just like the season. as a whole For much of the campaign, you needed a defibrillator to survive all the late-inning drama. Yet, for all the suspense, it’s the phrase, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” that comes to mind for the Braves’ 2021 bullpen, and especially for its closer, Will Smith.
The Braves acquired Will Smith in November 2019, signing him to a three-year, $40 million deal that included a team option for a fourth year. Smith was coming off an All-Star campaign with the San Francisco Giants where he spent the previous three-and-a-half seasons, though he missed all of 2017 and part of 2018 following Tommy John Surgery. When the Braves signed Smith, he was coming off two really good relief seasons, and the Braves were coming off a season in which they had to scramble for relief help at the Trade Deadline. Still, in addition to the hefty contract, the Braves lost a draft pick as a result of signing because the Giants had issued him a Qualifying Offer.
Expectations and Projections
The 2021 bullpen had a lot of unknowns, given the departures of Mark Melancon and Shane Greene in the offseason. Will Smith became the de facto closer for Atlanta given the bullpen turnover.
However, his 2020 was uneven and disappointing, and a terrible way for Smith to kick off his Braves tenure. A bout of COVID-19 interrupted his preparation routine, and he ended up severely underperforming as well as victimized by the longball. Smith put up a horrendous -0.6 fWAR in just 16 innings in 2020 because he allowed seven homers in those 16 innings. His xFIP- in 2020 was a fine-ish 95, and while the Braves certainly didn’t sign him to get shelled, they also didn’t sign him to be a just-okay relief option. He pitched slightly better in the postseason, but gave up a very unfortunate homer to his namesake in the NLCS.
Still, 16 innings does not a trend make, and many expected 2021 to be a fresh start and a rebound year for Smith, given that he’d be able to have a normal preparation routine with a fairly routine Spring Training. Steamer and ZiPS both had him as an above-average, but not particularly great, reliever — figuring 0.7 to 0.8 WAR on the season.
2021 season results
Will Smith’s 2021 season could be described as a case where the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Smith finished fourth in MLB in saves, converting 37 out of 43 opportunities with a 3.44 ERA. That makes things look rosy, part of a solid-to-great relief year, but the peripherals are less kind: a 4.17 FIP and 4.06 xFIP are squarely in that “eh, fine” range, without much to recommend them beyond that. On balance, Smith also finished with a 1.95 WPA, so you can’t say he really dinged the team overall with his performance, compiling 39 shutdowns to 11 meltdowns.
And yet, it often felt like every single one of his appearances in the regular season seemed to be an adventure, with baserunners galore, heart-stopping moments for everyone, and just a general sense of unease. The numbers, especially the top-line results, indicate that most of the time, Smith was able to lock down the game. It just wasn’t particularly easy, and it often felt hard. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz christened Smith with the nickname “John Wayne,” because well, when he came into the game, things were always wild.
Where that all changed was the postseason. Smith didn’t really pitch better in the postseason, as his mediocre xFIP increased by 0.40. But, as the Braves won a title, he got all the benefits that seemed to escape him in the regular season, as no fly ball he allowed left the park, and every runner that reached base against him was stranded. In the regular season, Smith yielded a .284 xwOBA to opposing batters, but their results came out to a .297 wOBA — neither number is good for a batter, but hitters had better results against Smith than their inputs warranted. In the postseason, though, Smith’s xwOBA-against increased to .325, basically making opposing batters into slightly-above-average bats, yet the wOBA he allowed was a minuscule .166. That explains much of what happened with him in the postseason, and we’re thankful it went that way instead of the reverse.
What went right? What went wrong?
Will Smith was able to stay healthy for the 2021 season, something that didn’t happen, and ended up derailing, his 2020. His availability helped give the Braves consistency in a bullpen picture that was often in flux, and prevented further exposure of an ineffective middle relief corps that included players like Nate Jones and an ongoing cycle of Triple-A-type callups. In the end, Smith appeared in 71 regular season games and 11 postseason games, a massive undertaking for a reliever.
Still, as mentioned, it was it rarely easy-breezy, and not much about Smith beyond the final result indicated smooth sailing and a comfortable ride. He often had to work out of jams, and while this happens to most teams, he paid dearly for some mistakes. Smith’s slider was absolutely phenomenal on the year, allowing a sub-.200 xwOBA-against and getting whiffs nearly half the time (49.1 percent) it was swung on, while being thrown in pretty much the same spot on the corner, over and over. But, it did result in five of the 11 homers he gave up, as hitters found it easy to elevate if and when they connected.
The real challenge for Smith was that while his slider was devastating, nothing else really worked that well. His fastball and curveball command were spotty, and both got hit hard, even though the fastball had solid “rise” despite mediocre velocity. On a pitch shape basis, the slider is nothing to write home about either, but he managed to put it where it (mostly) couldn’t be hit, which was not true about either the fastball or curve. Smith did a good job at a lot of pitching things, including getting strike one, avoiding meatballs, and getting a ton of whiffs when hitters chased, but so much of that was thanks to the slider, and not anything else.
Another problem for Smith was his month of August, in which he put up a nasty 5.84 ERA, 8.36 FIP, and 5.66 xFIP, along with five of the 11 homers he gave up on the season. It was the only month in which he had a negative WPA, and it contained the only stretch where he had negative WPA in two of three games. (On the season, despite all the complaints, Smith never had back-to-back meltdowns, and only cost the team WPA in 11 of his 71 appearances, or 11 of 82 if you include the postseason.) This challenge was ill-timed as the Braves, overall, were picking up steam, leading for a din and clamor to remove Smith from the closer role. But, manager Brian Snitker stuck to his guns, and everything worked out fine in the end, as Smith’s September was totally fine (and better than his postseason run in terms of peripherals).
Road to the Title
Will Smith’s results ended up nails down the stretch and in the postseason. Late in September, the Phillies were breathing down the Braves’ necks for the NL East crown. Smith converted eight of ten saves in September while yielding just a 1.50 ERA as the Braves won a fourth straight division title.
In the postseason, Smith allowed zero runs in 11 frames, making him the second reliever to ever go through a playoff bracket with at least 11 innings and no runs allowed. He went 6-for-6 in save opportunities and was credited with two Ws as well. Thanks to his defense and some good ol’ luck, he allowed just eight total baserunners (five hits, three walks) while striking out eight. The relatively low-drama affairs made up for all of his regular season cardiac event inducements, and Braves fans won’t forget him along with his “Night Shift” brethren.
Unsurprisingly, Will Smith put up a ton of WPA and cWPA in the postseason, which is what happens when your results are perfect and you lock down games. He compiled nearly 19% cWPA in his 11 postseason appearances, including over 6% in Game 4 of the World Series, when he protected a one-run lead with a perfect frame.
Outlook for 2022
Will Smith will, something totally unforeseen aside, be penciled in as the Braves’ closer for 2022 as he enters his age-32 season. The Braves do have other options should he falter, and projections aren’t expecting much more than decent relief work once again, but given what happened in 2021, it doesn’t seem likely that anything will change on the usage front, at least not immediately.