Editor’s Note: Don’t forget to get your pick in for next Free Agent to sign with the Braves. Winner will get the new Hammers shirt!
Southwest of Atlanta, he was born and raised. On the diamond is where he spent most of his days. Chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool…
OK, that’s probably enough of that. In case you haven’t picked up on it, the subject of this exercise is Atlanta Braves left-handed reliever Will Smith. To my knowledge, he has never been to Bel-Air, but he does have a really fun name for really corny story ledes.
Smith, of course, came to the Braves as a very noteworthy signing this offseason. A hometown kid from Newnan, the former Giants closer was perhaps the biggest piece of Alex Anthopoulos’ clear effort to make sure the bullpen was never an issue for the 2020 Braves. He signed a three-year deal worth $39 million with a $13 million team option for a fourth year and joined Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin to headline the most formidable bullpen in baseball.
Then 2020 happened.
When baseball resumed play in late July, Smith had tested positive for COVID-19 and didn’t pitch for the Braves until Aug. 9. And after posting a 2.76 ERA and 1.026 WHIP for the Giants in 2019, he struggled through his first nine appearances for the Braves. After surrendering a run in a third straight appearance on Sept. 4, Smith had a 6.23 ERA in 8 2/3 innings with eight hits, one walk and five home runs.
Fortunately for the Braves, things turned around some from there. Smith pitched 7 1/3 innings in his final nine appearances of the regular season, posting a 2.45 ERA with three hits, three walks and just two home runs.
When the playoffs began, it looked like the Braves were finally getting the Fresh Prince that they paid for. In his first five games, he covered 5 1/3 innings of perfect baseball, striking out seven batters with no runs and no baserunners. Like many of the Braves relievers, Smith seemed to run out of gas from there, though. In his final two appearances, he lasted just 2/3 of an inning total with two hits, three walks and three runs allowed.
The question from all of that is simple: What should the Braves take away from a very volatile season for Smith?
To me, the answer is also simple: They should essentially forget it happened, at least for now.
Smith had a very unusual season, probably moreso than any other Brave. He has been a workhorse reliever for the last half a decade, carding at least 50 appearances in five straight seasons and twice eclipsing 75 appearances. For the last couple years, he’s spent time as the closer for the Giants, so he had a very clear role with the team.
But by the time he joined the Braves’ active roster, other members of the bullpen had already solidified those higher-leverage roles. And while he got his opportunities to serve as a setup man for Melancon in games the Braves were winning, he also had some middle relief appearances and pitched in games the Braves were trailing. In just 18 appearances, he pitched in every inning from the fourth through the eighth.
All that on a new team with a new staff after a weird start to the season. Perhaps it should come as no shock, then, that Smith carded career-worst numbers – other than his rookie season when he was still a starter – in ERA, homers per nine innings, strikeouts per nine and FIP.
So honestly, the Braves would probably be better off giving Smith a fresh look for 2021. With Greene and Melancon both hitting free agency, there’s a reasonable chance that Smith will have a more consistent role, and even if not, he’ll hopefully have a more normal preparation for the season and whatever role he is to fill. If that’s the case, I expect Smith to look more like the pitcher we saw down the stretch and to start the postseason.