Will Smith lost his job as closer before the 2022 season began and was ultimately shipped to Houston at the Trade Deadline.
Will Smith was one of the first big contracts signed by Alex Anthopoulos. His tenure with the Atlanta Braves was tenuous at times, but he put together a 37-save season before sailing through a magical postseason run in 2021. His role diminished in 2022, as did his performance, and he was eventually traded at the deadline to Houston for Jake Odorizzi.
The Braves signed Smith to a three-year, $39 million deal that also included a club option for a fourth year (or a $1 million buyout) on November 14, 2019. Smith, who was one of the best closers on the market at the time, successfully leveraged his receipt of the one-year Qualifying Offer from the Giants into a multi-year deal with Atlanta.
His Braves tenure ended when Smith was traded by the Braves at the 2022 Trade Deadline to the Houston Astros in exchange for pitcher Jake Odorizzi.
What Were the Expectations?
Smith’s Braves debut was delayed after a bout with COVID-19 in 2020. He ended up appearing in 18 regular season games, but was plagued by the home run ball where he allowed seven in just 16 1/3 innings. He then appeared in seven postseason games in 2020 allowing three runs in six innings, including a home run to Dodgers catcher Will Smith in the NLCS. In short, that shortened season was one to forget for Smith, easily the worst of his career.
With a more normal schedule, Smith took over as the team’s primary closer in 2021, and endured an up-and-down season. He appeared in 71 games and recorded 37 saves with a 3.44 ERA, 4.17 FIP, and 4.06 xFIP in 68 innings. (That’s a 80/100/96 line, which is fine, but just 0.4 fWAR from a guy who is supposed to be one of your high-end relievers is not very good.) His HR/FB rate stabilized somewhat from 2020, but he still gave up 11 home runs. His low point came in August where he posted a 5.84 ERA, 8.36 FIP, and 5.66 xFIP with nine walks and five home runs allowed in just 12 1/3 innings. It was his only negative WPA month of the season, as a result of two huge meltdowns. Despite calls for him to be replaced, Brian Snitker stuck with Smith and he seemed to find his footing as a good-not-great reliever over the final month.
Most people will remember Smith’s postseason run in 2021 where he allowed just five hits, three walks and zero runs in 11 appearances. He made four appearances in the World Series against the Astros allowing just two hits and a walk in four innings. While his results were good, he didn’t really pitch any better — just got stung by things less. His xFIP was actually higher in the postseason by quite a lot (96 xFIP- in regular season, 105 in 2021 postseason), and even his xwOBA was way higher (.284 in regular season, .325 in postseason). His outcomes in 2021 were about as magical as the Braves’ entire playoff run.
Smith came in to 2022 expected to be a meh reliever — Steamer had him at 0.3 WAR over 68 innings, while ZiPS chimed in with 0.6. Neither would’ve anywhere close to justifying his salary, but because of that salary and his 2021 season, he wasn’t in any danger of failing to make the roster.
Coming off of that run, it had to sting, at least a little, when the Braves notified Smith that the team was bringing on Kenley Jansen to serve as the team’s closer. Smith said the right things upon Jansen’s arrival, but struggled on the field and saw most of his high leverage opportunities dry up.
Three of Smith’s first four appearances of the 2022 season came in low leverage; he didn’t have a high-leverage appearance until mid-May. and ultimately, just six of his 41 Braves appearances were in high leverage. By the time he was traded, he had just the sixth-highest average leverage on entering a game in the bullpen, even behind Dylan Lee and a very ineffective Tyler Matzek. Perhaps tellingly, though, his overall leverage was third-highest on the team at the time, because he kept coming into not-particularly-meaningful situations and making them way dicier than they needed to be.
All in all, Smith appeared in 41 games for the Braves and had a 4.38 ERA, but with a 5.22 FIP and 4.76 xFIP in just 37 innings (106/132/119, a basically-unplayable line). That adds up to a quite horrible -0.5 fWAR, and made it so that of Smith’s three high-priced seasons with the Braves, he finished below replacement in two of them. In short, his deal went worse than pretty much anyone could have predicted, and his crowning moment had little to do with his own pitching effectiveness.
As they approached the Trade Deadline, there was reason to question whether Smith was going to be able to hang on to his roster spot. Atlanta then pulled a surprising deal, acquiring Jake Odorizzi from Houston in exchange for Smith.
Smith pitched much better for Houston down the stretch as he posted a 3.27 ERA, a 2.66 FIP, and a 3.09 xFIP (85/67/78) in 22 innings. The Astros used him more as a lefty specialist — his numbers against lefties were good even before the trade, but he excelled against them with the Astros, not walking, nor allowing a homer to, a single one of the 46 lefty batters he faced.
What went right? What went wrong?
Smith’s tenure with Atlanta was up and down from the start, but he will always be able to point to that magical run through the postseason and was on the mound when the final out was recorded in Game 6. He logged 130 games and recorded 42 saves over his two and a half seasons with Atlanta. Beyond that, not much went right. He finished his Braves stint with -0.6 fWAR, which is… awful. In the time that he was a Brave, no reliever had a worse fWAR mark, and only two relievers had more innings. He was, in fact, the only Braves reliever between the start of the 2020 season and the 2022 Trade Deadline to A) pitch more than 27 relief innings and B) put up negative fWAR in aggregate. If that doesn’t serve as yet another reason why you shouldn’t give relievers big money (i.e., because you’ll resist cutting them or shelving them even when they deserve it due to their paycheck), it’s not clear what will.
From a pitch perspective, his slider remained highly effective as a Brave, and what really fell in usefulness was his four-seamer. The thing is, if you look at his pitch shape, the four-seamer didn’t change nearly as much as his breaking stuff, which lost motion in both dimensions. Smith’s command has always been spotty, so it wasn’t really a matter of losing feel after he signed his deal with the Braves — instead it looks like the complex interplay between pitch sequencing and small changes in movement really did him in, as hitters were just too easily able to identify the fastballs and hanging sliders to swing at and crush in the last three years, compared to earlier in his career.
In extremely Will Smith fashion, his best game of 2022 was, not-quite-inexplicably, one where he actuall gave up the lead. On June 20, the Braves held a 1-0 lead over the Giants in the eighth, when Max Fried started the inning by allowing two singles and a walk to load the bases. On came Smith to face Tommy La Stella, and he got a shallow flyout to preserve the lead. The next batter, though, was not a lefty, and singled to tie the game. Smith then had to face lefty-mashing Wilmer Flores, and somehow on a full count with the go-ahead run on third, threw this 3-2 pitch and not only got away with it, but actually got a strikeout:
He then got a groundout to escape the jam with the game tied, and the Braves later won 2-1 on Orlando Arcia’s walkoff single.
Another good Will Smith moment? This strikeout of strikeout-avoider-extraordinaire Keibert Ruiz, which helped Smith keep the lead and escape a mess of his own making. (He came on with a two-run lead and allowed three straight to reach to trim the lead to a run, but ended up getting three straight outs, including this one, to help the Braves win 4-3.)
As for bad moments, well… the most obvious was on May 13, against the Padres, and it was generally reminiscent of the specific issue Smith had as a Brave: giving up big homers to often not-particularly-awesome right-handed hitters, way too often. The Braves were down 4-2 in the sixth of that game, but put up a four-spot on Yu Darvish, with Dansby Swanson clubbing a three-run homer to turn a deficit into a 6-4 lead. On came Will Smith for the bottom of the sixth, and what followed were two singles and then this horrendous 2-0 fastball to Ha-Seong Kim. The Braves ended up losing the game 11-6.
The Astros will surely decline the option on Smith’s contract and he will head back into free agency. He shouldn’t have a hard time finding work from there with his success against left-handed hitters, who have a .223/.277/.362 line against him with a .279 wOBA in his career. He probably shouldn’t expect another big payday, though, as projections will likely see him as a replacement-level arm, which seems pretty accurate at this point. Come Spring Training 2023, he might be competing for a bullpen spot for a team that might hope for a resurgence and a Trade Deadline deal that nets them some prospects.