Atlanta Takes Another Chance on a Small-Sample Breakout

Way back in mid-November, when the free agent market was still moving at a glacial pace, the Braves signed Drew Smyly to a one-year deal worth $11 million. After years of injury issues, Smyly finally appeared to be (relatively) healthy in 2020. He increased the velocity on each of his pitches by 2.6 mph, helping him post the highest strikeout rate and lowest FIP of his career, though it came in just 26.1 innings.

Eleven million dollars might seem like a bit much for an injury-prone starter who showed the briefest glimpse of a breakout last year, at least on a relative basis. Corey Kluber signed for $11 million; Garrett Richards got $10 million; and James Paxton signed for $8.5 million. If healthy, each of those other starters likely has more upside than Smyly. Still, Atlanta was willing to take the chance in the hopes that Smyly’s velocity holds and portends a bigger breakout in 2021.

Fast forward a few months and Atlanta is again betting on another injury-prone player who had a mini-resurgence in 2020. This time around the money risked is even lower. On Sunday, the Braves brought in Jake Lamb on a one-year, non-guaranteed, major league deal worth $1 million.

Since 2017, Lamb has played in just 165 games, with a major shoulder injury and a quad injury sidelining him for much of the ’18 and ’19 seasons, respectively. During those two years, his wRC+ hovered right around 78 and the power he displayed during his breakout seasons in 2016 and ’17 was glaringly absent. For the first 18 games of the 2020 season, the same struggles persisted. After limping to just a 14 wRC+ in 50 plate appearances, the Diamondbacks cut him loose on September 10. Five days later, he signed with the Athletics after Matt Chapman went down with a season-ending hip injury. With the A’s, Lamb looked completely rejuvenated, slugging three home runs in 13 games and posting a 141 wRC+.

Anyone can look good over a 13-game stretch, but for Lamb, it was a glimpse at what could be if his body was healthy again. His average exit velocity was right in line with what he had posted in years past, over half the balls he put in play came off the bat at 95 mph or higher, and his barrel rate was 10.8% in Oakland. But even though his power returned in this tiny sample, the excellent plate discipline skills he’s shown in the past disappeared.

It’s nearly impossible to glean anything from Lamb’s performance in Oakland, let alone take anything away from the combined 99 plate appearances between the A’s and the Diamondbacks. But the Braves felt like they had a need on their roster and were confident enough in Lamb’s health to bring him in for spring training.

Atlanta has no shortage of young starting pitchers who could potentially make an impact in 2021. They also brought in Charlie Morton as a free agent to provide high-quality innings atop their rotation. They didn’t need to sign Drew Smyly, especially knowing the risks his long injury history present. But his presence on the roster gives them some added depth in case things go sideways with their pitching prospects or with Morton’s health. Likewise, the Braves didn’t need to sign Jake Lamb to this relatively small deal, but he gives them some depth in case of emergency. He also has the added benefit of fitting in perfectly with the Braves current presumed starter at third base, Austin Riley.

Braves 3B Depth Chart Projections
Player PA ISO K% BB% wRC+ WAR
Austin Riley 588 0.224 28.2% 7.3% 96 1.3
Jake Lamb 238 0.185 26.5% 11.5% 85 0.0

Riley made his major league debut halfway through the 2019 season and posted an 85 wRC+ in his first big league action. He followed up that rookie year with an 88 wRC+ in 2020. But way he got to those relatively similar marks was entirely different. In 2019, he showed good power with a .245 ISO but his plate discipline was a mess. In 2020, he lowered his strikeout rate from 36.4% to 23.8% but his thump disappeared. No qualified hitter lowered their strikeout rate more than Riley did in 2020, but it didn’t exactly translate to more production at the plate.

It’s clear Riley is still a work in progress. If he’s able to maintain his plate discipline gains while also tapping into his power, he could be a great piece in the middle of the Braves lineup for years to come. But if he continues to struggle to put it all together at the same time, Lamb isn’t a terrible backup plan to have waiting in the wings. If that happens, they have the benefit of being a perfect platoon pair.

Here’s how the two have performed against opposite handed pitching during their careers:

Riley & Lamb, platoon splits
Player PA ISO K% BB% wRC+
Austin Riley vs. RHP 356 0.183 30.0% 5.2% 76
Austin Riley vs. LHP 106 0.330 35.0% 10.0% 121
Jake Lamb vs. RHP 1621 0.206 23.9% 11.1% 108
Jake Lamb vs. LHP 396 0.154 30.9% 11.7% 57

It’s far too early in Riley’s career to make any judgments about his platoon split, but the left-handed Lamb has shown a sizable split over his seven year in the majors. Employing these two third basemen in a straight platoon would likely indicate something troubling about Riley, but Lamb gives them a perfectly suited option in that worst-case scenario. The most likely outcome is a nearly full-time role for Riley with Lamb spelling him against tough right-handed starters and acting as a lefty pinch hitter with pop. And there’s a remote possibility Lamb could stumble into regular playing time if the universal DH is implemented for the 2021 season at the last moment. There’s also the possibility that Lamb can’t keep up his resurgence during spring training. In that case, the Braves still have Johan Camargo on the roster, with playoff talisman Pablo Sandoval in camp as a non-roster invitee.

For Lamb, a bench role with the slight chance for more is probably the best he could do considering his recent injury history and inconsistent performance while on the field. But those 49 plate appearances in Oakland gave him something to build on and gave the Braves a reason to bring him in for a tryout.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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1 year ago

Good no risk signing. I’m not expecting much but like you said, he’s a good guy to take a flier on. If he’s healthy he could work out to be a nice bench bat. And the more depth you can have the better!!