Wild, Wild East: The Braves Sign Will Smith

It seems like only last week, I was jamming 14 Will Smith movies into a single paragraph of free agent hype, taking an obvious joke well past its logical conclusion. What would I do when Will Smith actually signed? Use the same movie jokes again? I wasn’t too worried about it. Free agents take months to sign! The Giants had made Smith a qualifying offer. No less a reliever than Craig Kimbrel had languished on the vine until after the amateur draft in similar circumstances. The same jokes could be funny again in a few months.

Well, the joke’s on me, because Smith signed a three-year, $40 million contract with the Braves yesterday. What follows is a level-head, straightforward analysis of that transaction. Just know that, if it weren’t so close in time, I’d probably have written another article of movie names.

The Braves fit a classic archetype of team that looks for free agent help. Their young core gelled impressively in 2019. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies keyed the offense, while Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz provided the starting pitching. The team had veteran help, of course: Freddie Freeman chipped in his usual stellar offense, Josh Donaldson was superb in a bounce back year, and Dallas Keuchel provided much-needed innings on his own one-year deal.

They also have payroll room. With Donaldson and Keuchel re-entering free agency, they only had $100 million in expected commitments for 2020 before the Smith signing. With Acuña and Albies signed long-term to (some would say exceedingly) team-friendly contracts, it makes perfect sense to spend on the rest of the roster, maximizing their playoff chances while they have a strong foundation to build from.

You’ll notice, however, that none of the players I named as key Braves are relievers, Fried’s emergency role in the playoffs notwithstanding. The Braves finished the year seventh in position player WAR, 12th in starting pitcher WAR, and 21st in relief pitcher WAR, with only 1.1 total WAR to the bullpen’s credit. Nor did it get any better in the second half, when new arrivals Mark Melancon, now-free-agent Chris Martin, and Shane Greene bolstered the ‘pen — Atlanta was 26th in second-half bullpen WAR.

But with the addition of Smith, the Braves now boast a strong relief corps. Luke Jackson, Melancon, and Greene are miscast as the best relievers on a playoff team, but they provide excellent depth. Smith would look right at home atop the marquee — and he may not even be the Braves’ best reliever. Sean Newcomb, the erstwhile starter, looked excellent in relief last year, but he’ll enter next season competing for a starting spot. Should he miss it, he and Smith will anchor the back of the bullpen.

The terms of the deal, three years at $13 million per year, plus a team option for a fourth year at the same rate with a $1 million buyout, exceed Kiley’s and the crowd’s estimates, though only slightly. Last year’s Kimbrel and Keuchel situations surely played into Smith’s decision to accept a contract so early in the offseason, before even the deadline to accept or decline his qualifying offer. He now has financial security (the $13 million he’ll make in 2020 is more than his career-to-date earnings) and gets to pitch for a playoff contender, which means it’s hard not to like the deal from Smith’s end.

Of course, the Braves’ situation and Smith’s financial security are only part of the story. As much as this is a great match of player and team, it’s also a testament to Smith’s growth as a pitcher that he was the top reliever on the market this year, one so appealing that Atlanta wasted no time in paying him despite the draft pick they’ll surrender.

In 2017, that would have seemed far-fetched. The Giants acquired Smith in 2016 as part of their playoff push, and he chipped in admirably even as the team had a bad second half. Before the start of the next season, however, he tore his UCL and needed Tommy John surgery. Between 10 and 20% of big leaguers never make it back to the majors after Tommy John, let alone regain their prior level.

But Smith didn’t regain his old level; he got better. His slider is a sharp, vicious thing; it darts away from left-handers and in on the hands of righties, getting both out with equal aplomb. At-bats ending in a Smith slider to a righty have produced a .200 wOBA since he converted full-time to relief in 2014. That’s excellent — and also no match for his results against lefties, against whom he’s allowed a microscopic .173 wOBA.

The rest of his game is built off the slider. His fastball is passable, a pitch largely used to keep hitters off-balance and set up counts where the slider can do its work. He mixes in a softer, two-plane curve, easily the worst of his three offerings, to keep batters guessing. Most of his curves are thrown in the first two pitches of an at-bat, letting batters know the pitch exists — before it basically stops existing. The same goes for the fastball — when Smith is behind in the count, he’ll throw sliders only a third of the time, leaning on the four-seam instead.

But when Smith gets ahead, the slider comes out to play. He throws over 60% sliders when ahead in the count, 64% after getting to two strikes. He throws it out of the zone, and batters chase. They swung at 54% of his out-of-zone sliders in 2019, the highest rate among pitchers who threw at least 200 sliders out of the strike zone. This was no sample-size issue, either: lower the minimum to 50 sliders, and he falls all the way to second place, just behind Corbin Burnes.

That, in a nutshell, is what makes Smith so good. Try as they might, batters can’t lay off the slider. Sometimes it’s away, like in this dismissal of Bryce Harper:

Sometimes it’s buried low:

And sometimes it’s back footed to a right-hander, as Paul DeJong discovered:

What makes the pitch so effective? It’s hard to isolate individual characteristics that make breaking balls great, but Smith has a lot of things going in his favor. He locates it well, gets a lot of horizontal break, and disguises his delivery. He works it well off of his fastball, starting both pitches on the same plane. And he throws that fastball just often enough to creep into hitters’ minds. You can’t just commit not to swing and get away with it — Justin Smoak clearly expected slider here:

In essence, the Braves are hoping for an exact repeat of Smith’s last two seasons — a slider-fueled bonanza of strikeouts and protected leads. Nothing about his stats looks fluky: his 2.66 ERA is backed by a 2.71 FIP and 2.75 xFIP. Don’t fool yourself by saying it’s only a stadium effect, either — he’s struck out more than 35% of the opposition, a top 10 rate among all relievers, and the size of the outfield doesn’t matter when the furthest the ball is going is around the horn.

Relievers always carry risk. After all, Smith leans heavily on one pitch, and he only has two years of history at his current magnificent level. But that caveat applies to all relievers, and the upside is real if Smith can continue his recent form. The Braves are locked in a competitive NL East, and every edge they can seize could be the difference between sitting at home in October or hosting a playoff series.

In that context, Smith is a marvelous signing. The Braves aren’t done with their offseason yet, or shouldn’t be — they could use a third baseman to replace Donaldson, and additional starting pitching is never a bad idea. But signing Smith is an excellent opening gambit, and it puts the rest of the East on notice: the Braves know that they still need to improve, and they’re putting their financial flexibility to good use in addressing an area of need.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 years ago

Your free agent article noted that his home state was Florida, but that’s only where he went to Community College. He grew up 40 miles from Atlanta, and that’s where his parents still live, so this was a pretty natural fit. My impression is that the Braves make an effort to sign players from Georgia– Dansby Swanson, Charlie Culberson, Brian McCann, Nick Markakis, etc. (I suppose that means that they could go after Zack Wheeler, then.)

4 years ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

Don’t forget, Nick Markakis grew up in Woodstock, Ga. (not that far from the new stadium) and went to junior college at Young Harris in Ga.

4 years ago
Reply to  Jim

Woodstock… Young Harris… Wood Harris was an actor on The Wire, set in Baltimore, where Markakis began his career. WHOA.

4 years ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

Flowers went to high school in Atlanta too. Nothing fires me up more than a roster full of Georgia boys! Hoping that Drew Waters can be the next great hometown talent.

4 years ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

Dansby is a Marietta guy too don’t forget