As a member of the San Francisco Giants back in 2018, Will Smith finally performed in a closing role. He had some opportunities before, but didn’t fare well. However, he locked down 14-of-18 saves that year and solidified himself as the team’s best ninth inning option heading into the 2019 season. If you rostered him in 2019, you might be able to recite his stats off the top of your head, because he was a fantasy goldmine that year. Across 65.1 innings pitched, he went 34-for-38 on save chances and posted a 2.76 ERA with a career best 37.4 percent strikeout rate.
He was one of just seven closers to record at least 34 saves that season, and of those seven arms, his 13.22 K/9 was fourth-best. He entered the 2020 season with high hopes, as he would be a key part of the bullpen for an Atlanta team that expected to win many games. The debate heading into the year was Mark Melancon or Smith? Well, it was the former. Smith didn’t even record a single save, and he blew his only chance of the year.
Smith did spend some time on the injured list due to COVID-19, and since we’ve yet to know the effects of it long-term, we can’t for sure say how much that played into things for Smith in the 2021 season. With many sources stating fatigue and weakness as issues that lingered for those that contracted the virus, it certainly could have played a part in what was arguably his worst season as a reliever.
To be frank, about the only thing Smith did better than recent years was his walk rate. His 6.5 percent walk rate was his lowest mark since 2013. And his slider’s whiff rate of 55.6 percent was its highest mark since it was 61.2 percent back in 2014. Other than those two things, it was a tough year for Smith.
Home runs were an issue in 2019 for Smith as he posted a 1.38 HR/9, and that was a bit abnormal, considering he was below 0.83 each year between 2014-2018. However, in 2020, it jumped to 3.94 HR/9. OUCH! Why though?
Well, a HR/FB rate of 33.3 percent will certainly hurt, especially when you post a career low 30 percent ground ball rate. On top of that, a career-worst 90.2 mph exit velocity with a 15 percent barrel rate will not do you any favors. When you take a look at the exit velocities specifically on fly balls and line drives, harder contact with an elevated launch angle really hurt him.
- 2018 - 92.5 mph
- 2019 - 91.4 mph
- 2020 - 94.8 mph
His first handful of appearances returning from COVID-19 were far worse than his final outings of the season.
First 7.2 IP
Final 8.1 IP
Courtesy of FanGraphs
He was slightly better in the postseason, where he posted a 4.50 ERA across six innings. Now, the walks came back in the postseason (12.5 percent walk rate), but the ground balls were back! He posted a 53.8 percent ground ball rate in the postseason, which is much, much better.
Smith relied on his slider more in 2020 than his four-seamer and the southpaw’s slider certainly does the trick. However, it’s inducing fewer ground balls. For that pitch, so be it, but you would like to see him have a pitch in his repertoire that could even be considered his ground ball specialty. He doesn’t have that, and in fact, his pitches that could sometimes do it, continue to drop.
If you look at some of the ADP’s (per NFBC data) of members of the Braves’ bullpen, well, at least the three potential closer candidates, Smith is going earlier than all of them, signifying that many believe he will be the team’s closer in 2021.
Atlanta might get creative with how they use Smith, so Martin might be the sneaky play for the ninth inning job in Atlanta this season. However, Smith has struck out eight of the first 13 batters he faced in spring training, and has been flat out dominant.
If Atlanta gets cute with Smith, it could be tough for him to accrue enough saves to be one of the more reliable closers in fantasy baseball, but if he continues to strike batters out at an impressive clip, not only can he help your team’s ratios, but he could be uber-valuable in saves + holds formats.