The Braves were able to pull out the victory Tuesday night over the Phillies, but once again, it wasn’t because of Drew Smyly, whose struggles this season continued. The lefty was only able to make it through 4.1 innings, allowing three runs, two of which were earned, on five hits and three walks without recording a strikeout. It certainly wasn’t the worst outing of the season, but it was yet another underwhelming performance for one of the Braves’ most significant free-agent signings from this past offseason, and it’s time to cut the cord — at least as a starter.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to think when the Braves raced out of the gate to ink Smyly to a one-year, $11 million deal right as free agency began, but I like to give Alex Anthopoulos — and GMs in general — the benefit of the doubt. However, perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to do so, especially when you consider Anthopulos’ track record when it comes to signing pitchers in free agency.
Smyly was once a promising young piece in the American League that experienced plenty of success as both a starter and reliever before the age of 25, but arm injuries derailed what looked to be an auspicious career. He finally returned in 2019 but posted a gaudy 6.24 ERA in 25 appearances (21 starts) between two different teams. However, in 2020, Smyly looked like the pitcher who excelled in his younger years, posting a 3.42 ERA with outstanding peripherals.
Smyly boasted a FIP of 2.01 and xFIP of 2.56, suggesting he was a bit unlucky. He also posted a ridiculous K/9 of 14.5 to go along with a fantastic groundball rate of 41.7% and an even better home-run to fly-ball ratio of 9.5%. It sounds like a guy who is worth a $10+ million contract, right? Well, not when you consider the sample size. Smyly only appeared seven times in 2020, five of which were starts, resulting in 26.1 innings completed. We now know offering him that kind of money was an egregious mistake, and the advanced analytics back that up.
Entering last night’s game, Smyly was in the bottom 30% of nearly every meaningful analytical stat for starting pitchers. Take a look:
- Bottom 31% in Whiff Rate
- Bottom 30% in K%
- Bottom 13% in Average Exit Velocity
- Bottom 12% in xBA
- Bottom 8% in Barrel %
- Bottom 7% in xERA
- Bottom 7% in xwOBA
- Bottom 5% in Hard Hit %
- Bottom 4% in xSLG
Braves fans are already well aware of this from simply watching the games, but the advanced analytics confirm it — Smyly has been one of the worst pitchers in the majors. However, there’s no reason for Atlanta to panic. The Braves have options, and it’s time for them to start using them every five days.
Tucker Davidson has been marvelous in his first two starts with Atlanta this season, and he’s been even better in Gwinnett, posting a 0.90 ERA for the Stripers over 20 frames with 23 strikeouts. Davidson is scheduled to start for the Braves today in Game 2 against the Phillies. If he thrives again, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be a permanent member of the rotation in Atlanta.
Bryse Wilson has also shown plenty of promise this year, particularly in his last two starts with the Braves, where he has allowed just three earned runs over 12.2 innings. His Gwinnett numbers haven’t been nearly as impressive as Davidson’s, but this is a 23-year-old that has flashed plenty of potential. At this point, I would much rather see him attempt to figure it out at the major-league level than continue watching Smyly flounder.
But this doesn’t mean I think the Braves should totally abandon Smyly. He cannot be trusted as a starter, but perhaps he could help out the bullpen. He’s been successful in that role before, posting a 2.37 in 63 relief appearances for the Tigers in 2013. Sure, that was a while ago, but Smyly’s numbers each time through the order paint a very clear picture.
1st time through the order – 4.50 ERA, 3.70 xFIP
2nd time through the order – 6.05 ERA, 6.03 xFIP
3rd time through the order – 8.38 ERA, 6.57 xFIP
This is no longer a minuscule sample size, either. It’s overwhelmingly apparent each time out the longer he stays on the mound, the greater the liability he becomes. It’s time for the Braves to give some of their young arms several opportunities and move Smyly to the bullpen, where he might have some more success. If he can’t figure it out there, eventually, the Braves will have to cut the cord completely.