Another game and yet another short outing by a Braves’ starting pitcher on Monday, as Touki Toussaint walked off the mound after just 2.2 innings, allowing eight runs (five earned).
Fortunately, and that’s a colossal understatement at this point, the Braves’ bullpen has been solid in 2020, entering Thursday’s game with a combined 3.41 ERA (second-best in the NL and third-best in MLB).
There’s currently a ton of pressure on Atlanta’s offense, but perhaps even more on the bullpen, as the team tries to finish up the final month of the regular season on top of the NL East (for the third-straight season, by the way).
We examined right-handed reliever Luke Jackson last week, but now let’s look at lefty Will Smith — another piece of the bullpen not exactly having his best season after signing a three-year, $39 million contract last November. Like our profile regarding Jackson, we’ll look at what’s holding Smith back so far in 2020 and discuss what he needs to improve upon to get back to being a primary contributor.
Bring Back The Heat
Now 31-years-old, and currently into his eighth season as a big-league reliever, Smith has revamped his repertoire over the last several seasons, basically doing a 180-degree flip when it comes to the usage of his four-seamer and slider. Once a heavy user of the four-seamer, with his sinker, slider, and curve following far behind as more or less keep-them-honest offerings, Smith now throws his slider more than any other pitch in his arsenal (at 49.4%).
But — and I say this while being plenty aware of just how dominant his slide-piece has been — maybe he shouldn’t…?
Sure, opposing batters hit just .124 against Smith’s slider in 2019, making it the major’s second-best, per FanGraphs‘ Pitch Value; however, that was last season. So far in 2020 (evidently the year of craziness), though, Smith’s slider is getting pummeled to the tune of a 1.077 SLG%, including a hard 94.1 mph average exit velocity. And all the while… his fastball has simply been terrific, limiting opposing batters to a .111 AVG.
Now don’t get me wrong, Smith’s slider is still a go-to pitch for swings and misses (currently generating a ridiculous whiff-rate of 60%), but there’s simply no in-between right now. It’s either swing and miss for a strike… or it’s getting hammered.
Without knowing exactly what he’s doing differently with the pitch, it’s difficult to say with certainty what the issue is with Smith’s slider this season. But according to Statcast, he’s lost about three inches of vertical break and three inches of horizontal movement, which could very well be the problem here. Regardless, until he or someone in the Braves organization can figure it out, perhaps it’s time to start leaning on that mid-90s mph fastball a bit more.
Start Getting Ahead
Like Jackson, Smith is also struggling to get ahead of opposing batters this season, currently throwing a first-pitch strike at just a 48.9% clip — a whopping 13.8% below his career average (the MLB average is 60.6%).
Unlike Jackson, this could be a very significant problem for Smith, given just how consistent he’s always been at getting to 0-1 during his career.
Think about it. One of the filthiest pitches in your arsenal, which allowed you to absolutely dominate last season (and in previous seasons) — just isn’t getting the job done. Now compound that with starting behind in the count almost half of the time. That’s tough to overcome, no matter how good of a reliever you are.
Avoid The Barrel of Bats
Bringing up Jackson again from earlier, one thing that appears to be his saving grace is that he’s still doing a fantastic job of avoiding the sweet spot of opposing hitter’s bats, currently maintaining one of the major’s best Barrel%.
Smith hasn’t been so fortunate…
Entering Thursday’s game, opposing batters are barreling up Smith’s pitches at a rate of 19.2% — almost 13.5% more frequently than his career norm (5.8%). Obviously, all of those barrels are resulting in a ton of hard contact, and if Smith’s innings total actually qualified, his current 50% HardHit% would be one of the five-highest hard-hit rates in all of baseball.
So it’s going to take him walking that fine line that virtually all pitchers try to walk: try to get ahead in the count but do so without hanging around the strike zone too much, especially the heart of the plate (where batters can square up the ball). It doesn’t help either that Smith’s generating the lowest chase-rate of his career (29.1%), giving him very little wiggle room to work with. But hopefully, he can at least remedy his problems with first-pitch strikes.
I’ll admit, I’m a little more concerned about Smith than I am Jackson. The former’s last five appearances have featured five runs in 5.1 innings, including four home runs.
And what’s even more worrisome is the fact that all of Smith’s struggles so far have come primarily during low-leverage situations (consuming 4.1 of his 9.2 innings in 2020). The Braves didn’t hand out $40 million to pitch him in blowouts or during early-game leads. Smith was signed to hold games in the late-innings, get the team out of jams, and even convert saves from time to time. He’s going to have to figure out a way to return to his 2019 form, and fast, as the Braves play out the final month of the regular season.
However, we’re still talking about less than 10 innings. The sample size is still ridiculously small, and given the circumstances of the 2020 season along with the fact that Smith dealt with a COVID infection, perhaps it’s still way too early to panic. He will most likely be fine, but one thing’s for sure… he better turn it around for the playoffs