Image Copyright: Curtis Compton
I was left a little surprised with one of the first moves the Braves made in the 2020 offseason: the signing of pitcher Drew Smyly, formerly of the San Francisco Giants, to a 1-year deal worth $11 million. Smyly has had an up and down career, having an incredible FIP of 2.01 in the 2020 season, but an ERA of over 6 just two seasons ago. I am not only intrigued about how the Braves will employ Smyly, as he has pitched effectively as both a starter and a reliever, but also how he will perform. If you have these same curiosities as I did, I hope I can assist you in learning to love the signing of Drew Smyly.
Everyone remembers the decimation that faced our rotation last season, and the signing of a versatile pitcher like Smyly will help add depth to a rotation that desperately needs it. However, if they all earn their spots, I do think the Braves would ideally build their rotation off their young stars of Max Fried, Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, and Bryse Wilson, with Charlie Morton being worked in the rotation as well. In this scenario, I see Smyly getting starts from time to time, or maybe being used as an opener in a playoff game, but primarily being used out of the bullpen. The bullpen may need his arm, with the loss of Mark Melancon, the fact that Shane Greene remains unsigned, and Carl Edwards Jr.’s decision to opt-out of his contract. However, the world is not necessarily ideal; there exists uncertainty about Soroka after his injury, future injuries to our staff will occur, and many are skeptical about whether Wilson and Wright will pan out, so there will certainly be room for Smyly to make plenty of starts this season. Hence, I see Smyly being used in a versatile way, as he can start or come out of the bullpen whenever needed.
For Smyly’s actual performance, I am very excited. After looking into his numbers, I believe that he is one of the league’s forgotten strikeout aces; he posted a 14.4 K/9 while ranking in the 97th percentile in strikeout rate and the 89th percentile in whiff rate in 2020, per Baseball Savant. I am excited for this aspect of his game, as it will pose a sharp contrast for opposing teams after facing the weak contact-inducing pitchers of Max Fried and Mike Soroka. While his strikeout numbers are jaw-dropping, there is an asterisk around his game: he ranked in the 13th percentile in average exit velocity allowed and the 11th in hard-hit percentage allowed. Smyly will be a very hit or miss payer; batters will not often make contact with his swing and miss stuff, but it will be dangerous for the Braves when they do. This approach worked well for him in the shortened season last year, as he ranked in the 67th percentile in both expected ERA and expected wOBA, but we must remain patient to see if this trend continues over the duration of a full season.
Smyly’s game certainly brings excitement to the team, but it also brings some questions. I am glad we signed him, as he will contribute to the team in one way or another, but I am unsure of how he will. Smyly has proven that batters struggle to make contact with his pitches, and he can certainly earn a spot in our rotation if he limits the amount of hard contact against him; he will definitely have the chance to earn his spot, as he will be slated to start at the beginning of the season while Soroka remains on the IL. I think he will best be served in a Josh Hader-like, high leverage, multi-inning bullpen role where he can strikeout as many batters as possible without having to worry about going as deep into the game as possible. He is more similar to Hader than it ostensibly appears; after all, one of the only pitchers that rivaled Smyly’s absurd 14.4 K/9 last year was Hader, with a K/9 at 14.7. Regardless of how Smyly contributes to the Braves, Braves Country should be excited to watch him make batters look foolish swinging and missing when he takes the mound.