Though the experience was everything but fun, Will Smith had little choice but to chuckle as he and his fellow Braves relievers became more baffled by the longball woes he endured last year.
“In the beginning, it was very hard to laugh at, but we had such a good group of guys down there,” Smith said. “You’d turn the corner and there’s Darren [O’Day], [Shane] Greene, [Tyler] Matzek, all the guys, and they’re like, ‘What’s going on buddy?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know either.’ We kind of laughed about it. But I was obviously trying to not have it happen every outing.”
While it didn’t happen every outing, it might have started to feel that way for Smith as he watched eight of the 13 hits he surrendered (postseason included) clear the outfield wall. Opponents went just 13-for-79 against him and produced just a 8.1 percent walk rate. The .233 on-base percentage he surrendered indicates a pretty successful season, until you factor in that a home run accounted for 40 percent (8-of-20) of the baserunners he allowed last year.
The home runs also accounted for eight of the 11 runs he surrendered while totaling 22 innings over the regular season and playoffs.
Bad luck seemed to play a part in the creation of this uniquely frustrating season. So too did the fact a positive COVID-19 test led to Smith spending nearly all of July restricted to throwing by himself in his backyard.
While acknowledging last year’s enhanced challenge, Smith takes full responsibility for the troubles he experienced while completing the first season of the three-year, $39 million contract he’d signed with the hometown Braves in November 2019.
“I take pride being a good self-evaluator and I didn’t think I was very good last year,” Smith said. “I wanted to prove myself and show these guys what I could do. Coming back from the COVID and trying to do too much too soon, I kind of fell in that trap. But once I relaxed and calmed down, I felt like I started getting outs. The balls just kept leaving the park.”
Though he was never symptomatic, Smith missed all of Summer Camp because he couldn’t generate a negative COVID-19 test. He was cleared to begin working out at the team’s alternate training site on July 26 and he was added to Atlanta’s roster two weeks later.
Given the accelerated preparations, nobody panicked when Smith allowed seven hits, including four home runs, over 7 2/3 innings in August. Two of those homers were hit during an Aug. 30 win over the Phillies.
But with time running out on the regular season, there was seemingly reason to become concerned once Smith allowed two more homers through his first three September appearances. He exited Sept. 11 having allowed six homers over 10 2/3 innings. This was uncharted territory for a guy who entered this shortened season having allowed 0.99 home runs per nine innings during his career.
Instead of continuing to spiral, Smith found a groove and limited opponents to just four more hits over the 11 1/3 innings he totaled from Sept. 12 through the end of the postseason. Just two of those hits were homers. But unfortunately, one of those was the go-ahead, three-run shot hit by the Dodgers' catcher of the same name in the sixth inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.
Smith hit his Series-shifting home run against a 3-2 fastball. But the more troubling pitch for Smith last year was his usually-reliable slider. Opponents hit .263 (5-for-19) with three homers and a .737 slugging percentage against that pitch in 2020. They hit just .124 (15-for-121) with four homers and a .240 SLG against it in '19.
“It’s just such a feel pitch for me,” Smith said. “It’s kind of hard to throw it in your backyard and baby it. There’s no catcher. There’s no hitter. It’s just kind of hard to feel for it. Toward the end of the season, seeing consistent big league hitters and getting real reactions out of them, they were telling me whether it was good or bad. Toward the end of the season, I thought it started to get good.”
As Smith prepares for his second season with the Braves, the current expectation is that he will serve as the team’s primary closer, a role he capably filled when he notched 34 saves for the Giants during his 2019 All-Star season.
But being assigned a role doesn’t appear to be a concern for Smith, who is just enjoying the opportunity to once again make normal preparations.
“It’s cool being the guy who gets to shake the catcher’s hand at the end of the game,” Smith said. “But if we win and I throw in the seventh or eighth inning, I really don’t care, as long as we get the win. Whoever gets those last three outs, let’s do it. We’re trying to get as many wins as possible. I think if you check your ego at the door every day and go get your three outs, you’ll have a successful bullpen.”