At the top of many Braves fan’s lists for moves the team needed to make this offseason was acquiring a starting pitcher. While the likes of Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman was the type of big splash most were hoping for, Alex Anthopoulos stuck to what has been working for him and went with a high-upside, one-year deal by way of Drew Smyly for $11M.
This tactic has worked well for the Braves the past few years. In 2019 there was a hole at third base and in the middle of the lineup, so AA plugged it up with a 1-year, $23M Josh Donaldson signing which saw Donaldson play 155 games with 37 bombs, a 132 wRC+, and a 4.9 fWAR. In 2020, to replace the power of Donaldson’s bat, AA again reeled in a player on a one year deal. This time it was Marcell Ozuna for $18M, who in the infamous 60 game season of 2020 told Donaldson “anything you can do, I can do better! (except play defense)”, slashing .338/.431/.636, posting a 179 wRC+, lead the NL with 18 home runs, and was two hits shy of the NL Triple Crown.
Now Smyly is a bit of a different animal considering he is a pitcher, where Donaldson and Ozuna are position players. Anthopolous has taken a similar 1-year deal approach with pitchers in his tenure with the Braves, showing mixed results. In 2018 the Braves signed Aníbal Sánchez to a 1-year, $1M contract and Sánchez did not disappoint. After posting a combined ERA of 5.75 and FIP of 5.04 from 2015-2017, in 2018 Sánchez gave the Braves 136 ⅔ innings and posted a 2.83 ERA (tied for 2nd best of his career) and a 3.62 FIP (5th best of his career). In 2019, the Braves signed Dallas Keuchel, 2015 AL Cy Young award winner, in June for $13M. The signing coming 3 months after the season started was a result of the draft-pick compensation attached to Keuchel that was removed after the first-year player draft was completed. Still, Keuchel would go on to make 19 starts over 112 ⅔ innings, posting a 3.75 ERA and 4.72 FIP. Not a Cy Young performance, but serviceable. Was he worth $13M over essentially half a season? Probably not, but the signing was by no means a bust. Finally, in 2020 AA brought in former Philly great Cole Hamels for 1-year, $18M (which was prorated to approximately $6.66M, thankfully). Hamels was overall a bust, battling injury all year and only logging 3 ⅓ innings for the Braves in 2020. On the bright side, Max Fried was able to pick the brain of an established lefty all year long, which might have been conducive to the great 2020 he had, but as it’s near impossible to quantify “veteran presence” we’ll just stick to the idea that the Hamels signing was a bust.
Now that we’ve had a quick refresher of the Braves notable 1-year deals during Anthopoulos’ tenure, how does the Drew Smyly signing compare and what will the end result be?
First off, although the Braves starting pitching staff looked pretty good in the postseason, the regular season saw Braves starters post a combined 2.0 fWAR (26th), 5.51 ERA (28th), 4.98 FIP (23rd), and a 4.87 xFIP (26th). There are quite a few more stats where Braves starters ranked bottom of the barrel, but I’ll get to the point: the Braves starting rotation in 2020 was objectively bad, even with the performances of Max Fried and Ian Anderson. So even with Smyly’s injury history, this is clearly an insurance move for the rotation.
Smyly has had an interesting career of ups and downs. Coming onto the scene with the Tigers in 2012 and being traded to the Rays in 2014, where the Rays worked their analytical magic and Smyly posted a 1.70 ERA and 3.07 FIP in 7 starts. Over the next 5 seasons, Smyly would become progressively worse as he battled injury. He essentially missed all of 2017 and 2018 after injuring himself in the World Baseball Classic and having to undergo Tommy John surgery. Finally returning to Major League Baseball in 2019, Smyly got an opportunity with the Texas Rangers where he posted a horrid 51 ⅓ innings with an 8.42 ERA and 8.05 FIP. After being DFA’d by Texas, Philly took a chance on him and saw a much better version of Smyly that had an ERA of 4.45 and 4.79 FIP over 62 ⅔ innings. Not fantastic, but better.
Then came the latest iteration of Smyly in 2020 by way of the SF Giants. Smyly and the Giants knew something had to change to get back to the dominance he once saw. He dropped the changeup from his arsenal, which he only threw 4.7% of the time, and increased the amount he throws his curveball from 29.2% to 36.5%. He also had a career-high for average fastball velocity in 2020, with his 4-seam at 93.9 mph (best since his rookie year at 92.3 mph) and his cutter at 89.5 mph (again, best since rookie year at 87.3 mph). Focusing on just a 3 pitch repertoire, Smyly saw a drastic improvement in 2020. He tied his 2nd best HR/FB rate with 9.5%, posted his 2nd best ground ball rate at 41.7%, and a by far career-best K/9 at 14.35.
Smyly did have slight injury trouble in 2020, spending about a month on the injured list with a strained finger on his throwing hand, but his performances after the IL stint were objectively better than his starts before being put on the IL (excluding his September start vs Seattle). He only pitched 26 ⅓ innings for the Giants, but with increased velocity, strikeouts, and a 2.01 FIP in 2020, someone would be crazy not to take a chance on Smyly.
Overall, this is a high-ceiling insurance signing for the Braves. With the hopes that Soroka, Fried, and Anderson will stay healthy all year, if Smyly can give them 100+ innings and an ERA below 4 he will be a more than serviceable 4th starter for the Braves. But with that high ceiling, if Smyly stays healthy, don’t be surprised when the playoffs roll around if he’s worked his way up to a number 2 starter in that rotation.
Photo courtesy of the Bay Area News Group
Graphs courtesy of the Baseball Savant