Will Smith is the kind of good pitcher the Braves need

Lefty Will Smith is a good addition for the Braves not just because he's an effective relief pitcher. It's also that he's the kind of good pitcher the Braves have lacked. They could use more of his type.

Smith strikes out a lot of batters, walks few of them and doesn’t surrender many home runs. Those are the components of Fielding Independent Pitching. They are the so-called Three True Outcomes because they don’t involve defense or luck on balls in play.

The Braves got better when they signed starter Dallas Keuchel at midseason and traded for three relievers. But only closer Mark Melancon ended up posting a low FIP. Smith doesn’t have to walk a tightrope to be effective, which to me is the biggest reason why he is “a great add,” as Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos put it Tuesday

Of course, Anthopoulos has a wider view than just FIP.

"You look at everything," Anthopoulos said at Smith's introductory news conference Tuesday at SunTrust Park. "You look at 'stuff.' You look at the numbers to assess the performance. You are looking at health. There's a million things that go into it.

“Will Smith is one of the best relievers in the game. So, however you want to cut up the numbers, he’s performed at a high level from the left side.”

FIP is the number I like to cut up for pitchers. There are other ways to be effective, but inducing lots of swings and misses while walking few batters is the best way to take base runners and chance out of the equation. The most consistent pitchers do that while also keeping the ball in the park.

That’s Smith’s M.O. His 2.71 FIP is fourth-best among qualified NL relievers over the past two seasons. Smith’s addition is a big deal for a bullpen that posted a FIP that ranked tied for seventh in the NL this year. The Braves ‘pen had the same FIP ranking after adding Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin at the trade deadline.

Melancon had a 1.83 FIP over 21 innings. That’s about a run better than his career norm and he’ll be 35 in March. Greene posted a 3.94 FIP over 24-2/3 IP, which is about par for him. Martin, who the Braves re-signed Tuesday night, had a 1.63 FIP over 17-2/3 innings, which is nearly two runs better than his career mark.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Melancon is an effective reliever but I wonder if he can be as good in 2020 as he was in 2019. Anthopoulos said the Braves still plan to bring back Greene, who is eligible for salary arbitration, but he is what he is. Smith gives the Braves close to a sure thing in their bullpen.

Just four qualified MLB relievers had a better strikeout-to-walk rate than Smith over the past two seasons: Josh Hader, Kirby Yates, Edwin Diaz and Corey Knebel. Among those pitchers, only Yates had a better home run rate allowed than Smith. Only Hader coaxed weaker contact, according to StatCast data.

Pitchers with a long track record of good FIP are valuable. That’s why Smith cost the Braves $40 million over three years. The Braves also forfeited their second-round pick in the 2020 draft to the Giants as compensation and $500,000 in international bonus pool money.

Anthopoulos said he wouldn’t necessarily shy away from signing another free agent with draft-pick compensation attached. They still need a third baseman, catcher and at least one starting pitcher. Anthopoulos said Sean Newcomb, who couldn’t hold down a rotation spot in 2019, will get a chance to fill one of two open spots for 2020.

Unless the free-agent market gets weird again, you can probably forget about the Braves paying big money for the top free-agent pitchers. The likes of Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Hyun-Jin Ryu are in line for longer-term deals with high average value that the Braves avoid. There don’t appear to be many candidates to be low FIP guys among the second-tier starters in free agency, so the Braves would have to swing a trade if they want to add that kind of arm to their rotation.

They need it. This year Mike Soroka ranked ninth in FIP among NL pitchers who logged at least 100 innings. Max Fried ranked 16th. Next on the list was Julio Teheran, at 45th. Keuchel was even lower, which is what happens when a ground-ball pitcher sees a slight uptick in walks and home runs allowed.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Smith isn’t likely to have that problem. Really, the only reason for pause about him is the small sample size of his best work. He was a good pitcher before 2017, but not as good as he’s been since. He came back from surgery as a better pitcher, with a sharp slider that confounds lefties and righties.

“I’m a real big team guy,” he said. “I knew when I blew out that year, it was hard for me, like ‘What am I doing? I can’t help any way now. I can’t play.’ ”

Smith said a pep talk from Giants catcher Buster Posey helped him refocus while sitting out: “He told me it was my responsibility to the team to get better.” For Smith, that meant he would “recreate” his body with grueling sessions in the weight room.

That anecdote speaks at the makeup that Anthopoulos was talking about with Smith. The GM has been good with acquiring players who seem to fit. Now he’s added a pitcher to his bullpen who knows how to post a low FIP. That’s what the Braves needed.