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Will Smith’s Improvement, Something Meaningful?

By altering his pitch repertoire, the veteran left-hander has possibly transformed back into a trustworthy reliever.

MLB: Houston Astros at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

When the Astros traded Jake Odorizzi to the Braves for lefty reliever Will Smith on August 2, I initially had two thoughts about the swap. The primary objective was arguably financially motivated as this transaction shipped off Odorizzi’s 2023 player option to Atlanta, which, if exercised, would pay him $6.5 million. If he chose not to exercise it and look for a more significant payday elsewhere on the open market, he would still receive $3.5 million in a buyout. On the other hand, Smith is only owed the balance of his $13 million for 2022, and the Astros will likely elect not to exercise his $13 million club option for 2023, which instead turns into a $1 million buyout.

The second consideration about the trade was that it opened a coveted spot in the starting rotation, which, at times, has run about seven deep. While Odorizzi was serviceable as the fourth/fifth starter type, with a roster flushed with pitching, it made sense to trade him to help clear the logjam. It also allowed top pitching prospect, Hunter Brown, to get his feet wet in the majors this September.

However, at the time, I wondered what the Astros saw in Smith to prompt them to trade for him, even if other motivating factors were involved. Considering his overall struggles with the Braves this season — 4.38 ERA/5.22 FIP and 11.7% K-BB% — I wasn’t necessarily sold on the Astros “fixing” Smith in the short-term, despite the organization’s reputation. While Smith’s numbers against left-handed hitters in Atlanta were enticing — .304 wOBA and .275 xwOBA — it doesn’t help in today’s three-hitter minimum when that same left-handed reliever posts a .343 wOBA and .329 xwOBA against right-handed hitters.

But with Dusty Baker’s preference for having at least one lefty reliever on the active roster, Smith’s addition made some sense as Blake Taylor and Parker Mushinski were the only other left-handers on the 40-man roster, with the former missing most of the season due to injury. If the Astros had to carry a left-handed reliever in the postseason, even with his overall struggles, Smith was likely a preferable choice over Taylor and Mushinski. Postseason experience has to count for something, right?

Thankfully, Smith’s performance with the Astros has primarily been positive, as evidenced by his 2.79 ERA/3.11 FIP in 19 13 innings entering Sunday. For context, his 4.38 ERA/5.22 FIP with the Braves came about in 37 innings of work. A key difference on the surface between his time in Houston versus Atlanta lies within his declining walk rate since the trade.

In a season when Smith’s total season strikeout rate (24.2%) would be his worst since his debut in 2012, a higher walk rate has spelled trouble for the veteran lefty. From a macro viewpoint, for Smith’s future performance, his walk rate with Houston will have to remain low. If not, I don’t have much faith in his ability to produce positive results. But highlighting his falling walk rate is only part of the explanation with Smith and his improvement since landing with the Astros. What has changed specifically to allow these better results to materialize?

Smith has basically ditched his worst pitch — curveball — in nearly all situations, especially against right-handed hitters. To help you better gauge how he utilizes it, he has only thrown six curveballs to left-handed hitters all season. Before the trade, Smith threw his curveball 15.7% of the time when a right-handed hitter was at the plate. Since then? Down to 6.8% entering Sunday. Even though it was a pitch that has historically served him well throughout his career, his curveball has betrayed Smith in Shakespearean fashion this season with a .833 batting average and 2.167 slugging percentage against those same right-handed hitters. It is clear why the Astros recommended he essentially drop the pitch from his arsenal, minus the occasional appearance.

In turn, Smith’s four-seam fastball and slider, an already solid combination against left-handed hitters with a combined .276 wOBA and .269 xwOBA this season, has received greater emphasis against right-handed hitters. His slider, in particular, has been reasonably effective against right-handed hitters this season as its metrics — .290 wOBA and .229 xwOBA — are a step forward compared to his curveball with its 1.257 wOBA and .880 xwOBA.

It also helps that Smith has leaned away from his curveball in counts that favor opposing right-handed hitters. For example, to start the season in April, Smith threw his curveball at nearly the same rate (19.4%) in those counts compared to his slider (22.6%). He would gradually phase out his curveball in those situations as the season continued considering how opposing hitters were teeing off with a 2.068 wOBA. Sure, the metrics for pitchers trailing in the count are never good, but that is a different level of bad. Interestingly enough, Smith briefly flirted with the idea in June of using his slider more than his fastball when trailing in the count before completely reversing the trend starting in July when still with the Braves. This trend has only continued with the Astros.

With the Astros, opposing left-handed hitters have posted only a .232 wOBA and .261 xwOBA against Smith, which is a welcoming development for the southpaw. Focusing more on his slider, with its usage rate increasing by 10% from 56.3% in July to slightly over 66% in August and September, has helped re-establish Smith as a potentially valuable option against left-handed hitters. Against right-handed relievers, his figures are possibly in a position to improve if a .405 wOBA and .272 xwOBA are any guides. The jury is still out on whether these changes are significant, although the case is becoming more hopeful. At this point, I’d be pretty surprised if Smith isn’t included on the postseason roster for as long as the Astros remain in the chase.