The often criticized Atlanta Braves pitcher looks to be heading into 2022 as the team’s closer again.
The Atlanta Braves owe much of their 2021 World Series title to the late-season surge of their bullpen.
Affectionately called “The Night Shift”, the unit of Luke Jackson, AJ Minter, Tyler Matzek, and Will Smith dominated during the postseason, combining for over 46 innings, 12 earned runs, and 59 strikeouts.
Smith was especially great in October/November. He earned six saves and did not allow a single run in any game he pitched in. He will forever be known as the pitcher who induced a Yuli Guerriel groundball to secure Atlanta’s first World Series in 26 years.
Prior to the postseason, however, things were pretty dicey for the Newnan, GA native.
Expectations were high for Will Smith in 2021, as he entered the second year of a three-year, $40 million contract he signed back in November 2019. He was entering the year as the team’s new closer after Mark Melancon departed in free agency for the San Diego Padres. He looked to be sharp early on, as he struck out the side on Opening Day against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Things got messy as the season went on. By the end of May, Smith had an ERA of 4.50, allowed 9 earned runs in 20 innings, and walked eight batters.
Some Braves fans (including myself) were calling for Smith to be removed from the closer role. Anytime his name was announced out of the ‘pen, Braves country held their collective breath that a ninth-inning lead would remain after he was done pitching.
After a pretty rough August, Smith got rolling in September when each game had a higher importance for the Braves. He shut down the Phillies on September 30th to help the Braves clinch a fourth straight NL East division title and continued that dominance all the way through the postseason.
Overall, Smith finished 2021 with a 3.44 ERA, a career-high 37 saves, 68 innings pitched, and 87 strikeouts.
How will Smith fare in 2022?
It appears as if Smith will remain the team’s closer for the upcoming season based on his production last year, and he should be. He is the most experienced closer on the team and performed well in big situations last season.
Part of what makes Smith dangerous in the ninth is his slider. According to Baseball Savant, batters only hit .124 against it in 2021 (an xBA of .095). He picked up 54 strikeouts and a 49.1% whiff rate off of the slider as well.
2022 will ultimately be a contract year for the closer. Atlanta does have a 2023 option for Smith, but his performance at the end of the year will determine whether or not the team picks up that option.
5-4 record, 3.55 ERA, 30 saves, 65 IP, 76 Ks
2022 should set up to be a great year for the Braves’ bullpen, and with Smith and the rest of the Night Shift leading the way, good luck to opposing hitters next season.