The Houston Astros remained active deep into the night on Monday, swapping veterans with the Braves and acquiring Will Smith for Jake Odorizzi.
GM James Click and the front office struck again on the trade front on Monday night, acquiring left-handed reliever Will Smith from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi. While the deal is still not official at the time of writing, it was first reported by Fox’s Mark Berman.
Yes, that is the same Will Smith that recorded the final out of the 2021 World Series at Minute Maid Park for Atlanta. He is now the first left-hander in Houston’s bullpen and was traded just hours after reports surfaced that the Astros were aggressively chasing Detroit’s Gregory Soto. Soto has been better than Smith this year, but he is under team control beyond next year and would have cost far more young talent to acquire.
It may seem confusing as to why the Braves, a team that is close to catching the New York Mets for first place in their division, would trade a left-handed reliever, but they already have two others in A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek. Besides, Smith hasn’t had a great season: just a year after making 37 saves and closing out an additional 23 games, he was demoted to a lesser role in the bullpen by default after the team acquired Kenley Jansen and things haven’t gone smoothly. He has a 4.38 ERA, 5.23 FIP, and 1.51 WHIP through 37 innings so far.
The main culprit for Smith’s subpar performance has been walks. He is walking batters at easily the highest rate of his career so far at 5.1 per 9 innings. That’s nearly a 40% increase compared to his walk rate from a season ago. However, a look at his peripheral numbers indicates why the Astros acquired him (see his Statcast page here). His Statcast xERA is 3.94, and his actual batting average against of .236 is higher than expected (.220). In fact, Smith is giving up the exact same amount of quality contact as he was last year: his .357 xwOBA against on balls in play is identical to 2021, and his exit velocity, barrel rates, and hard hit rates are all down from last year. He has had a tumultuous 2022, but at least it’s clear that there’s only one significant problem that he needs to fix.
Even so, that problem may not be as bad as the surface numbers say. According to Statcast, he is hitting the strike zone and getting batters to chase pitches at a higher rate than last year, and while the difference is miniscule, batters are making less contact when they swing at his pitches that land outside the strike zone than they did in 2021.
Smith saved the Braves an estimated 14 runs last year on pitches that landed in the shadow of the strike zone, and this year, he’s on pace for about half that. His called strike rate has decreased 2% while his swing rate on pitches in the zone has only increased 1%. Of course, this can be partially explained by batters making more contact (he is throwing considerably more pitches right down the middle than last year because he’s falling behind in counts, and his home run rate has increased slightly as a result), but the difference in called strike rate and zone swing rate tells us something else. There is truth to the notion that Smith has been simply getting some bad luck from umpires this year. While that should be taken with a grain of salt since it’s justified by strike zone stats which are subjective depending on their source, I believe it’s part of the reason for his bloated walk totals.
On the flip side of this deal, the Astros clearly didn’t want to use prospects to get a left-handed reliever after giving away 3 earlier in the day, so they simply used Jake Odorizzi instead. In 60 innings this year, Odorizzi has put up a 3.75 ERA and a 3.62 FIP and figures to slot in at the back end of Atlanta’s rotation. He finishes his Astros tenure with a 4.04 ERA in 35 starts, which is a perfectly reasonable number for a fifth starter. The writing seemed to be on the wall regarding his time in Houston given their surplus in the rotation, but during his time as an Astro, Odorizzi did exactly what his role demanded.
Odorizzi is having a better year than Smith when considering their respective expectations going into it, but from a raw economical standpoint, this move makes perfect sense for the Astros: acquiring an area of need (left-handed relief pitching) by subtracting from an area of surplus (starting pitching). This may change before the deadline, but in all, the Astros have acquired a first baseman, a catcher, and a southpaw for the bullpen without giving up any young pitching on their MLB roster. When digging further into his season, it’s obvious that the analytics department sees something in Will Smith, and whether or not he turns his season around in Houston could be key to their postseason success.