Searching for Saves: Mark Melancon vs. Will Smith: Who Should Close For Atlanta?

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Obviously a lot can change between now and Opening Day, and when it comes to planning for closers we all know change seems inevitable. Regardless of who is expected to open the year as the team’s closer, the Braves clearly improved their bullpen with the addition of Will Smith yesterday. A dominant closer in ’19, he is expected to open the year in a setup role:

Who should be the closer, though? Would it really be surprising to see Smith emerge, at some point, regardless of how the team decides to break camp? Let’s take a quick look at the options to determine who truly is the best option:

Mark Melancon

Melancon split time between the Giants (where he actually operated as a setup man to Smith) and Braves compiling these impressive numbers:

67.1 IP, 3.61 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 9.09 K/9, 2.41 BB/9

Melancon has now posted WHIP of 1.32 or higher for three straight seasons, and for the second straight year he’s been hit relatively hard (Hard% of 43.0% and 38.3%). That’s helped lead to some bloated BABIP, including a .349 in ’19. We may want to think it’s luck or that it’s going to improve, but that represents his best mark since 2016.

Throw in a questionable strikeout rate (10.2% SwStr%), especially since it was lower prior to the trade (8.55 K/9 as a Giant) and regressing control (he had a 3.11 BB/9 for San Francisco, which is far more believable than his 0.86 for Atlanta) and does he seem like a good fit to close?

Will Smith

Those who want to be skeptical of Smith will point towards a 1.38 HR/9 and 88.7% strand rate as reason to believe a regression is inevitable. Of course his 42.0% groundball rate isn’t great, but it also isn’t horrific and he appears to be a victim of the power surge around the game (0.99 career HR/9). You also need to be able to make contact for that to be an issue, and after posting a 13.22 K/9 last season it’s easy to say that he’s tough to hit.

The strikeouts came courtesy of a 15.5% SwStr%, the third time in the past four seasons he owned a mark of 14.8% or better. You also have improved control over the past two seasons (BB/9 of 2.55 and 2.89), just adding to the upside.

The home runs generally came against right-handed hitters, which is something that we do need to monitor:

  • vs. RHH – .212/.297/.412
  • vs. LHH – .157/.167/.229

Of course in 2018 right-handed hitters had a SLG of .298 against him, so again it’s not hard to expect an improvement.

Conclusion

While both pitchers can handle the role, there’s a reason Smith was the closer in San Francisco over his former teammate. The Braves can say whatever they want in November (or March for that matter) but when games start things change quickly. If Smith is the better pitcher, and there’s a good chance he is, he will quickly relieve Melancon of ninth inning duties. That should create an ideal buying opportunity for the savvy owner looking to find saves at a minimal price. Don’t be afraid to target Smith if others are overlooking him due to the role perception.

Source – Fangraphs

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