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Will Smith is the best closer in baseball

The competition is stiff, and yet, there he is, right at the top of the leaderboard.

Milwaukee Brewers v San Francisco Giants
Buster Posey transfers long protein strings of greatness to Will Smith. If you can think of a simpler way, I’d like to hear it.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Will Smith does not have the most saves of any closer in baseball. He hasn’t pitched the most innings of any closer, either. Nor does he have the best closer ERA. He doesn’t even have the best fastball. He just has the best results.

Statcast has this thing called xwOBA, which is Expected Weighted On Base Average. It adds exit velocity, launch angle, and sprint speed in concert with the traditional wOBA (Weighted On Base Average) formula. We’ve gone over both xwOBA and wOBA before, but since these aren’t something that come up in every day conversation and it’s important to know what they mean to understand why Will Smith is the best closer in baseball, here’s that wOBA definition one more time:

wOBA is a version of on-base percentage that accounts for how a player reached base -- instead of simply considering whether a player reached base. The value for each method of reaching base is determined by how much that event is worth in relation to projected runs scored (example: a double is worth more than a single).

Hitters are really struggling to do much of anything with Will Smith’s stuff. He has an xwOBA of .208 off of an actual .204. This means that he’s getting a little bit lucky or he’s just a little bit better than the formulas. Either way, that .208 xwOBA leads all pitchers (minimum 50 PA). There’s just not that much quality of contact there.

The top five in xwOBA looks like some of the best arms in baseball right now:

  1. Will Smith - .208
  2. Josh Hader - .217
  3. Kirby Yates - .217
  4. John Gant - .219
  5. Ryan Pressly - .220

Ryan Pressly recently ended a 40-appearance scoreless streak, which set a major league record. He has an 0.66 ERA in 25 games (27.1 IP). Kirby Yates leads baseball in saves with 22 in 26 IP and has faced 100 total batters. Josh Hader is a weird frankencloser, picking up 13 saves in 22 innings, but also two holds and 29.1 innings pitched.

Smith, on the other hand, is basically a traditional closer. He only pitches the ninth and when his team has the lead. The Giants don’t have leads very often, so Smith’s exposure has been minimal (22.2 IP and just 82 batters faced) in his 13 saves. His 2.38 ERA is just seventh out of the top 10 closers.

But again, batters just aren’t squaring him up, and among that top five in xwOBA, check out that same bunch ranked by K/BB:

  1. Ryan Pressly - 16.00
  2. Will Smith - 8.00
  3. Josh Hader - 7.13
  4. Kirby Yates - 5.63
  5. John Gant - 3.78

Umm... okay, so, Ryan Pressly’s a little bit unfair here. That’s ridiculous. BUT! He’s not the closer, so you can’t make the argument that he’s the best closer, even if you think “closer” is an outdated concept. And who is John Gant? He’s not the Cardinals’ closer, that’s for sure.

Knock those guys out and Smith is the best of the closer bunch in terms of limiting free base runners and getting outs without letting balls be put in play, and when there are balls put in play, they’re not being hit very hard.

Yes, Smith’s results are based more on sample size (not just innings, but total batters faced), so the fact that he leads in this main category of quality of contact but not in others like K/9 (Smith: 12.71 vs. #1 Hader: 17.49), K% (Smith: 39.0% vs. Hader: 52.8%), or even BB% (Smith: 4.9% vs. Roberto Osuna: 3.0%) doesn’t quite sell the whole story here, but I’m going to allow it.

The Giants are good at so few things that seeing one of their legitimately great players actually be legitimately better than the rest of the league is a situation worth celebrating, even if it lasts for only a moment and ignores the context of just what kind of pressure Smith is under versus the other closers.

What that means as the trade deadline draws near is that the Giants have one of the premiere relievers available for trade, and if prior years suggest what this year’s trade market for him might be, then Will Smith figures to be a player who can be moved for impact value. In the meantime, let’s just enjoy his relative greatness while we still can.