Will Smith’s defensive improvement should earn him more playing time than planned

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had previously offered proclamations about the playing time distribution between young star Will Smith and veteran Austin Barnes in a way that had many fans scratching their heads. Back in Spring Training he raised some eyebrows by giving Smith an assignment of just 90 games, and while Smith is currently on pace for a reasonable 95-100 games, the gap between him and Barnes appears destined to grow wide enough where even that would be worth questioning.

The Dodgers are the class of baseball, and unlike other teams around the league, there are not many position battles for playing time to speak of. However, one of the most apparent position battles on the roster remains at catcher. The Dodgers are fortunate to have a problem of this nature as most teams are incapable of fielding one solid backstop, with most teams fielding defensive specialists or offensive-minded guys who are way behind defensively. At the end of the day, Barnes is at least an average catcher, but Smith has a strong case for being a top-three catcher in all of baseball and should be treated as such.

The Dodgers’ front office is typically excellent at keeping players tuned up and healthy all the while maintaining a certain level of maximization in terms of the roster. I simply do not agree with them here. Standing at 14-5 in sole possession of the best record in the sport, it is truly difficult to have a bone to pick with the way the Dodgers operate, but could they be even better maximized if Will Smith garners more starts? Let’s take a look.

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After tonight’s game, Smith will have received roughly 60% of starts at catcher and plate appearances between him and Barnes. While he is receiving the majority of the time, he isn’t quite getting the ‘lion’s share’.

It’s noteworthy because since Smith made his major league debut in 2019, he has easily been the best offensive catcher in the game. He tops the likes of J.T. Realmuto (115 wRC+) and Yasmani Grandal (119 wRC+), two catchers thought to be the cream of the crop for offense amongst catchers. Smith has smaller of a sample size to speak of, but his career 142 wRC+ since his debut is an undeniably excellent mark regardless. In a larger context, this mark actually places Smith in a tie for the 13th-highest wRC+ in the sport across this timespan, tied with fellow Dodgers Justin Turner and Mookie Betts. He’s that good, folks.

CatcherOPSwRC+
Will Smith.921142
Mitch Garver.878128
Willson Contreras.853125
Yasmani Grandal.820119
Austin Nola.808119
J.T. Realmuto.830115

Smith got off to a tremendous start offensively in 2021, but has lagged ever since. He’s actually been borderline unplayable from an offensive standpoint the past two weeks, posting a 25 wRC+ when you exclude the first four games of the season. Despite the lackluster performance of late, he is still managing a 120 wRC+ on the season. Even with the offensive lag of late, he has been holistically better at the plate than Barnes.

The 31-year-old Barnes has managed a paltry 74 wRC+ for the entire season, which is sort of the point. Barnes is basically an offensive black hole in every sense of the phrase. Since 2019, he has posted a pretty awful 76 wRC+. That’s bad even among catchers, ranking 32nd out of 38 catchers who have gotten at least his amount of playing time. When you look solely at his traditional slash line, things look somehow even more disheartening. How does a .215/.312/.326 line sound? Not great, especially taking into account that the Dodgers have a guy like Smith ready and available.

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Of course, the offensive production doesn’t tell the whole story. The knock on Smith that swings the pendulum slightly back in the favor of Barnes has always been on the defensive side of things.

Barnes has been one of the best catchers in baseball in terms of framing, ranking in the 82nd percentile in that regard in 2019 and in the 96th percentile in 2020. Smith has ranked in the 68th percentile and the 6th percentile in those two years, respectively. However, all things considered, the script could be on the verge of flipping. In 2021, Smith ranks in the 94th percentile in terms of framing, while Barnes has seen a sharp decline down to the 35th percentile. While unlikely to hold exactly in that manner over the rest of the year, it does likely indicate an improvement for Smith as there’s been a decent sample size to make a determination, and if you watch the Dodgers it passes the eye test. Also, while it’s not a huge part of a catcher’s game anymore, Smith’s pop times to second are a tenth of a second faster than Barnes, putting him around average compared to near the bottom.

So if Smith is closing the defensive gap then the canyon between him and Barnes only grows wider, and playing Barnes almost 40 percent of the time has no purpose outside of the rest factor. With key offensive players currently sidelined and every game this season potentially mattering due to the emergence of the Padres, it would make sense for Roberts to lean on Smith more than he is. Not doing so only makes the current lineup situation worse.

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I’m not advocating for running a budding star catcher like Will Smith into the ground. It makes total sense to rest him for when they need him most — October. What I am advocating for, however, is to receive close to 90 percent of the starts that are not Clayton Kershaw‘s. Kershaw has always had a preference for Austin Barnes since A.J. Ellis and Grandal have departed, and of course you want to keep your veteran happy. That makes sense. Giving 90 percent of the starts to Smith when any of Walker Buehler, Trevor Bauer, Dustin May, or Julio Urias are on the mound would amount to about a 72 percent playing time share for Smith. Barnes is certainly a player that is justifiably rostered as a reliable backup. That’s not what is being argued here. Just the playing time distribution hasn’t been quite optimal, in my opinion, for what is a budding perennial All-Star compared to a defensive specialist.

We will have to wait and see how the Dodgers approach the distribution of playing time as the season progresses, but it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers sticking it out with Barnes as much as they are with Smith’s stardom and Keibert Ruiz‘s development coming to a head. As it stands, it seems to only serve the purpose of holding back Will Smith’s ascent.

About Daniel Preciado

Daniel Preciado is a 20-year-old baseball fanatic from Southern California who has been writing about the Dodgers since middle school. He is a sport analytics major and economics minor at Syracuse University, so he supposedly likes to freeze to death instead of the sunshine. Daniel strongly dislikes Kiké Hernandez and pitcher wins -- two things he will absolutely remind you of frequently. You can find him on Twitter @DanJPreciado.