Will Smith’s improvement could force the Dodgers’ hand sooner than expected

Will Smith (Photo: Stacie Wheeler)

The Dodgers are a deep team. They have a Top 2 offense in the National League, and that’s with guys like Enrique Hernandez, A.J. Pollock, Corey Seager and Chris Taylor struggling.

Because of this, they have the luxury of sacrificing some offense behind the plate for defense, which is what they’re doing. Austin Barnes, after a hot start (through April 12), is hitting just .183/.272/.305 in his last 27 games. Overall, he has a .225/.331/.378 line with a 93 wRC+. That, admittedly, isn’t terrible and much better than last season. Couple that with Russell Martin‘s solid .260/.387/.420 with a 123 wRC+ and the Dodgers have a pretty solid duo. Overall, they have the 12th-best fWAR from the catching position. 

But what happens if Barnes continues to trend down, offensively? What happens if Martin’s age (36) catches up to him? He’s already been on the injured list once and probably can’t be used much more than he is because he’ll become less effective.

Will Smith is what happens.

Last year, Smith was hitting well with Double-A Tulsa, and he earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City. To say that stint with OKC was a disaster would be an understatement. He hit a paltry .138/.206/.218. It put a damper on an otherwise successful campaign for the 23-year-old. He began the 2019 season with OKC again and things have completely turned around. Smith is hitting .291/.404/.560 as the Dodgers’ primary catcher.

When he was drafted, he drew comparisons to Barnes as a contact guy with a little pop. Since turning pro, however, he has bought into the Dodgers’ hitting philosophy and become a power-hitting backstop. But with that came an increase in strikeouts. Prior to this season, Smith was a .236 career hitter with a strikeout rate of 23.8 percent. While the strikeouts aren’t down a ton from that (he’s at 21.7 percent this season), the difference is in the batting average, which in turn improves the on-base percentage. Oh, and his walk rate is up more than 3 percent, too.

A dive into Smith’s batted ball numbers show what has changed. Not only is Smith hitting more line drives (26 percent, up a few points from last year), but he’s been more diverse in where he’s hitting pitches. His pull rate last season in Double-A was 56.3 percent and 50.9 percent in Triple-A. This season, Smith has a 38 percent Pull%, with his Center% being the biggest beneficiary — up about 7 percent. Here is all that information in visual form, courtesy of Baseball Savant’s heatmaps.

2018 Heatmap
2019 Heatmap
2018 Hit Heatmap
2019 Hit Heatmap

It seems he’s figuring things out and could force the Dodgers’ hand sooner than expected.

The fact that all three Dodger catchers (mentioned so far) can play multiple positions could make a Smith promotion more feasible than it otherwise would be. Remember, the Dodgers signed Travis d’Arnaud a couple weeks ago with the intention of carrying three catchers because of that versatility and right-handedness. Before being traded to Tampa Bay, shortly after the signing, d’Arnaud was even taking fly balls in left field. Now, the Dodgers are back to carrying two catchers. Bringing up Smith to not only get some seasoning but also in hopes of injecting some offense behind the plate could be in order before too long.

Smith was with the team a bit last September, but not in a playing capacity. He was there to observe and take in the atmosphere. The Dodgers obviously feel like his future is bright or they wouldn’t have done something like that. And while he’s not on the 40-man roster (and Keibert Ruiz is), that doesn’t mean Smith won’t be the first of that pair to make his MLB debut. He’s one of the best defensive catchers in the minors, can play both second and third base (mostly the hot corner), hits for power and has shown marked improvement this year could add up to Smith debuting in the majors soon.

Barnes is a solid catcher, but it’s looking more and more like his 2017 was the outlier. Martin’s best days are behind him, but he can still be valuable in a limited role. Smith’s youth and overall game is intriguing, and I for one cannot wait until he comes up. And when he does, here’s hoping it’s for good.

About Dustin Nosler

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Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.