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Why the Dodgers feel their catchers won’t let them down this postseason

Dodgers catcher Will Smith throws during a game against the Padres.
Dodgers catcher Will Smith finished the regular season with a .980 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, second best among MLB catchers.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

The Dodgers will open the postseason against the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday as favorites to win the World Series. They won 43 of 60 regular-season games. They scored the most runs in the majors and had the best team ERA.

They were a juggernaut, strong in every department. That includes catcher — so much so that the team will likely start Will Smith at designated hitter in games Austin Barnes catches Clayton Kershaw and could carry a third backstop on the roster as a safety net on those days. It’s the best the Dodgers feel about the position since they fell one game short of winning the 2017 World Series.

The bar is low. To say the position has been a problem for Los Angeles the last two postseasons is an understatement.

In 2018, the streaky Yasmani Grandal was one of the sport’s best catchers during the regular season, but his offensive and defensive meltdowns in the playoffs forced the club to bench him in the NLCS and start Barnes, who batted .205 with a .619 OPS during the regular season. Grandal went 4 for 28 with 15 strikeouts. Barnes went 2 for 29 with 14 strikeouts.

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The Dodgers finish the regular season with the best record in MLB with a 5-0 win over the Angels. Walker Buehler named starter for Game 1 of wild-card round.

Last year, Barnes struggled enough to get sent to the minors, and Smith, then a rookie, seized the bulk of the playing time. Smith slugged 15 home runs in 54 games during the regular season but went 1 for 13 with five strikeouts in four playoff starts. Barnes didn’t make the playoff roster.

The best a Dodgers catcher played in the last two postseasons was Russell Martin in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Washington Nationals last year. He went 2 for 4 with a double and a home run. It was the only time he got on the field in the series.

In all, Dodgers catchers batted .129 with a .485 OPS in 21 games in the two playoff runs.

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Austin Barnes connects for a two-run double against the San Francisco Giants on Aug. 27.
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)

“I think this is as confident as we’ve been with the catching situation,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “And not to take anything away from Yasmani, I think that both our guys are playing really good baseball leading up to it; behind the plate, in the batter’s box, giving good at-bats, I think the net is really good and I have confidence in both those guys on both sides of the baseball.”

Smith, 25, finished second among catchers with a .980 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and tied for fifth with eight home runs. His improvement was tied to his drastically improved plate discipline.

Last year, Smith had a 9.2% walk rate and swung at 24.9% of pitches out of the strike zone. This year, the walk rate climbed to 14.6% and the chase rate dropped to 17.5%. As a result, his strikeout rate plunged from 26.5% to 16.1% and his barreled ball rate jumped from 6.6% to 8.8% — second-best on the Dodgers.

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“He has dedicated himself to understanding what the pitcher’s trying to do to him,” Dodgers co-hitting coach Brant Brown said. “Understanding that he is looking at certain pitches, certain areas, and if they’re not there, to lay off. And if the pitcher is able to really dot a pitch that is going to be tough to hit anyway, you understand the risk and the reward. He’s doing an excellent job of doing that.

“I feel like coming into a second year here, he’s a little bit more comfortable,” Brown added. “We did some things in the offseason. Did some deep dives on what makes him special. What his body likes and doesn’t. He’s been consistent with that in his process, his routine each and every day. But it’s really special to watch.”

The 30-year-old Barnes, meanwhile, rebounded from a dreadful 2019 season to become a more than serviceable backup. He posted a .353 on-base percentage in 104 plate appearances, and remains Kershaw’s preferred backstop.

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The combination, with a cameo from prospect Keibert Ruiz, produced the sixth-best OPS (.824) among catching groups in the majors. It was a strength in the regular season. Time will tell if it will continue as one when the stakes are the highest.


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