No backup catcher? Dave Roberts sees Will Smith and Austin Barnes as ‘1 and 1A’
In February, the MLB Network unveiled its annual list of the top 100 active players. The Dodgers placed nine in the top 50. The ninth was catcher Will Smith at No. 50. He was the third catcher in the selective group, behind just J.T. Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal, veteran backstops who recently signed huge contracts.
But the Dodgers didn’t consider Smith the best option on their own team for the majority of their most important games in October. Austin Barnes, not Smith, started four of the Dodgers’ six World Series games behind the plate. Smith started those four as the designated hitter and the other two at catcher.
The reason? Smith was a more potent offensive threat, but his ability to handle the pitching staff lagged. The Dodgers trusted Barnes’ receiving, framing and pitch-calling more. Barnes went just two for 13 in the World Series, but the Dodgers didn’t need significant offensive production from him. He did his job and was the one who caught Julio Urías’ championship-clinching pitch.
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“It’s being confident in my opinions and what fingers I’m putting down, and it’s having a reason for what I’m calling and what I see, what I communicate to [the pitchers],” Smith said in a video conference with reporters Friday.
“It’s just being confident because they, yeah, it’s a veteran staff, they know what they’re doing, but at the same time, they run into times where they don’t know exactly what they want to do to this certain guy or what to throw. It’s just being there and earning their trust in those situations.”
Without the designated hitter in the National League this year, the Dodgers will need to choose between Smith and Barnes every day — unless one is tapped to play an infield position, which both have experience doing. Smith is expected to start more games, as he did leading up to the World Series, but manager Dave Roberts said the line between the two is blurred.
“If you look at timeshare, I guess [Barnes is] a backup, but I don’t see it as such,” Roberts said. “I think it’s a 1 and 1A. They’re both very valuable, and I think that we’ve done a good job of using both of them and exploiting strengths and things to help us win baseball games.
“I just don’t want Austin to come into this season as a backup because, clearly, in the postseason, yeah, we leaned on him.”
The scouting report when Smith was rising through the Dodgers’ farm system, from the Dodgers themselves, was that his defense was ahead of his offense. That’s flipped in the 25-year-old’s short time in the majors.
Smith slugged 15 home runs in 196 plate appearances when he broke into the majors during the regular season in 2019. Last year, despite bouts of bad luck, he clubbed eight home runs and recorded a .980 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the shortened regular season while his strikeout rate plummeted from 26.5% to 16.1%.
In the playoffs, he went five for six against the San Diego Padres in Game 3 of the National League Division Series. His three-run home run in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, with the Dodgers facing a 3-1 series deficit against the Atlanta Braves, might have saved his team’s season.
The early returns suggest he is already one of the best offensive catchers in baseball. His 144 wRC+ is the best among catchers with at least 300 regular-season plate appearances since 2019. His 23 home runs are tied for 11th, and the 10 players ahead of him had at least 107 more plate appearances. He is an offensive weapon at a position where there’s a dearth of offensive prowess across the majors.
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“It’s huge,” Roberts said. “Especially when you’re talking about our ballclub, the length of lineup and have a guy that’s really elite back behind the plate and to feel comfortable hitting him somewhere in the middle of the order, versus right, versus left, is certainly a luxury.”
In October, however, the Dodgers didn’t consider the luxury enough to overcome Smith’s deficiencies. Smith is working to make sure that changes if the Dodgers reach that stage again.
“I’ve definitely learned a whole bunch the last couple of years,” Smith said, “but I’m still learning.”
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