How the Dodgers’ Will Smith became one of baseball’s best catchers

Dodgers catcher Will Smith speaks to the media Monday in preparation for the All-Star Game in Seattle.
Dodgers catcher Will Smith speaks to the media Monday during All-Star festivities. Smith made the All-Star Game for the first time.
(Steph Chambers / Getty Images)
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When the final out of the 2020 World Series was recorded, Will Smith was on the Dodgers’ bench.

A year and a half into his big league career, it was clear Smith was the team’s catcher of the future. During the pandemic-shortened season, he was perhaps the Dodgers’ most productive bat.

But at just 25 years old, and still relatively new to a position he started playing regularly only in college, Smith wasn’t ready to be the full-time backstop.


Will Smith is selected as a reserve for the National League team. Clayton Kershaw is one of the NL’s pitchers for the July 11 game in Seattle.

July 2, 2023

He shared catching duties with Austin Barnes, starting 31 of the 60 games behind the plate. He moved into more of a designated hitting role by the end of that postseason, catching only three of the Dodgers’ final eight playoff games.

His impact that October was crucial nonetheless, highlighted by a memorable home run — and instant trivia question answer — off Will Smith, the Atlanta Braves pitcher, that spurred the Dodgers’ comeback from a three-games-to-one deficit in the National League Championship Series.

But once the Fall Classic was complete, Smith started concentrating on the deficiencies in his game, from poorly-rated pitch framing to inconsistent defense to a nascent understanding of how to manage the experienced pitching staff through high-pressure moments.

“That’s all internal motivation,” Smith said this week as he prepared for his first All-Star Game. “It makes you realize that, yeah, I need to get a little better at these aspects of the game. And that’s what I started doing. I started to really learn, when it comes to the game calling and all that. It just takes time.”

Three years later, Smith’s time has arrived.

Smith, 28, has grown into one of the top hitters in the majors — he ranks 11th with an .890 on-base-plus-slugging percentage — while his status as one of baseball’s best catchers also has been cemented.

Dodgers' Will Smith, right, celebrates his home run with Freddie Freeman against the Chicago White Sox on June 13, 2023.
Dodgers catcher Will Smith, right, is congratulated by Freddie Freeman after hitting a two-run home run against the Chicago White Sox on June 13. Smith has the highest on-base-plus-slugging percentage for a catcher in the majors this season.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Where he once split time behind the plate, this year he has been the Dodgers’ starting catcher in a career-high 75% of games (excluding the two weeks he missed with a concussion).

Where his defensive metrics once underwhelmed, he now ranks sixth at the position in runs saved.

Most importantly, he has emerged as an anchor for the pitching staff, earning rave reviews from veterans like Clayton Kershaw to rookies like Bobby Miller.

“What he does offensively, as well as doing what we need to do with the pitching staff and taking pride in that,” Kershaw said, “he makes it look easy.”

“I trust Will behind the plate,” Miller said, shortly after his impressive debut. “I didn’t shake him off at all, and he took me to the promised land.”

Smith wants to help the Dodgers get back to the promised land too, determined to not only win a second World Series, but also be the one to catch the final out.


“It’s hard to break into that [conversation of] who is the best catcher in the game. Ultimately, he is one of the best catchers now, if not the best one.”

— Clayton Kershaw, on Will Smith

“I do think, yeah, he probably had some disappointment that he wasn’t behind the plate every game [during the 2020 playoffs],” manager Dave Roberts said. But, the skipper added, “There’s always a point where a young player has his teammates view him in a different light, where he graduates essentially.”

And if that hadn’t been clear before, Smith’s long-awaited appearance in Tuesday’s All-Star Game left little doubt: He drew a walk, stole a base and, fittingly, caught the last pitch on a game-ending strikeout to secure the NL’s 3-2 win.

“It’s hard to break into that [conversation of] who is the best catcher in the game,” Kershaw said. “Ultimately, he is one of the best catchers now, if not the best one.”

It’s an evolution that started with the strides Smith made in his first full season in 2021. His pitch-framing went from last among qualified catchers in 2020, according to Baseball Savant, to 20th out of 59 catchers the next year.

He recorded positive marks in defensive runs saved, which is calculated by Sports Info Solutions, and Fangraphs’ defensive rating metric, on par with highly touted veterans like Martin Maldonado and Yadier Molina.


Smith’s importance to the Dodgers’ “run prevention” department grew, as well, with the Louisville, Ky., native — who almost always walks through the clubhouse with that day’s scouting report in hand — showing increased mastery of game plans and pitch calling.

“We’re definitely one of the more demanding teams, as far as what we expect out of our catchers,” said Dodgers bench coach Danny Lehmann, who worked closely with Smith and Barnes in his previous role as game planning and communications coach. “It’s a lot to carry every day. It’s a lot to flip on and off, going from offense to defense. And I think he’s done a pretty good job.”

Indeed, as Smith’s skill set blossomed, so did the Dodgers’ reliance on him as their primary catcher. He started 111 games at the position in 2021, then 106 last season. In the last two postseasons, he caught 15 of the 16 games.

Dodgers catcher Will Smith tags out the Angels' Luis Rengio at home in a game on June 21 at Angel Stadium.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

And since 2021, no qualified catcher has caught pitchers with a lower earned-run average than Smith: they own a 3.14 mark when pitching to him.

“If you look at the last few years, he’s been more proactive as far as mound visits and speaking up in meetings,” Roberts said. ”That takes time. But when he does say something, it’s heard. It lands with players. And it’s refreshing to have a guy that is clearly about the team, and the pitchers. There’s no self-promotion. That’s something I really respect.”


Smith’s defensive game isn’t perfect. His framing metrics have regressed this season, and he and the Dodgers have struggled to stop the running game.

Smith, however, increasingly is mentioned as perhaps the best all-around catcher. Since his 2019 debut, he ranks 20th in OPS (.862) and first among catchers (Salvador Perez is next at .814). In that time, only Kershaw and Mookie Betts have accumulated more Wins Above Replacement for the Dodgers, according to Fangraphs.

“Numbers-wise, you could definitely argue for him,” Lehmann said. “But when you see it every day, how he impacts the game on both sides of the ball, how unique that is for a catcher … he’s right up there with all the other All-Stars.”

Smith being snubbed from the previous two All-Star Games had been a point of consternation within the organization, especially for Roberts.

The manager’s guess was that Smith’s reserved nature and outwardly “vanilla” personality — a prime example this week, Smith said his biggest pet peeve is simply “being late” — made him easy to overlook.

“He’s loyal. He’s intelligent. He’s a competitor,” Roberts said this year. “But certainly not funny.”


Those qualities have endeared Smith in the clubhouse, forging a bond with the pitching staff most of all.

They’re drawn to his “quiet confidence,” as Kershaw deemed it. They appreciate his stabilizing composure, leaning on his steadiness in critical moments.

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July 10, 2023

“His personality is great for the position,” Lehmann said. “Being able to take the emotion out of it at times, being able to be a calm presence no matter what goes on.”

It also made Smith more of a wide-eyed participant at this week’s All-Star festivities. Despite his ascendant stature in the game, he said being around so many other big names made him feel “kind of new to the league.”

“When you’re an All-Star with Clayton Kershaw, J.D. [Martinez], Mookie and Freddie [Freeman], they’ve been here how many times?” he asked rhetorically. “This is my first time, so I still feel like a younger dude.”

Smith is much more than that. His once one-dimensional profile has expanded. His old defensive limitations increasingly have been erased. Over the last three years, he has established himself as a budding star, a pillar in what has been a golden age for the Dodgers.


And, unlike in 2020, if the team reaches the World Series again, it’s clear who will be the primary option behind the plate.