Right off the bat, let’s address something. This is not a diss on Will Smith.
The Dodgers have gone through some interesting issues at catcher over the last few seasons. In 2017 Yasmani Grandal lost his job to Austin Barnes as he struggled in the final weeks of the season. It was later revealed that Grandal’s head might not have been all-in as he and his wife were enduring issues involving their unborn son.
Barnes ended up catching most of that postseason after he slashed .289/.408/.486 (AVG/OBP/SLG) in the regular season.
Then in 2018 Grandal was having issues catching the ball and Barnes once again stepped in the get the bulk of the work in October, despite having a horrible season at the plate. In 2019 Barnes was supposed to be the starting catcher but again, he could not hit and was even sent to the minors (which I advocated for) and was not on the postseason roster with Will Smith taking over as the number one catcher.
For the 2020 season, Smith remained the number one catcher and he crushed the ball all season. At the same time, Barnes had bottomed out on August 8 with a slash of .091/.167/.091. He was clearly lost at the plate but still doing good defensive work playing two games out of every five. By this time it was well established that Clayton Kershaw wanted Austin Barnes behind the plate.
Around early August it turns out that Mookie Betts was working with Barnes on his hitting. It turns out Mookie was a big help as Barnes started to hit. He got hot for a while and ended the season with a respectable slash of .244/.353/.314. But he did end the season with his numbers heading south again. The plan going into the postseason was for Barnes to catch Kershaw with Will Smith starting the rest of the games.
The playoffs went as expected at the catching position. However, there were a few stand out instances where it looked like Smith was not blocking the balls in the dirt very well. As I started working on a different and unpublished article that spoke about the Dodgers defense I noticed that Smith’s defensive numbers were poor when ranked amongst catchers. He was at the bottom while Barnes was in the upper-middle.
Then in NLCS game 6 versus the Braves, Dave Roberts opted to start Barnes behind the plate with Walker Buehler on the mound. After that game, Buehler pointed to Austin for guiding him through his best outing of the 2020 postseason to that point.
Then it happened again on Friday night in game 3 of the World Series.
With the Dodgers 2 wins away from a championship, should Roberts keep Barnes behind the plate full time? First let’s look at some numbers.
In digging into some advanced defensive numbers from FanGraphs, it is clear that Will Smith took a bit of a dip from 2019 (403 innings) to 2020 (276.2 innings).
- Strike Zone Runs Saved – from 3 to -1
- Defensive Runs Saved – from 4 to -2
- Framing – 0 to -4.5
- Overall defensive score – 3.4 to -1
Barnes far exceeded all of Smith’s numbers in 2020.
Moving Forward For The Rest Of The World Series
We already know that Austin Barnes will catch if Kershaw or Buehler pitches. My suggestion is that he also catches Julio Urías and whatever happens in game 6. It’s clear (and still surprising) that Barnes is also hitting well enough to not be a black hole in the line. He’s slashing .350/.381/.500 in the playoffs while providing better defensive at catcher.
So, let’s put Will Smith at DH for the rest of the series and leave Barnes calling balls and strikes.
The young pitchers will benefit from his game calling and his handling of pitches in the dirt. Smith does have a better arm, but the other benefits give Barnes a clear defensive edge.
Since Barnes is hitting a bit, it seems worth keeping him in the lineup over some other DH options. It’s better to potentially save runs on defense than maybe adding a hit or two with the bat. At this point, we’ve seen some of the young pitching struggle, so let’s give them the best option behind the plate, Austin Barnes.
Will Smith has proven that he is one of the best young catchers in the game. Losing the growth of a full and real Spring Training might have played some role in his defensive decline And the shortened 60 game regular season over 162 is another lost growth opportunity. However, by not being worn out by a whole season of catching, his bat has been strong for the postseason. Most years, the catchers in the postseason are exhausted from the long season and their playoff numbers take a hit.
There is no doubt that Will Smith is the starting catcher going into 2021 and he will improve defensively. For now, there are two more games to win in 2020 and the defense needs to take precedence. A lineup with Austin Barnes at catcher and Will Smith at DH is the best one for the rest of 2020.