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Dodgers Grades: Is Will Smith an Elite Catcher? Season Recap for Smith, Austin Barnes & Ruiz



Introducing our annual Dodgers season grades series. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look back, recap, and grade our boys in blue position by position and identify areas they can continue to work on next season. 

First position up: Catchers.

Will Smith

2021 Grade: B+
2020 Grade: B

The 2021 season marked the first, full 162 MLB season for Dodgers catcher Will Smith. With that came the grind of squatting behind the plate for more games than he ever had in his life. And, all told, the 26-year-old handled it well. 

Smith posted career highs in many categories last season including games played (130), plate appearances (501), runs (71), hits (107), doubles (19), triples (2), home runs (25), and runs batted in (76).

While the numbers were enough to officially put the Louisville Slugger on the map around the league, he did take a step back from the incredible numbers he posted in 2020. Smith was the best offensive catcher in the National League during the shortened 60 game season, putting together a .980 OPS and 161 wRC+ over 37 games, trailing only Kansas City’s Salvador Perez by a few points.

As Dave Roberts said at several points throughout the season, Smitty is among the best catchers in the game right now. He does it with the bat. He did it in the clutch (7 HR, 17 RBI late and close in ’21). And he’s starting to put it all together with the glove behind the plate. At one point last season, Clayton Kershaw even praised Will Smith’s improved game calling abilities behind the plate. So, that’s something.

Where can Smith improve?

For Will Smith, it’s a matter of keep on keeping on. The catcher will be 27 in 2022 and in his fourth season at the big league level with the Dodgers. It’ll also be his second full 162 game season (knock on wood) so he’ll have a season’s worth of knowledge to look back on and learn from. If he can continue to make strides behind the plate with the pitching staff, the Dodgers couldn’t ask for much more. Fans might ask that he work on receiving throws from the outfield, but we don’t have to delve into that topic for now.

Austin Barnes

2021 Grade: C
2020 Grade: B

It felt like Austin seemingly disappeared in the second half of the season. With the Dodgers firmly entrenched in a dog fight with the division-leading San Francisco Giants in the final months of the year, Will Smith saw the lion’s share of action in the starting lineup.

Still, by all accounts, Barnes did his job and did it well. Dodgers pitchers had a 2.81 ERA with Austin behind the dish compared to Smith’s 3.12 catcher’s ERA. Both are excellent, but Barnes is a superior game caller, something the eye test shows and the numbers back up.

With the bat, however, the 31-year-old took a few steps back. In 225 plate appearances, Barnes reached base less than 30% of the time (.299 OBP) while posting an OPS of just .644.

Where can Barnes improve?

With the universal designated hitter rumored to be implemented for the 2022 season, Barnes might be able to see more playing time while the Dodgers give Will Smith a rest as the DH. The best route to improvement for the catcher is to take advantage of his playing time. Find ways to get on base and don’t be afraid to swing at hittable pitches. NL pitchers by now know that Austin is up there looking for the walk. Go for the surprise attack.

On defense, you do you.

Keibert Ruiz

2021 Grade: inc
2020 Grade: B-

For the second straight season, the heralded top prospect catcher saw insignificant time at the big league level with the Dodgers. Ruiz picked up his second career home run before being shipped to the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline in a deal for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner.

In 23 games for the Nats, the 22-year-old future star made a nice impression for his new team, hitting .284/.348/.395 with 2 homers and 14 RBI.

Where can Ruiz improve?

Not my chair, not my problem.

NEXT: Dodgers and Giants Among Suitors for Japanese Star Seiya Suzuki

Written by Clint Pasillas

Clint is the lead editor of Dodgers Nation, and a host and analyst on Dodgers Nation's own Blue Heaven podcast live stream.

He's been writing, blogging, and podcasting Dodgers since about 2008. He was there for Nomar, Greg Maddux, and Blake DeWitt, and he'll be there for Walker Buehler, Alex Verdugo, Dustin May, and any Dodgers of the future.

He's also a sandwich enthusiast, a consummate athlete, and a friend.

Comments

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  1. Good article. We need to bring Cartaya up a few times for a look see. Barnes is good defensively; but he is a free agent after 2022 . Sure if he brings the bat back he is a good back-up; but Cartaya might be Smith with better defense. The kid needs a shot and we need to know what to do with Austin sooner rather than later. And Will might be able to move to first or third. Give Will a few games at one of the two in spring training. With the DH coming we have a few options behind the plate available.

  2. Smith has shown to be an all-star caliber catcher. He will improve with experience. A catcher that excels offensively and defensively is a valuable player. Barnes has incredible pitch calling, framing and defense and Smith has learned from him. Is Barnes able to improve on his offense in 2022? We can hope so.
    Diego Cartaya is 20 and is in the low A league. Barnes has another year on his contract. Smith should continue to improve.
    Do the Dodgers sign Barnes for another year or two after 2022 or will Diego Cartaya be ready?

  3. Defensively he’s ok not anything elite. The offense is what gets everyone overhyped about him as a catcher for some reason

  4. Smith B+ , Barnes C, and slipping , Ruiz could have been a B if was able to remain in LA organization but he was shipped off for a dead arm. However, getting Trea made it all worthwhile.

  5. It sounds like you are grading Smith on his offense and overlooking his defense. Why blow off taking throws from the outfield, pitch framing, blocking balls in the dirt etc.

  6. One excellent year does not make an elite catcher. But, if he continues, yes he will be. 2020 was so short it doesn’t really count. 2021 Smith was very good, hopefully he continues, but as of right now it might be a breakout year on his way to a HOF career, or just a one off career year.

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