.211/.316/.353. That is the current slash line of Dodgers’ starting catcher Austin Barnes. His offense is 20 percent below league average (80 wRC+) and he shows no sign of a turnaround.
91 percent of major league players have a higher hard-hit rate than Barnes and 72 percent have a higher average exit velocity. His poor hitting isn’t a slump, it’s who he is. It would be one thing if he was a defensive wizard behind the plate but he’s not.
His arm is one of the weakest of all catchers in major league baseball. His average throw is 74.8 MPH, which ranks 51 of 53 qualified catchers. This has a direct correlation to his pop time of 2.10 seconds, which ranks 49th in the league.
You will hear he’s starting because of his pitch framing abilities, but he is only in the 78th percentile now after ranking near the top over the last few years. It’s good, but not enough to keep sending him out to start every game.
Keeping Barnes in the lineup is hurting the team’s chances of winning. If Corey Seager was healthy and everyone else was hitting to their abilities (looking at you Kiké Hernandez and Chris Taylor), you could argue starting Barnes wouldn’t matter. But they’re not and Barnes is just like having another pitcher in their lineup.
Luckily for the Dodgers, they have Will Smith, who performed well during his time in the majors and continues to tear up triple-A.
At Oklahoma City, Smith has 4 home runs in his last 4 games, which increased his total to 12 and put his season batting line at .289/.400/.584 in 166 at-bats.
The @Dodgers 2016 1st rounder Will Smith (@will_smith30) homered in a third straight game, and his opposite field blast helped the @OKC_Dodgers earn a 11-3 WIN last night. The @GoCards @LouisvilleBSB product has 11 HR, 35 RBI, .290 BA, .403 OBP, in 45 @MiLB games this season. pic.twitter.com/1e9AqJkEVy
— The Azul (@TrueBlueDoyers) June 16, 2019
He has already shown he can handle major league pitching as he hit .286/.348/.619 with 2 home runs in 23 plate appearances when he was called up earlier in the season. It was a small sample and there will likely be some regression, but he showed he was poised and ready to make an impact.
Smith could also be the best defensive catcher the Dodgers have had in quite a while. He has a strong throwing arm, receives the ball well and he can block pitches. The Dodgers haven’t had a catcher who can do all that since Russell Martin was in his prime.
They also shouldn’t be scared of a roster crunch. Since Barnes, Martin, and Smith all have the versatility to play at least one other position, carrying an extra catcher on their bench wouldn’t hurt them.
If they’re worried about finding play time for all of them, they shouldn’t be concerned if Barnes or Martin lose some at-bats because neither has earned it. In just 6 games, Smith has produced only 0.2 less WAR than Barnes (46 games) and 0.3 less than Martin (31 games).
And don’t get me wrong, Martin is having a fine year as the backup catcher, posting a .271/.379/.376 line in limited time. But at 36 years old, he can’t start as often as he used to and produce the same amount. Just last season he hit .194/.338/.325 in nearly a full-time role.
Neither Martin or Barnes has anywhere close to the ceiling Smith has, and at this point, they probably have a lower floor too.
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Giving Smith a real chance could also help the Dodgers decide what to do with their catching depth heading into trade season. Smith could make top prospect Keibert Ruiz expendable or they could decide to move one of Barnes or Martin, although they wouldn’t get much for either. They also have other talented minor league catchers they could deal, such as Connor Wong and Diego Cartaya.
Smith has shown why he is a highly-regarded prospect and at 24 years old, he shouldn’t be stuck in the minor leagues any longer. The Dodgers have World Series hopes so they shouldn’t settle for starting anyone but their best players. It’s time to make Will Smith the starting catcher.