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I Guess Will Smith Is Baseball’s Best Offensive Catcher Now

The Los Angeles Dodgers, at one point, had a weakness. Not a glaring one, and not one that was going to single-handedly derail their World Series hopes, but a weakness nonetheless. As of July 26, their catchers had combined for a ghastly 69 wRC+. Even considering the skid catcher offense has experienced in recent seasons, that’s a bad number, ranking 24th in baseball at the time. Because they were worth the sixth-best defensive rating in baseball, they sat firmly in the middle of the pack at 1.1 WAR. But their performance still represented a hole in a lineup that was otherwise loaded. The Dodgers could have attempted to trade for a catcher, but the market lacked an obvious J.T. Realmuto-esque candidate, with James McCann standing as seemingly the best option. Instead, the Dodgers promoted Will Smith from Triple-A. Smith, 24, had played in just nine big league games before being called up. A month later, he might be the best offensive catcher in baseball.

That sounds jarring until you look at his numbers. In 102 plate appearances, Smith is hitting .318/.392/.818 with 12 homers and a 197 wRC+. In just 28 games, he already leads all catchers in offensive runs above average (Off). That is a counting stat.

Off leaders, 2019
Player Games wRC+ Off
Will Smith 28 197 13.0
Mitch Garver 71 139 12.6
Willson Contreras 87 128 12.5
Tom Murphy 54 145 11.5
Omar Narváez 104 121 8.1
James McCann 96 117 8.1
J.T. Realmuto 120 104 8.1
Yasmani Grandal 119 118 7.7
Stephen Vogt 75 122 5.4
Gary Sanchez 88 110 5.3

In a fraction of the time any other catcher has had in the majors, Smith has surpassed the field in total offensive production. The catcher position is notoriously shallow in terms of hitting talent across the majors, but the best of the bunch is still an impressive group. Sánchez is a barrels machine, Realmuto is the best overall catcher in the game, and Yasmani Grandal and Willson Contreras are both incredibly talented players. And yet, Smith has generated more value at the plate than any of them, in nowhere near their number of plate appearances.

That production has boosted a Dodgers lineup that almost certainly could have survived without the added help, but has gotten it anyway. The team entered the 2019 season with veterans Austin Barnes and Russell Martin plugged into the catching position. Barnes, 29, had a breakout season in 2017 when he put together a 142 wRC+ in 102 games while playing excellent defense, but his offense cratered in 2018 when he produced just a 78 wRC+. Martin, meanwhile, was acquired from Toronto in the offseason before playing the last year of a 5-year, $82-million contract he signed after the 2014 season. This season, both Barnes and Martin have experienced career-worst seasons at the plate, paving the way for the organization to promote Smith, who ranked as the 80th-best prospect in baseball on Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel’s preseason Top 100 list. In less than a month, Smith has rocketed Los Angeles from 24th to 10th in catcher wRC+, and from 15th to 8th in catcher WAR.

Smith, of course, could always hit some. A first round selection (No. 32 overall) by the Dodgers out of Louisville in 2016, he did modestly well at the plate over his first two seasons of pro ball, largely boosted by good walk rates of well over 10%. He showed power for the first time in a 72-game stint with Rancho Cucamonga in the hitter-friendly California League in 2017, boosting his ISO from .103 in the previous season to .216. He continued to add power at the Double-A level in 2018, again raising his ISO to .268 while maintaining a steady walk rate over 11%, but he struggled mightily after a promotion to Triple-A, finishing 25 games with a wRC+ of 8.

He was called up for the first time on May 28, though only briefly. He played six games over the next week or so, and hit a pair of homers while slashing .286/.348/619. His first career home run was a walk-off against the Phillies.

He was sent back to the minors with an OPS of .967. It hasn’t been that low since. He came back to the majors for three games at the end of the month and homered again, this time in a pinch hit spot. It was another walk-off.

Smith went on the injured list because of an oblique on June 26, and remained in Triple-A Oklahoma City until the Dodgers brought him back in late July; if his play is any indication, it seems unlikely he’ll return to the minors anytime soon. In Smith’s first game back in the majors on July 27, he went 3-for-3 with a homer and two doubles, driving in six runs. He hasn’t slowed down since then, hitting safely in 16 of the 19 games he’s played since his last call-up, with a total of 16 extra-base hits. His .548 ISO in that span is first in the majors, while his 216 wRC+ is third and his 1.5 WAR is seventh.

You might skeptical of how sustainable his numbers are, and after just 28 games, you’d be right to be. Smith likely isn’t a true talent 197 wRC+ hitter, nor is he going to keep up a nearly 12-WAR pace over a full season. But there’s evidence to support the notion that he’s a top-tier catcher bat. With 64 batted ball events under his belt, his barrel rate is 9.8%. For reference, Peter Alonso’s barrel rate is 9.9%, and those rates tend to stabilize faster than others. He also has an xSLG of .558 — well below his absurd current figure, but still an indication that his power numbers aren’t a total mirage, even if his average home run distance of 396 feet doesn’t quite match up with the very best of the best.

It’s great news for the Dodgers that they have a sweet-swinging catcher on their roster now, but does that mean he’s a step below the others on defense? Not necessarily. In 28 games behind the plate, he’s accumulated 3.0 defensive runs saved. That doesn’t place much of a gap between him and Barnes (9.5 defensive runs saved in 70 games) or Martin (7.6 in 68 games). He hasn’t played nearly enough games for his defensive metrics to stabilize enough to be trustworthy, but the fact that the early returns seem to be so positive can only be a good sign for his presence behind the plate.

Smith is likely going to regress, be it in the next couple of weeks or sometime next year. Fortunately, there’s so much space between his offensive numbers and the rest of the catching field that it will take a bit for the pack to catch up with him. He had solid hitting pedigree as a prospect, but I don’t know that anyone could have expected this. The juiced ball can take some shine off of any great power tear we’ve seen this season, rookie or not. But it isn’t as though every other backstop isn’t getting to swing at the same ball. Smith just happens to be hitting it better than anyone else. He’s the best hitting catcher in baseball right now. Finally, the hard-luck Dodgers get a break.


The Retooled Mike Clevinger Is Something to Behold

Before Cleveland Indians right-hander Mike Clevinger exited his second start of the season with an injury, he was throwing some of the most dominant stuff in baseball. He left his April 9 start against the Toronto Blue Jays with five innings of one-hit baseball under his belt, and over his first two starts combined, he had allowed no runs, surrendered just four walks, and struck out 22 batters in 12 innings. A strained muscle in his upper back, however, meant that the Indians would have to wait more than two months for him to return to the mound. In his first two starts back in June, he got roughed up to the tune of 12 runs allowed on eight hits, six walks, and nine strikeouts in 6.1 combined innings. Then the calendar turned to July, and Clevinger turned back into the version of himself he teased in April.

Since July 1, Clevinger has made nine starts. He has thrown 54 innings, struck out 74 batters, walked just 14, and allowed four home runs. His ERA of 2.17 in that timespan ranks 10th in the majors, but his 2.33 FIP is second, and his 2.55 xFIP is first. That kind of performance is no mere return to being healthy for the 28-year-old veteran; It’s the best he’s ever looked.

Clevinger finished his first three seasons in the big leagues with FIPs of 4.86, 3.85 and 3.52, respectively. In 72 innings this season, he’s lowered that all that way down to 2.47. That figure is weighted down by the lowest walk and home run rates of Clevinger’s career, but mostly, it’s down because his strikeout rate has skyrocketed. After entering 2019 with a career K/9 rate of around 9.5, he’s elevated that figure to over 13 to this point in the season.

That explosion in strikeouts coincides with a major step forward for Clevinger’s stuff in just the past year or so. Over the past three years, he has seen his average fastball velocity increase each season — not an easy task, considering that he didn’t break into the majors until he was 25 years old. Most pitchers lose a tick or two in velocity between their mid and late 20s, but Clevinger has gone the other direction. According to Statcast’s pitch data, from the beginning of the 2017 season until June 9, 2018, Clevinger registered an average fastball velocity of at least 94 mph in just two games, both of which were relief appearances. In starts, he tended to average 92-93 mph. Then, on June 14, his average fastball velocity spiked to 94.9 mph in a seven-inning, one-run, 10-strikeout performance against the White Sox. His average velocity was above 94 mph in three of his next five starts, and reached at least 93.9 mph in each of his final nine starts of the season. In those nine starts, his ERA was 2.03, and he struck out 63 batters in 53.1 innings. Read the rest of this entry »


At Long Last, Jorge Soler

Five years ago, as the Chicago Cubs were playing out the final stretch of their last losing season before their rebuilt roster took flight, they called up two of their top prospects — Javier Báez and Jorge Soler — to get their first look at big league pitching. While Báez struggled, finishing with just a 58 wRC+ and -0.8 WAR, Soler flourished. He burst on the scene with three homers and seven hits in his first three games, and finished his 24-game test run with a .292/.330/.573 line, a 148 wRC+, and 0.7 WAR. Both players figured to be key to Chicago turning the corner, but in the years that followed, the two trended in very different directions.

Báez turned into a defensive wizard and overcame his plate discipline issues with a lethal power stroke, eventually earning a second-place MVP finish in 2018. Soler, however, has failed to live up to the promise he showed in his first season. Thanks to a series of injuries, he was limited to 187 games in the majors between 2015 and 2016, after which the Cubs traded him to the Kansas City Royals. He spent most of 2017 at Triple-A, and posted just a 32 wRC+ in the 35 games he spent in the big leagues. Last year, he began to break out again, but had his season derailed by a broken foot in June. He entered this season having never played more than 109 games in a year, compiling just 1.7 WAR since that debut.

The past few years have been frustrating enough to snuff out the flame of excitement that surrounded Soler’s arrival in the majors, but this season, he’s finally establishing himself as the slugger he was expected to be. After Sunday’s games, he is slashing .259/.351/.549, with a 131 wRC+ and 2.4 WAR. His 35 homers are tied with Ronald Acuña Jr. for fifth-most in baseball, and have him on pace to demolish Mike Moustakas’s franchise record of 38 dingers in a season. They are also nearly triple his previous career-high of 12 homers, set with the Cubs in 2016. Read the rest of this entry »


Eugenio Suárez’s Step Back

Over the past few seasons, fans of the Cincinnati Reds have gotten used to watching third baseman Eugenio Suárez improve year after year. When he was acquired from the Detroit Tigers in December 2014 with former first-round pick Jonathon Crawford in exchange for Alfredo Simon, he was a glove-first shortstop who had a decent track record of hitting in the minors but lacked any loud offensive tools. After arriving in Cincinnati, he began to piece his game together one season at a time.

In 2015, he showed modest power but walked just 4.3% of the time and was a liability in the field. In 2016, he kept that power but improved his glove and doubled his walk rate, finishing with a 93 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR. In 2017, he boosted his power as well as his ability to walk while becoming a plus defensive third baseman, and he finished with a 116 wRC+ and 3.9 WAR. Last year, his power once again took a great step forward, and his wRC+ swelled to 135 while his WAR stayed at 3.9.

That kind of exponential growth was exciting to see out of Suárez, who signed a 7-year, $66-million extension before the 2018 season. He clocked in at No. 32 on our Trade Value rankings last year, and he appeared to be just a step away from the game’s elite third basemen. This season, however, the 28-year-old hasn’t provided quite the same value.

Eugenio Suárez 3B Offensive Ranks
Statistic 2018 2019
WAR 7th 14th
wRC+ 6th 12th
HR 4th 1st
BB% 7th 8th

At 33 homers, he’s one away from tying a career high with six weeks left on the schedule. But aside from another precipitous increase in power, his numbers elsewhere have deteriorated from where they stood last year. His wRC+ is down 16 points, and his typically consistent strikeout rate is up four points. Those aren’t concerning figures on their face — he’s still well above average in terms of cumulative offensive production thanks to a 10% walk rate in addition to his power — but it’s his underlying contact stats that tell an unpleasant tale. Read the rest of this entry »


Kevin Cash’s Cold Call

Ryan Yarbrough was in Maddux territory. He’d thrown just 89 pitches as he walked to the mound to begin the top of the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday with his Tampa Bay Rays leading 1-0, having allowed just three hits and no walks against eight strikeouts. The 27-year-old southpaw had two lefties waiting to face him, neither of whom had reached base that afternoon.

The inning started about as well as it could have, as Yarbrough took just 10 pitches to induce weak ground balls out of Mallex Smith and J.P. Crawford. He was now at 99 pitches and one out away from just the 18th complete-game shutout thrown in the majors this season. But as soon as Yarbrough got the ball back from the infield after Crawford’s groundout, he turned to see Rays manager Kevin Cash exiting the dugout and walking toward him. He tried to sneak in a word of protest before Cash got to the mound, but it was no use. His day was over.

“Obviously, a little angry,” Yarbrough said to reporters after the game, according to MLB.com. “But I think [Cash] would want me to be. I think he would want me to want to finish it. I don’t think I have any ill-will about it or anything.”

In the moment, Yarbrough did little to conceal the way he felt about the decision. Here’s the moment he sees Cash walking his way:

And here he is walking off the mound:

From Cash’s perspective, the move was a well-reasoned one. Tampa Bay was ahead by just one run, and the hitter on deck at the time, Domingo Santana, is plenty capable of doing enough damage to a mistake to make that lead evaporate. With the Rays possessing just a 1 1/2 game lead in the second Wild Card playoff spot, there was little margin for error in the big picture, too. Read the rest of this entry »


Nelson Cruz Won’t Stop

The other day I wrote about Shin-Soo Choo and the way he’s hitting the ball really hard despite being a 37-year-old who has never garnered much of a reputation as a power hitter. In that piece, I included a chart that showed Choo was having the second-best season in terms of hard-hit percentage by a player 35 years of age or older since we started gathering such data in 2002. Choo was deserving of the digital ink used on him, but as impressed as I was with his placement on that chart, the most remarkable player listed was the one directly above him. The hard-hit rate that Choo had put together that ranked second on that list was 46.7%. No. 1 on that list was 2019 Nelson Cruz, whose hard contact rate currently rests at a whopping 55%. He’s 39 years old, and he’s hitting the ball hard more often than anyone else in baseball. He also just wrapped up one of the hottest two-week stretches you’ll ever see.

On the morning of July 22nd, Cruz was in the middle of yet another strong season at the plate. His slash line was .270/.364/.543 with 19 homers in 71 games. Even as a designated hitter, that’ll play on just about any team. Then all hell broke loose.

Offensive totals, July 22 — Aug. 6
Player BA OBP SLG HR RBI wOBA wRC+ WAR
Nelson Cruz 0.460 0.526 1.300 13 27 0.699 352 1.9
Next-closest player 0.429 0.500 0.816 7 20 0.516 229 1.2

Look, it is usually best not to fuss too much over a hot streak that is over a sample size this small. The baseball season is long, and because of that, there will be many, many players who throw together a torrid two-week stretch or two. In that table, the next-best players in those categories ranged from Anthony Rendon to Andrew Benintendi to Mike Tauchman. Those players should all feel very happy and proud of the way they’ve been playing baseball, but unless your name is Mike Trout, there is a very good chance that an amazing two-week stretch of baseball will not be followed with another two-week stretch that is just as amazing. This is just the way the game works, and there’s no use in getting too excited over what is only around 50 plate appearances, about 1/12th of your season or less. Read the rest of this entry »


Shin-Soo Choo Is Turning Back the Clock

After the 2017 season, Shin-Soo Choo’s contract looked like one of the worst in baseball. He’d just wrapped up the fourth season in his seven-year, $130 million deal with Texas, and had failed to top 1.0 WAR for the third time. He was well into his mid-30s, had no business playing the outfield, and was constantly battling through injuries. His bat needed to thrive in order for him to be playable in Texas’ lineup, and too often, it was merely average. With three years and $62 million still owed to him, the Rangers needed Choo needed to take a dramatic step forward at the plate. What were the odds of that?

Higher than you might have thought. In 2018, Choo’s wRC+ rose from 104 to 118. This year, at 37 years old, it’s up to 124. That may be just a small improvement from last season, but it doesn’t convey how much he has changed as a hitter. He’s raised his ISO and slugging percentage 40 and 56 points respectively. Choo has sacrificed a bit of his famously high walk rate to get there, but he’s still drawing a free pass more than 10% of the time. What stands out to me, however, is how hard he’s hitting the ball.

Before last year, Choo had never finished a full season with a hard-hit percentage of at least 40%, according to our own data. Then, in 2018, he got that mark up to 42%. This year, it’s up to 46.7%. That kind of gain would be encouraging for a player of any age, but for a player as old as Choo, it’s a significant shift. His hard-hit rate ranks 18th in baseball this season, and that’s only if you go by our metrics. Statcast has his hard-hit percentage at 50.7%, which places him seventh among hitters with at least 100 batted balls. Here’s the full top 10, with ages attached:

Statcast Hard-Hit% leaders, 2019
Name Hard-hit% Age
Aaron Judge 59.8 27
Miguel Sano 55.3 26
Nelson Cruz 53.5 39
Joey Gallo 52.3 25
Matt Olson 51.2 25
Marcell Ozuna 51.1 28
Shin-Soo Choo 50.7 37
Josh Donaldson 50.7 33
Kyle Schwarber 50.4 28
Christian Walker 50.4 26

Read the rest of this entry »


D-Backs Land Mike Leake from Seattle

Just moments before trading away Zack Greinke in the blockbuster move of deadline day, the Arizona Diamondbacks made an addition to their rotation, acquiring Mike Leake from the Seattle Mariners. It is the second time Leake has been traded since he signed a five-year, $80-million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals before the 2016 season, and the third time overall that he has been traded in-season. According to arizonasports.com’s John Gambadoro, the D-Backs will be responsible for just $6 million of the roughly $20 million still owed to Leake on his contract. The Mariners received 22-year-old infielder Jose Caballero in the deal.

Leake, 31, has been good for about league-average production and a lot of innings eaten throughout his career, and the same remains true for his 2019 season. With a 4.40 ERA in 22 starts, his ERA- sits at 101, which just so happens to line up perfectly with his career mark. His FIP, however, has jumped to 4.74, thanks to a career-worst HR/9 mark of 1.71.

The Leake deal was one of several the Diamondbacks made on Wednesday, though it was the only one that involved the organization actually taking on an established big leaguer. Greinke — along with $24 million of the $77 million owed to him on his contract — was sent to Houston in exchange for a mighty haul of prospects just before 4 p.m. On a much smaller scale, Arizona also traded backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Atlanta Braves, and in a rare flip of notable prospects, sent shortstop Jazz Chisholmranked the D-backs’ No. 1 prospect by Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel — to the Miami Marlins for right-handed pitching prospect Zac Gallen. Arizona was heavily rumored to be shopping left-handed starter Robbie Ray throughout the week, but no deal ever came to fruition. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunny Days Have Returned for Sonny Gray

Early in the season, Luis Castillo was the pitcher drawing eyeballs in the Cincinnati Reds rotation. After showing flashes of elite potential in his first two seasons in the big leagues, the right-hander had reached new heights with his ridiculous change-up, and the numbers he posted over the first six weeks of the season had him getting serious attention as a Cy Young favorite. After years of abysmal pitching staffs, the Reds finally looked like they had an ace on their hands.

A couple of months later, however, Castillo’s been surpassed in WAR by a teammate who once garnered ace buzz at a similar age. In 21 starts, Sonny Gray has been worth 2.7 WAR, thanks to a solid 3.51 FIP to go with a 3.47 xFIP. Castillo has had trouble with walks as the season has progressed, but overall, his numbers remain fairly strong, and optimism surrounding him is deservedly high. Quietly, though, Gray has been every bit as good.

Castillo vs. Gray, 2019
Player ERA FIP K% BB% GB% xwOBA WAR
Luis Castillo 2.71 3.87 29% 12% 56% .282 2.3
Sonny Gray 3.45 3.51 28% 8% 54% .277 2.7

While Castillo entered the 2019 season with the expectation that his best years were ahead of him, Gray faced the question of what he had left to offer. He picked up 7.4 WAR from 2014-15 with the Oakland A’s, finishing third in Cy Young voting in the second of those seasons. His ERA ballooned to 5.69 in 2016, but he returned to approach another 3 WAR season between Oakland and New York the following year. That paved the way for a truly head-scratching 2018 season in which his home-road splits reached absurd levels, and he failed to stick in the rotation, allowing a 5.26 ERA in 23 starts. Viewing him as a lost cause, the Yankees were determined to trade him last offseason, and found a match with Cincinnati in January. Read the rest of this entry »


The Most Important Rookie Hitter in the Pennant Chase

Even before it began, the 2019 season seemed poised to become the year of the rookie hitter. That seems true every year nowadays, but it seemed especially so this year. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. had a ton of anticipation surrounding their debuts, but there were other big names ready to introduce themselves as well. Eloy Jimenez was about to unleash his prodigious power upon the big leagues for the first time, Victor Robles was embarking on his first full season of showing off his game-changing speed in the majors, and Nick Senzel was going to finally try to put his injury problems behind him and show why he was the second overall draft choice in 2017. National prospect lists consistently laid out the excitement surrounding the next generation of great hitters, with our own Top 100 list featuring nine hitters in the top 10 prospects, and 17 in the top 20 (along with one two-way player).

Nearly two-thirds of the way through the season, many of those rookie hitters have shown the potential to carry the weight of a franchise on their shoulders. Unfortunately, most play for teams that won’t be challenging for postseason spots this season, so they will have to wait their turn to show off their talents in important fall baseball games. Others are playing on teams that will certainly be around in October, but they play at a spot that their organization was already doing quite well with. This piece isn’t about one of those guys, though. We’re here to talk about someone I think means more to his team’s postseason hopes than any other rookie in baseball. Read the rest of this entry »