Will Smith Leads L.A.’s Bargain Catching Crew

In 2020, we estimate that the Dodgers will pay out $236 million in salary. That’s 10% more than any other team in baseball except the Yankees, and over $40 million more than their closest National League competitor, the Cubs. The Dodgers have been big spenders for some time now, and one of the ways they’ve chosen to use their money is to ensure that every position on their roster is stocked with two capable big league players at the very least, and sometimes more than that. It’s not spoiling our upcoming Positional Power Rankings series to note that Los Angeles falls into the top half of every single position on our depth charts, and in the top five of six. Most of those positions are filled with well-paid veterans. The purpose of this piece is to investigate the one position on their roster that isn’t: catcher.

In fact, not a single likely Dodgers’ starter at catcher will be paid more than $1.1 million in 2020. Last year’s starting duo of Russell Martin ($20 million, $16.4 million of which was paid by the Blue Jays) and Austin Barnes ($575,000 in 2019, and $1.1 million this year) morphed, over the course of the 2019 season, into Will Smith and Friends. Although Martin and Barnes caught more games overall last year (61 and 52, respectively), 38 of Smith’s 45 starts came in the Dodgers’ last 57 games of the season, and he enters 2020 — whenever that begins — as the favorite to start the lion’s share of games this year. At 25, with less than a year’s service time under his belt, he’ll make $555,000 in 2020.

He’ll make a lot more than that soon if he keeps up his performance from 2019. When Eric Longehagen and Kiley McDaniel rated Smith the Dodgers’ fourth-best prospect coming into 2019, and 80th overall, they noted that:

the Dodgers did with Smith what they’ve done with many other hitters, teaching him how to properly lift the ball and be aggressive in his swing mechanics. This agreed with Smith, unlocking dormant raw and game power [but leaving] an exploitable hole in his swing … he’s more of a .240-type hitter if he wants to keep hitting for power in games. [That said,] even .240 with 20 homers would be a very valuable piece to a contending team, even more so than Austin Barnes.

That last sentence looks particularly prescient in light of what happened last year. In 2019, Smith cut his strikeout rate (which had been 37.8% in 98 Triple-A plate appearances in 2018) down to 18.1% in Triple-A and then 26.5% in the big leagues, all while hitting 35 home runs between the two levels and posting the two highest SLGs of his career to date (.603 and .571 in Triple-A and major league action, respectively) at his two highest levels yet. You can see evidence of the swing changes that drove those improvements in Smith’s game-winner against the Rockies early in his L.A. tenure:

That same swing — short, compact, and direct to the ball — was equally evident on another home run against the Rockies later in the year, when Smith took another pitch in on his hands and deposited it into the left-center field seats. The slow-motion replays here do a good job of showing how effectively Smith has taught himself to stay back and compact, and swing directly through the ball:

If Smith can do that again in 2020 — and his .393 xWOBACON suggests strongly that 2019 wasn’t a fluke — he’ll be in a superb position to put up substantially more than the 1.7 WAR he generated over last year’s 196 big league plate appearances.

Barring an unlikely return by the free agent Martin, Smith’s partner in crime behind the plate will be the returning Barnes. Barnes had a rough go of it last year, starting strongly at the plate but then collapsing to an 11 wRC+ in June and a 23 mark in July. After that performance, the Dodgers’ gave him just nine more plate appearances the rest of the season. The problem for Barnes appeared to be, at least in part, the injurious result of a conscious effort to put the ball in the air: Barnes’s fly-ball rate jumped to 42% after sitting at 26.2% in 2019, but the concurrent increase in power wasn’t enough to make up for the increased number of bad counts he found himself in. By the end of the season, Barnes, who’d walked 15% of the time as recently as 2017, was down to a 9.5% walk rate and a .293 OBP.

Barnes’ good spring (and Smith’s bad one), combined with Barnes’ superior framing abilities and Smith’s ability to play across the diamond, has led some fans to seek something close to parity behind the plate for L.A. in 2020. I don’t think that’s a particularly sensible idea until we see some good evidence that Smith’s numbers in 2019 aren’t going to hold up in 2020. The offensive gap between the two men (about 18 runs in 2019, with roughly equal playing time) is sufficiently wide that even Barnes’s superior glove skills aren’t enough to plan for equal playing time before the season’s even started. At the very least, Smith should be starting almost every game against right-handers (who he hit for a 158 wRC+ last year), with Barnes getting more chances against lefties, where the gap (75 vs. 52) is much smaller.

That is, of course, until the Dodgers’ find out what kind of season Keibert Ruiz is having in Triple-A. Ruiz, 21, was just ranked No. 88 on our list of the Top 100 prospects for this season, and will start the year in Oklahoma City after having gotten his first taste of it late last year. Ruiz’s physical profile is such that he’ll always have to prove himself with skills at every level, and concerns about his contact quality have emerged over the last 12 months or so such that this 2020 campaign will be a critical one for his development. If Smith or Barnes go down, he could see some time in L.A. this season, but without a bit more evidence that his bat is ready to go, we likely won’t see him get regular starts.

I’m fascinated by this L.A. catcher situation in part because, thanks to Smith’s emergence late last season, the Dodgers appear to be comfortable spending a fraction of Mookie Betts‘ salary on a position that is, after all, engaged on every pitch. What’s even wilder is that I actually don’t think their plan is that risible. If Smith or Barnes get hurt, or if one of them totally falls off a cliff offensively, the Dodgers can rely on Ruiz or Rocky Gale in the short term, then trade for another backup from one of their many areas of depth with little problem. Heck, at this point, Martin is still available, and probably for $5 million or so on a pro-rated deal. In the midst of a sea of plenty, the Dodgers have found themselves with among the most promising catching squads in baseball at a price even the Marlins could afford.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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2 years ago

These 5fps gifs are pretty brutal to watch