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2020 Dodgers in review: Will Smith

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A breakout season at the plate for the second-year catcher

National League Championship Series Game 5: Atlanta Braves v. Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Dodgers have a catcher who hits well enough to be a designated hitter. That’s the big takeaway from Will Smith’s second season, which was superb.

Everything about 2020 was odd, thanks to a season cut short by COVID-19, so we don’t have a lot to go on here. But when Smith played this year, all 37 games, he was magnificent. Smith hit .289/.401/.579 with eight home runs in 137 plate appearances, his 163 wRC+ leading the team and ranking 11th among all major league hitters with at least 100 PA, first among catchers.

Will Smith plate discipline

Year BB rate K rate Chase rate
Year BB rate K rate Chase rate
2019 9.2% 26.5% 22.6%
2020 14.6% 16.1% 15.3%
Source: Baseball Savant

The power is not new, as Smith hit 15 homers in 54 games as a rookie in 2019. The key to Smith’s rise at the plate in 2020 was his improved plate discipline. His walk rate skyrocketed, his strikeout rate plummeted, and his chase rate was the fourth-lowest in baseball. He had nearly as many walks (20) as strikeouts (22). That will play.

The only thing that really slowed Smith down this season was neck inflammation that sidelined him for 10 games in mid-August.

Smith’s last defensive play of the season was dropping a throw while trying to make a swipe tag at home plate in the wild ending of Game 4 of the World Series. But just as that crushing loss didn’t stop the Dodgers from winning a championship, that play shouldn’t deter Smith from catching regularly going forward.

He started 17 of the 18 postseason games for the Dodgers, his bat so important to the lineup that he was the designated hitter for seven games in the postseason when he didn’t catch. Smith hit .203/.267/.348 in the playoffs and World Series, but this wasn’t a case of another Dodgers catcher going ice cold in October, as was the case for the previous half-decade.

If it seemed like Smith hit an inordinate amount of rockets that turned into outs, it’s because he did. During the postseason, Smith hit 26 balls with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher, the Baseball Savant definition of a hard-hit ball. That matched Justin Turner, who hit .250/.333/.471, and on the team trailed only the 31 hard-hit balls by Corey Seager (.328/.425/.746) and Mookie Betts (.296/.378/.493).

Of those 26 hard-hit balls by Smith, a whopping 15 resulted in outs, including 10 with an expected batting average of .350 or higher.

Smith’s expected postseason numbers given his batted-ball data, per Baseball Savant, including a .239 batting average and .468 slugging percentage. Not world-beating by any means, but much better than his actual results.

Will Smith hard-hit postseason outs

Game Result Exit velo (mph) Expected BA
Game Result Exit velo (mph) Expected BA
Wild card Game 1 Flyout RF 99.0 0.614
NLDS Game 1 Lineout SS 107.2 0.743
NLDS Game 2 Flyout CF 102.6 0.893
NLDS Game 2 Groundout 3B 100.8 0.536
NLCS Game 3 Groundout SS 99.9 0.379
NLCS Game 6 Groundout SS 97.2 0.679
World Series Game 1 Lineout CF 97.9 0.379
World Series Game 2 Lineout 3B 102.6 0.729
World Series Game 3 Flyout CF 98.9 0.400
World Series Game 3 Flyout CF 102.3 0.357
95+ mph, .350 xBA or higher in the postseason Source: Baseball Savant

Through it all, Smith was unflappable, staying consistent with the process that produced a breakout season at the plate, even if the results didn’t always show.

“As long as I’m finding good quality at-bats, good quality contact, I’m happy,” Smith said during the NLDS. “I never really got down on myself for not having hits. Each new at-bat, I could help the team win.”

If he keeps that up, the sky is the limit.

2020 particulars

Age: 25

Stats: .289/.401/.579, 8 HR, 163 wRC+, 1.3 WAR

Salary: $573,500

Game of the year

As much as I wanted to pick Smith’s epic go-ahead home run against pitcher Will Smith in Game 5 of the NLCS, I’m going with a performance from eight days earlier.

In Game 3 of the NLDS, Smith helped close out the Padres with a record performance. He entered that game 0-for-11 in the playoffs, with four of the aforementioned hard-hit outs yielding no results. But Smith got all the results in this one, hitting two doubles and three singles, driving in three runs and setting a Dodgers postseason mark with five hits in a game.

Roster status

Smith has one year, 90 days of major league service time, meaning he will be eligible for salary arbitration after the 2022 season, and has five more years before qualifying for free agency (at least under the rules of the current collective bargaining agreement).