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Figuring out the Dodgers’ catching split between Will Smith and Austin Barnes

Dave Roberts on his catchers: “I’ll take that sum against any combo in all of baseball, production-wise, offensively and defensively.”

2020 World Series Game 1: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Through Friday neither Will Smith nor Austin Barnes had caught in consecutive games this Cactus League, and if the alternate starting continues on Saturday, Smith will be behind the plate against San Diego. Smith, one of the best young hitters in baseball, figures to get the majority of starts behind the plate during the season, but the question is just how much of a workload will the Dodgers put on his shoulders.

Back in February, manager Dave Roberts chafed at calling Barnes a backup, calling Smith and Barnes “1 and 1a,” respectively, on his depth chart. It played out that way during the postseason, with Smith starting 10 games behind the plate and Barnes eight, including four of six World Series games. But the National League last year had a designated hitter, where Smith started seven times during the postseason and three times during the regular season.

As of now, the National League doesn’t have a DH for 2021, nor does MLB have expanded postseason. It’s not expected players and owners will come to an agreement by April 1 to add such things this year, but last year the playoffs were expanded just hours before the first pitch on opening day, so it’s not totally dead yet.

Dave Roberts, for one, would like to have the DH back, and given the Dodgers depth relative to the rest of the league, it’s hard to blame him.

“It’s hard enough to hit. Now you get pitchers who are overmatched at the plate, and not very successful in sacrifice bunting,” Roberts said Friday. “We talk a lot about fan interest, and I think fans would rather see a hitter hit rather than a pitcher.”

But for now, with no DH in the National League, the Dodgers each game will likely have only one of Smith or Barnes in their lineup, unless they branch out to an infield position. Barnes has played 172 major league innings at second base, and Smith has played 486 minor league innings at third. The Dodgers have several other options at those positions, so mostly the decision between them will come almost solely at catcher.

It’s reductive to label Smith as the offensive catcher and Barnes as the defensive backstop, but those are their strengths. Smith has the best wRC+ among catchers in MLB since the start of 2019, while Barnes’ framing numbers are among the best in the sport despite relatively limited playing time.

“I think with Will and Austin, the sum is very good,” Roberts said Friday. “I’ll take that sum against any combo in all of baseball, production-wise, offensively and defensively.”

Roberts didn’t commit to a breakdown of catcher playing time for the season — and since it’s only March 19, I can’t blame him — but did say, “Somewhere around 90 games, I think something like that, [Smith] can be an impactful offensive player.”

Will Smith games caught

Year Games
Year Games
2014 27
2015 65
2016 91
2017 73
2018 49
2019 102
2020 46
2014-16 includes college games 2016 includes college & minors; 2017 includes Arizona Fall League

While 90 starts at catcher doesn’t seem like a lot — I still have a mental pie chart that thinks the primary catcher starts two-thirds of the games, for instance — in the last full regular season (2019), only 18 players started 90 games at catcher, only 60 percent of teams, and only 10 catchers started 100 times behind the plate. The average from 2017-19 was 10.7 catchers with 100 starts each year and 16.7 with 90 starts.

It might even be reasonable to not expect Smith to catch many more than 90 games this year, especially since his 102 games at catcher between the majors and minors in 2019 were by far his most in any season, with no other professional year more than 73 games behind the plate.

These things also tend to work themselves out, anyway. Yes, Barnes was relied on behind the plate heavily in the postseason, but the Dodgers also had the luxury of keeping Smith, their No. 5 hitter, in the lineup in those games.

If Smith continues to be the best-hitting catcher in baseball, he’ll find his way into more playing time. It’s not something I’m terribly worried about. And having Barnes, who hit .261/.362/.342 in the regular season and postseason combined last year and brings elite framing, at the ready is a fine option to have for the games Smith doesn’t catch.