Part three of my season preview and projection series will be examining the players behind the dish and the players that can pretty much play everywhere else. I will be looking at the starters, the role players, and the players ready to jump in when anything goes awry.
Last Year J.T. Realmuto finally hit a slump, and it got people talking. Were the reins ready to be picked up by someone else? Unfortunately not, because the previous best catcher in baseball, Buster Posey, had a comeback year to remember and was part of a 107-win Giants team that to this day, I still can’t explain.
While no ceremonial reigns were passed over, while people were talking, one name came up more often than others, Will Smith. Smith has become one of the best catchers with the bat in MLB in a very short space of time. After the skewed 2020 season and a very short introductory stint in 2019, we had only seen Will play for 91 games.
2021 would be his first full season with a coaching team that values catchers’ days off. Smith caught 130 games last season and had a remarkable slashline of .258/.365/.495/(.860). The fresh prince behind the dish hit 35 home runs and batted 76 of his teammates home. While this wasn’t near the heights of his 162-game projection from the shortened 60-game 2020 season, over a much larger sample size, these numbers are still very impressive. To compare bats, Realmuto has averaged .275/.331/.453/(.783) over his eight seasons in the majors.
If your catcher can crack a home run or 25, that’s fantastic, but if they can’t catch, then they aren’t making it in The Show. Defensive metrics are flawed and hard to translate, but two valuable metrics for catchers are passed balls and players caught stealing.
As Realmuto is the benchmark for all catcher excellence, we will compare their numbers to see how Smith stands up. J.T. thwarts a steal 35% of the time, and 6.3 balls get past him per season. Smith beats thieves 24% of the time, and four balls go past him per season. So he’s a pretty effective vacuum for some wilder pitches, but there is one clear area to improve on, throwing the runners out.
With all the bats and talent in the Dodgers lineup, the pressure is off Smith if he finds ways to improve his work with the glove. Hoovering up balls, excellent pitch framing, and throwing out runners are all more valuable to the team than the excellent bat. If Smith could bump up his caught stealing percentage up to 30%, stay excellent at blocking pitches into the dirt, hit over 22 home runs and keep his OPS above .800, I think it would be time to restart the conversation—sorry Phillies fans.
While Smith was being compared to Realmuto, as a backup catcher, it only really makes sense to compare Barnes to Smith and how to judge their respective strengths. Unsurprisingly Smith is much better with the bat. Over a seven-year Major League career, Barnes has slashed .227/.335/354/(.689) and averaged nine home runs a season.
Barnes behind the dish, however, is a blocking machine. In seven seasons, only 1.4 balls get past him in the dirt each year. His CS% is still quite low, however, and sits at 21%, but his real talent is in pitch framing. While stealing a strike from a ball might seem like the most marginal of all gains, over the course of a season, every strike matters, and very few catchers are better than Barnes.
Last season Barnes started 51 games behind the plate with another start as the designated hitter. Roberts has shown that he doesn’t want his catcher starting over 150 games; this leads me to suggest that Barnes will start in the range of 40-55 games again this season.
Barnes will continue to catch for Kershaw and will stand in for Will Smith very aptly behind the dish on rest days. If fate plays a cruel hand and Smith is injured for a fair portion of the season, I don’t foresee a situation where Roberts trades for a better catcher. As the lineup is so loaded, we should see Smith’s bat as a luxury rather than an expectation, and defensively, Barnes is everything you’d want in a deputy.
When the Corey Seager contract was announced at the end of 2021, there was little joy around the fan base. Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and Joe Kelly were still on the market, we had lost in the NLCS, and the lockdown was imminent.
Chris Taylor re-signing gave the fanbase something to really smile about. 2021 was the year that the word seemed to spread around baseball about the Dodgers’ secret weapon. A first All-Star appearance and two golden playoff moments made this Taylor’s best season.
Almost every General Manager looking into free agency could justify spending some serious money on a player like Taylor. After he signed, the news broke that he had rejected multiple offers over what the Dodgers had paid him, and he had made it clear that he really wanted to stay with this team in L.A.
What’s most striking about Taylor is his versatility. He played in every position last year other than on the mound and behind the plate. I surely wasn’t the only one surprised when in an emergency, Justin Turner took the mound before Taylor. Pitching just seemed like the logical next step for him. Due to his versatility and reliability, he is a cornerstone of the team. While he may not be playing one position for 130 games a season, last year, he still started 132 games.
Every player dreams of having that one moment, the “I’ll never have to buy a beer in my city ever again” moment. Taylor, who has always been a player for the big moments, is coming off a postseason with two golden moments. A walk-off win in a do or die elimination wild card game and a three-home run game to force the NLCS back to Atlanta.
If Taylor was to work on one thing through the season, he must level out on his strikeout to walk rate. Last year he struck out 167 times and walked just 63. If Taylor bumps his OBP from .344 to .370, the term “complete game” could be used for a player with his talents of speed, power, defence and versatility. If all these talents and weapons could combine over another 130 starts or more, then Taylor, just as he did last year, will fully justify the money spent on him.
The brightest surprise of the first quarter of the season was Zach McKinstry. A fielder who plays second base, third base, and corner outfield, he ended last season with a perfect fielding percentage everywhere but second base. Early injuries facing Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger last year meant that we saw quite a bit of McKinstry early on. After a botched play by Bellinger and Turner on the base path, McKinstry hit our first home run of last year. It just so happens that his first major league home run was an inside the park effort.
The challenge facing McKinstry is that he needs to find playing time in an unbelievably stacked lineup. Although batting numbers were poor last year, his value to the team is in his versatility. However, rosters can only run so deep and if he struggles for games he might be a player on the trading block for the inevitable push towards the end of July. McKinstry ended last year with 172 plate appearances. If he makes 200 plate appearances this season while playing good, versatile defence, then it can be counted as a success.
Halfway through spring training and the Dodgers acquired Hanser Alberto on a one-year plus club option year contract. Alberto is an infield utility man, as he played second and third base, and shortstop for the Kansas City Royals. I believe this second utility spot behind Taylor will be battled out by Alberto and McKinstry. If McKinstry is to be a success here, then there is no scenario that Alberto can be picked up for his second year.
Featured image by Gary A. Vasquez – USA Today Sports
Freddie Law-Keen is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @FLK_Sports