The catching position was in flux for the Los Angeles Dodgers most of this season, with Austin Barnes beginning the year as the starter but rookie Will Smith eventually taking over after bursting onto the scene.
Smith has cooled off at the plate a bit in recent weeks though, batting just .145/.221/.232 with two home runs, six RBI and 24 strikeouts in his past 24 games (18 starts) after having a career-best nine-game hitting streak snapped.
Additionally, his ability to handle the Dodgers’ pitching staff has been called into question a bit as the team’s recent starting pitching struggles have coincided with Smith taking over behind the plate.
Whether causation or coincidence, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has continued to have Smith make regular starts behind the plate in attempt to further develop chemistry. “I don’t think it’s necessarily fighting the numbers,” Roberts said.
“Yeah, the numbers, we value them and they’re important, but there’s other things like trying to increase the familiarity. I don’t think it’s just who’s catching a guy. There’s pitch execution, there’s umpires and who’s behind the plate, who’s swinging the bats, there’s a lot of things.
“I just think it makes most sense for us to get Walker with Russell, and then also to give Will another opportunity to get with Hyun-Jin and see how they fare.”
Smith is expected to continue getting opportunities to catch the Dodgers’ top starters, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu to finish out the regular season. Roberts expressed confidence in the rookie that he will be able to right the ship.
“I don’t think right now we have to be at a point where we can’t entertain Will catching Hyun-Jin,” he said. “And Hyun-Jin will say it himself: if he’s on and executing pitches, it doesn’t matter who’s catching.”
Such was the case Sunday afternoon, when Ryu and Smith appeared to have an early rhythm. Ryu additionally apologized for and took ownership of his struggles reflecting poorly on the rookie catcher.
While Roberts believes Smith is capable of being the team’s starter in the postseason, he would not commit to that being the case yet.
“When you look at the big sample, it matters. There’s nothing set in stone as far as the catching heading into the postseason,” Roberts noted. “But I think for us we need to continue to run the play out so we can make as educated decision as possible.”
Both Barnes and Russell Martin have a wealth of playoff experience, which Smith obviously lacks. But there is no denying what Smith is capable of as he showed it immediately when he was called up.
The Dodgers will be hoping that he can get back to that level before the start of the postseason, but if he doesn’t, that could make for some tough decisions come October.