Introducing our annual Dodgers season grades series. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look back, recap, and grade our boys in blue position by position and identify areas they can continue to work on next season.
First position up: Catchers.
2021 Grade: B+
2020 Grade: B
The 2021 season marked the first, full 162 MLB season for Dodgers catcher Will Smith. With that came the grind of squatting behind the plate for more games than he ever had in his life. And, all told, the 26-year-old handled it well.
Smith posted career highs in many categories last season including games played (130), plate appearances (501), runs (71), hits (107), doubles (19), triples (2), home runs (25), and runs batted in (76).
While the numbers were enough to officially put the Louisville Slugger on the map around the league, he did take a step back from the incredible numbers he posted in 2020. Smith was the best offensive catcher in the National League during the shortened 60 game season, putting together a .980 OPS and 161 wRC+ over 37 games, trailing only Kansas City’s Salvador Perez by a few points.
As Dave Roberts said at several points throughout the season, Smitty is among the best catchers in the game right now. He does it with the bat. He did it in the clutch (7 HR, 17 RBI late and close in ’21). And he’s starting to put it all together with the glove behind the plate. At one point last season, Clayton Kershaw even praised Will Smith’s improved game calling abilities behind the plate. So, that’s something.
Where can Smith improve?
For Will Smith, it’s a matter of keep on keeping on. The catcher will be 27 in 2022 and in his fourth season at the big league level with the Dodgers. It’ll also be his second full 162 game season (knock on wood) so he’ll have a season’s worth of knowledge to look back on and learn from. If he can continue to make strides behind the plate with the pitching staff, the Dodgers couldn’t ask for much more. Fans might ask that he work on receiving throws from the outfield, but we don’t have to delve into that topic for now.
2021 Grade: C
2020 Grade: B
It felt like Austin seemingly disappeared in the second half of the season. With the Dodgers firmly entrenched in a dog fight with the division-leading San Francisco Giants in the final months of the year, Will Smith saw the lion’s share of action in the starting lineup.
Still, by all accounts, Barnes did his job and did it well. Dodgers pitchers had a 2.81 ERA with Austin behind the dish compared to Smith’s 3.12 catcher’s ERA. Both are excellent, but Barnes is a superior game caller, something the eye test shows and the numbers back up.
With the bat, however, the 31-year-old took a few steps back. In 225 plate appearances, Barnes reached base less than 30% of the time (.299 OBP) while posting an OPS of just .644.
Where can Barnes improve?
With the universal designated hitter rumored to be implemented for the 2022 season, Barnes might be able to see more playing time while the Dodgers give Will Smith a rest as the DH. The best route to improvement for the catcher is to take advantage of his playing time. Find ways to get on base and don’t be afraid to swing at hittable pitches. NL pitchers by now know that Austin is up there looking for the walk. Go for the surprise attack.
On defense, you do you.
2021 Grade: inc
2020 Grade: B-
For the second straight season, the heralded top prospect catcher saw insignificant time at the big league level with the Dodgers. Ruiz picked up his second career home run before being shipped to the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline in a deal for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner.
In 23 games for the Nats, the 22-year-old future star made a nice impression for his new team, hitting .284/.348/.395 with 2 homers and 14 RBI.
Where can Ruiz improve?
Not my chair, not my problem.