When Will Smith debuted earlier this year, he made a pretty big splash. After a couple of brief call ups he finally took over the starting catcher duties back in late July. The rookie clubbed 12 homeruns in his first 28 games, including two walk-off dingers that made him an instant fan favorite.
Through the end of August, Smith was batting a robust .292/.364/.702 with a 1.072 OPS and 13 homeruns. But then came September.
Since the start of this month, Smith has struggled. He’s hitting only .079/.143/.079 over 42 PA in September, and has yet to get an extra base hit.
Smith’s recent skid has some concerned that the rookie might have hit a wall. Whether it’s a fatigue issue or just that major league pitchers are making adjustments to him, there’s no doubt that Smith is slumping.
Will Smith caught a case of the Austin Barnes ??
— NC Dinos fan (@innocentfernie_) September 19, 2019
There’s not always one definitive reason why a player starts to slump. Sometimes a hitter picks up some bad habits at the plate. Other times their mechanics may be thrown off for a while or they’re just not seeing the ball well. Add all these considerations to the fact that baseball is a pretty difficult game already, and you can understand how every player is going to have some ups and downs.
One factor that can’t be overlooked in Smith’s case is the possibility of fatigue. We’re nearly at the end of September now, and players are likely feeling the accumulation effects of an entire season. Smith has played 110 games so far in 2019, and there’s still a few weeks to go in the regular season, plus playoff games ahead. Before this season, the most Smith ever played was last year, when he logged 98 games total.
Another aspect of Smith’s offensive regression could be that pitchers are making adjustments. Many times, rookies will get called up and take the league by storm initially. Then, after opposing pitchers have had a chance to face them a few times, and scouting reports catch up, those same rookie hitters will start to struggle until they make the necessary counter-adjustments. It’s all part of the game.
Looking deeper into his offensive numbers this month, a couple of things stand out. Smith is walking slightly less and striking out a bit more in September, but the good news is that when he’s hitting the ball, he’s still hitting it fairly well. His hard hit percentage since September 1st is 40.0%, almost identical to his 40.7% mark in August, when his offensive numbers were much better. Add to that the fact that his BABIP is only .120 in September compared to .261 in August, and you could argue that Smith is getting a little unlucky.
On the defensive side, Smith has held his own. However, there were some rumblings about his influence on the pitching staff, and whether the recent struggles by the starters had anything to do with him being behind the plate.
— David Vassegh (@THEREAL_DV) September 4, 2019
This claim is tough to gauge, as there are so many other variables to consider. Also, any young catcher has to have time to build rapport with the pitchers on the team, and Smith is still pretty new to the staff. With all that said, it doesn’t seem like this should be much of a concern at the moment.
There’s no need to panic just yet. After all, we are still talking about a pretty small sample size in terms of Smith’s September numbers. Even with his current slump, Smith still has a .860 OPS on the year, which is the 4th highest mark in baseball among catchers with at least 170 plate appearances.
There’s not much the Dodgers can do at the moment other than try to balance out Smith’s playing time as the regular season comes to an end. He’ll need rest to stay fresh for the post season, but he’ll also need regular at-bats so he can try to right the ship before then.
Besides, it’s not like there’s another viable option for the Dodgers to consider anyway. Russell Marin is not an everyday catcher at this point in his career and Austin Barnes is, well… still Austin Barnes.
Smith offers so much upside offensively, and if he gets anywhere close to where he was before September, it gives the Dodgers lineup a significant boost. There was no way the numbers Smith put up earlier this year were sustainable. Likewise, the struggles he’s had over the last couple of weeks probably won’t persist all year either.
Here’s hoping to a resurgence from the Fresh Prince.