The Dynasty Guru’s 2021 Top 40 Dynasty League Catchers: Catcher to Target
Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers, (Age: 26, Previous Rank: 6)
I’m the first to target an underappreciated player in dynasty rankings, but this time I’m going to highlight one of the top-tier players at the catcher position, Will Smith. He’s currently 25 years old but will turn 26 before the start of the regular season. A right-handed hitter with decent-if-not-undersized size for a catcher (5’10”, 195 lbs), and not necessarily elite with the glove, he’s above average and doesn’t figure to move off the position through his prime.
Back in 2017, Smith was a bit of an afterthought as far as catching prospects go. He was showing some power, but people questioned the hit tool. Also, the Dodgers had Yasmani Grandal, with Kiebert Ruiz presumably the next in line, so there were questions where he’d find playing time. Since then, things have really taken off for Smith, and he’s now firmly established himself atop the Dodgers catching depth chart. At the plate, he’s put up wRC+ north of 130 at each stop with any kind of notable playing time the last 3 seasons, including wRC+ of 132 in his rookie year of 2019, and wRC+ of 162 in 2020. Both years in the majors, Smith’s SLG% has been over .570, and last year still with a BABIP below .300, he managed a .289 batting average. The average success has a lot to do with his approach, but more on that later.
In 2020 Will Smith had the 14h highest wOBA in baseball (min 50PA, the graphic below) at .404, but he also had the 14th highest xwOBA at .386, which was behind studs like Soto, Freeman, Harper, Trout, Tatis Jr., Acuna, and Springer. Yes, having a good wOBA and xwOBA puts you in some good company. In fact, as far as catchers go, Smith’s .404 wOBA was tops in the league, and the only two catchers within .030 points of that mark were Sal Perez (.403) and Travis D’Arnaud (.386).
This of course translated into fantasy baseball success and provided Will Smith a roto scoring line of 53 runs, 23 home runs, 68 RBI, one steal, and a batting average of .268 in 91 career games, or 282 plate appearances.
Smith’s approach and plate discipline are my favorite part of his game. In his’19 debut, he managed a 9.2% walk rate and a 26.5% strikeout rate, then stepped up his game last year and improved to a 14.6% walk rate and 16.1% strikeout rate. Small sample in 2020, but looking deeper the was a noticeable improvement in one area: he just wasn’t swinging at bad pitches. His O-Swing% rate was 5th lowest in baseball (min 50PA) at 18.2%, and his O-Contact 23rd in baseball, at 76.2%. Basically, he almost always swung at strikes, and when he didn’t, he still had success at making contact.
Here’s another chart of how often Smith avoids swinging at pitches out of the zone compared to league average, quantifying just how valuable it is not to swing at balls, and how much Smith excelled at that part of the game. In fact, this metric suggests there could be an improvement if Smith started swinging at more meatballs in the center of the plate.
This discipline affected the way pitchers approached him, seeing fewer breaking balls (29.7% in ’20) than in 2019 (36.1%) and increasing fastballs seen from 55.7% up to 57.8% in 2020. It only makes sense that a hitter will have better results when he swings at strikes, and a hitter who refuses to chase a breaking ball out of the zone forces pitchers to throw more strikes, at the risk of the hitter being put in favorable counts. Factor in the number of two-pitch pitchers in the game today, both starters and relievers, Will Smith has the skills to get himself leverage in many of his at-bats.
It should not surprise that a hitter’s xwOBA is lower on breaking balls than fastballs, given most of the time the breaking ball would be out of the zone, but the difference is notable with Smith. Last year he had a .652 xSLG, .435 xwOBA & 95.3 exit velocity vs fastballs, and .439 xSLG, .350 xwOBa & 85.3 exit velocity on breaking balls. That’s a considerable difference in results from one type of spin to another and lends credibility to improved batted ball events we saw, simply by forcing the pitcher to throw better pitches to hit.
From a dynasty perspective, it can be risky to invest in catchers. There are so many up and down seasons that I prefer to target the good ones. Catcher is a position that can easily produce a negative offensive value and having one of the top guys is a great way to gain an advantage over your competition. At 26, I believe Will Smith has established himself as one of the top options already and looks to have the skills to stay towards the top of the catcher rankings for five or six more years with good health. Smith has the perfect blend of youth, power, and proven results that make him an ideal target over the other players at the position.