This player is the Dodgers' secret weapon

On a team of big names, an underrated young player is blossoming

September 19th, 2020

Let's play a little word association. When you read the word "Dodgers," which current hitter comes to mind first?

Admittedly, this is a tricky task, because as the deepest team in baseball and the first to clinch a postseason berth, the Dodgers are loaded with stars, particularly on offense.

Is it Mookie Betts, the shiny new star acquired from the Red Sox last offseason in a blockbuster trade who is pushing to join Frank Robinson as the only players to win MVP in both leagues?

Or perhaps you're picturing Cody Bellinger, the second-generation big leaguer and reigning NL MVP who also set the Senior Circuit's rookie home run record in 2017?

How about Corey Seager, who won NL Rookie of the Year honors the year before Bellinger did and is enjoying a resurgent campaign after battling injuries the past two years?

And who could forget Justin Turner, so widely recognized for his signature shock of red hair, shaggy beard and propensity to come up clutch in the postseason?

You probably thought of one (or more) of those names -- or even Max Muncy or Joc Pederson or AJ Pollock -- immediately, right?

But it's possible there's one player you did not think of initially -- or maybe at all -- even though he's been, by some underlying measures, right up there with Betts as the club's most impactful hitter in 2020, making him the Dodgers' secret weapon on offense.

His name? Who else -- Will Smith.

That's right: Despite not being even the most well-known Will Smith in baseball (and certainly not the most famous Will Smith in Hollywood), the second-year catcher is blossoming into one of the offensive fulcrums on a team filled with much bigger (and less generic-sounding) names.

Need some proof? Let's start simple. Smith has a triple-slash line of .303/.417/.596, which is good for an OPS+ of 171. That's the highest mark on Los Angeles, ahead of even Betts (163) and Seager (155) and puts Smith among some extremely impressive company.

*Top 10 in OPS+ in 2020**
Juan Soto: 206
Freddie Freeman: 191
DJ LeMahieu: 186
Nelson Cruz: 177
Mike Trout: 176
Salvador Perez: 175
Dominic Smith: 175
Manny Machado: 171
Will Smith: 171
José Abreu: 170
*Minimum 100 plate appearances

As lofty as those numbers are, though, you won't find Smith on any batting leaderboards, yet another reason why he's been so overlooked this year.

The 25-year-old missed 10 games early on with a neck injury from a collision at home plate on Aug. 3 and as such, likely won't reach enough plate appearances to qualify. Adding insult to said injury, when Smith went on the 10-day injured list on Aug. 15, he was hitting just .188/.341/.406 in 14 games and almost certainly affected by the collision from 12 days earlier.

"There was some sharp pain in there that was kind of concerning [at the time]," Smith said of the injury, "but I was playing through it."

By the time Smith resurfaced on Aug. 23, the shortened season was already a month old, and he had very little to show for it. No wonder few have noticed how great he's been.

Since returning with a bang -- he homered in his first game back -- Smith is batting .368/.463/.702 in 16 games.

That answers the who (Smith) and the what (Dodgers' secret weapon) so far. Now for the how and the why.

First of all, Smith has put in the work. He trained with the Dodgers' staff, including current hitting coach and noted launch-angle specialist Robert Van Scoyoc, to adjust his swing path and efficiency during the 2018-19 offseason. That led to a breakout in the power department last year.

Listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, Smith is not exactly an imposing physical presence who looks the part of a power hitter. He managed just nine homers in 151 games across three years at the University of Louisville before the Dodgers took him No. 32 overall in the 2016 MLB Draft, in large part because they liked his athleticism and defensive ability.

By the time Smith had emerged for his first extended shot in The Show last July, however, he had hammered 20 homers in only 62 games at Triple-A while slugging .603 at Oklahoma City. He then nearly sustained that level of production with the Dodgers, crushing 15 long balls in 54 games -- including surpassing Bellinger to become the fastest Dodgers player to reach 10 career homers (25 games) -- to go with a .574 slugging percentage last season.

While Smith hasn't gone on a 2020 homer binge (yet) -- he has six in 30 games -- his 23.4-degree average launch angle is in the top 10 (minimum 50 batted ball events), and his average distance on batted balls (220 feet) is in the top five, along with unquestioned sluggers Mike Trout, Adam Duvall, Trevor Story and Miguel Sanó.

What’s really fascinating, though, is how Smith has overhauled his approach at the plate this year.

As a rookie, he got off to that incredible start but ultimately dropped off, hitting .183/.277/.305 over his final 26 games. He also wound up striking out 26.5 percent of the time in '19.

"I kind of went through a low point at the end of last year, just not hitting the ball square," Smith said of his late-2019 performance.

Fast forward to this year, and Smith's strikeout rate is down to a mere 14.8 percent -- good for one of the 10 biggest improvements in strikeout rate among all players. At the same time, his walk rate is way up, from 9.2 percent to 16.7 percent -- again, that's one of the 10 biggest gains in the sport. Put both together, and he’s in a very small group of players with more walks than strikeouts (minimum 100 plate appearances).

*Top 5 in K% Decline from 2019 to 2020**
Austin Riley: -13.5% (from 36.4% to 22.8%)
Rowdy Tellez: -12.6% (from 28.4% to 15.7%)
Will Smith: -11.7% (from 26.5% to 14.8%)
Aaron Hicks: -10.3% (from 28.2% to 18.0%)
Tyler O'Neill: -9.9% (from 35.1% to 25.2%)
*Minimum 100 plate appearances each season

Already having acquired the ability to hit the ball in the air and starting to excel by reworking his swing, Smith has undertaken a new goal in addressing his plate discipline as a way to better put that swing to use.

"Overall, I feel like I've been hitting the ball hard, walking and not striking out," Smith said.

This shows up primarily in two key metrics for Smith. The first is his chase rate -- the percentage of swings at pitches thrown out of the strike zone -- which Smith has slashed from 22.6 percent in '19 to 13.1 percent this year. Put simply, he is swinging at out-of-zone offerings less than any player in baseball in 2020. Hunting for hittable pitches and letting ones outside the zone go by is a surefire way to get better.

*Top 5 in Lowest Chase Rate in 2020**
Will Smith: 13.1%
Mike Trout: 13.4%
Cavan Biggio: 13.8%
Clint Frazier: 14.2%
Juan Soto: 14.4%
*Minimum 200 out-of-zone pitches

The other aspect of Smith's plate discipline that he's enhanced is his whiff rate -- the percentage of the time a player misses when he swings -- which he has cut from 25.0 percent in '19 to 14.1 percent this season. Yet again, Smith now ranks among the best at this, just outside the top 10 in lowest whiff rate (minimum 100 pitches swung at), a list that features DJ LeMahieu (11.4 percent), Anthony Rendon (13.8) and Betts (14.0).

By combining these two improved skills -- swinging less often at bad pitches and making contact more often overall when swinging -- Smith has ascended toward the top of another key metric: percentage of hard-hit balls per swing (minimum 50 batted ball events), which is a veritable who's who of the game's best bats, including Fernando Tatis Jr., Soto, Trout, Seager and Betts.

In short, Smith's rate of 20.6 percent means he hits the ball hard (exit velocity of 95-plus miles per hour) one out of every five swings he takes.

"Just sticking to my approach is what I've been doing all year," Smith said after the Dodgers' playoff clinch. "Hit the ball hard where it's pitched, swing at the right pitches and not chase."

While that adjusted approach isn't a loud change that has lavished national attention on Smith's performance to this point, it is being noticed by the Dodgers, who have been batting Smith in the heart of their incredibly deep and dynamic lineup of late. After being penciled into the bottom third of the order for most of the season, Smith has hit fourth or fifth in each of his past five starts.

"He's shown me enough consistency with the at-bat quality -- the simplified approach, the plan, the mechanics," manager Dave Roberts said of Smith recently. "As we look to finish the season, based on performance and my trust in players, Will is taking every at-bat and making it a really good at-bat. I just think he's earned this opportunity to hit in the middle of the order."

Hitting in the middle of the order for arguably the best team in baseball? Maybe that finally will garner some recognition for Smith, especially if he keeps it up down the stretch and into October.