Dodgers’ Will Smith finding the right angles at the plate

Nights like Wednesday make it easy to see why the Dodgers value Will Smith. As the Dodgers made history against the Angels and Tyler Anderson hunted down a potential no-hitter, it was the 27-year-old backstop who crouched behind the plate, occasionally punching buttons on the PitchCom device above his right knee.

In the first inning of the 4-1 win, Smith smashed an elevated two-strike breaking ball from Reid Detmers for a three-run homer, the kind of momentum he’s been seeking for much of this season.

Public metrics have shown that Smith has fluctuated between strong and less than stellar framing, almost a requirement of how clubs rate catcher position. However, the bat was a constant. Since his debut in 2019, Smith has led all catchers (min. 1,000 plate appearances) in wRC+ and OPS while trailing only Willson Contreras and JT Realmuto in the baseball reference WAR.

“I think he’s the best catcher in baseball,” Smith’s manager Dave Roberts said this week. Finding the hit production to mirror has been an ongoing process this summer. His overall line was positive, especially given the state of the game’s offensive environment. But his current .244/.348/.424 line would represent a career low in each of the three categories.

He’s done so while hitting the ball as hard on average as he has in any campaign outside of 2020, with a red-covered Baseball Savant side indicating his solid underlying production. He hits the ball hard. Only one baseball hitter, Houston’s Alex Bregman, swings out of the hitting zone at a slower rate.

“Personally, I think he’s going to get to .300 at some point,” said hitting coach Brant Brown.

“He knows his terms, what he’s willing to give and what he’s doing.”

But despite all of that, he’s continued to find his proper development as a hitter – while embracing the physical demands and conflicts that come with being on the plate rather than behind it.

The looseness and flexibility required to handle the position’s defensive duties was in direct conflict with how Smith swings a racquet – something that was an ongoing problem when he was dealing with a nagging adductor strain in the early months of the season was struggling in his right hip .

“He needs looseness in his body to catch and tension in his body to score,” Brown said of Smith. “That’s why we see the kind of fluctuations we have because his body is getting too loose.”

And with that hip problem earlier in the season, he overcompensated.

“I kind of got caught,” Smith said.

Maybe no coincidence, it changed the type of damage Smith could do — especially on the four-seam fastballs he was always crushing. In fact, using Statcast run stats, he started Thursday as one of the 10 worst hitters in baseball this year against the Fourseamers.

Will Smith vs. Four Seam Fastballs

YEAR RUN VALUE avg SLG wOBA

2019

5

.200

.583

.378

2020

3

.286

.714

.461

2021

10

.306

.628

.445

2022

-7

.151

.245

.268

“It seemed like he was a little bit in between and later moving on fastballs and missed pitches that we would normally hit,” Roberts said.

So they recalibrated how those hips worked in his swing. They mentally kept his swing tight and simple while recognizing some of the drills Smith uses before games that have the opposite purpose of keeping him fluid in his moves behind the plate.

“I think if you threw (him) that spot tonight,” Brown said, “it might be a different story.”

It comes as Smith has shifted other focuses of his swing as well, whether it’s from a baseball just not carrying like it has in recent years or a simple evolution to maximize an extreme approach that Smith has made work .

For one, Smith is trying to hit the ball lower – likely because he doesn’t have much more room to go higher. Only five hitters with at least 500 plate appearances had a higher starting angle than Smith from 2019-2021 (a diverse group of hitters ranging from elite to fairly prolific: Adam Duvall, Joey Gallo, Rhys Hoskins, Brandon Belt, and Mike Trout).

He’s already made a significant drop in the past season, losing almost five degrees of loft while still producing substantial power. Now they’re pushing further in that direction as a mental cue while recognizing that Smith’s ability to add backspin to a baseball will still create plenty of home run opportunities.

“We call it Apex, similar to Golf,” Brown said. “He hits the ball higher and when it comes down, phew, he goes forward. This is just a special ability, but once it gets too high it will go nowhere.

“To him, low line drive is really a simple cue to simplify and let the swing do what it needs to do instead of what it’s currently doing.”

Smith’s swing has changed since the Dodgers picked him in the first round in 2016, with the team emphasizing Smith’s supernatural batting quality and finding ways to add more power.

“(It’s) not necessarily hitting the ball higher,” Smith said. “It’s about generating more racquet speed and staying behind the ball.”

That allows him to still do that. Now, with more swings like Wednesday, he hopes to get there more often.

(Photo: Richard Mackson / USA Today)

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