Stop me if you’ve heard this one: the Dodgers have the National League’s best record. Just past the one-quarter mark of the season, the team that’s dominated the NL West over the past decade while winning three pennants is back on top with a 27-15 record, that after spending most of April struggling to steer clear of .500. Since April 28, they’ve won 14 of 16, a span that has coincided with the return of Will Smith to the lineup after experiencing concussion-like symptoms.
As he’s been doing so often lately, Smith played a key role in Monday night’s 12-inning win over the Twins at Dodger Stadium. In the first inning, with a man on first, he hit a 398-foot wall-scraper off Pablo López for a two-run homer that immediately preceded a solo shot by Max Muncy. In the third, Smith poked a single to center field and came home on Muncy’s second homer of the night. He didn’t get another hit, but reached on an error in the fifth inning, which prompted Twins manager Rocco Baldelli to pull López from the game. The Twins clawed back from a 5-1 deficit to tie the game via Trevor Larnach‘s three-run eighth-inning homer and send it to extra innings, where they scored first in the 10th. But Smith, serving as the Manfred Man in the bottom of the frame, hustled home on a J.D. Martinez single that re-tied it. The Dodgers won in 12 on Trayce Thompson’s walk-off walk.
Smith has been locked in lately, going 10-for-25 with two doubles, three homers and seven RBIs in his past six games, all wins over the Brewers, Padres, and Twins. In fact, he’s been locked in just about all season save for his time on the sidelines. The 28-year-old slugger started 10 of the Dodgers’ first 13 games behind the plate, but took two foul balls off his catchers’ mask during the team’s April 10-12 series against the Giants. He sat out the first two games of the Dodgers’ subsequent series with the Cubs; before the second one, he told the Dodgers he didn’t feel right but passed a concussion test. “He felt uneasy and foggy,” as manager Dave Roberts explained at the time. Preferring to take a cautious approach, the Dodgers retroactively placed Smith on the 7-day concussion injured list on April 16.
It would be an understatement to say that they missed Smith in his absence. They were just 7-6 when he got hurt, 8-7 when they put him on the IL, and 13-13 when they activated him; they’re a remarkable 19-5 with him in the lineup. Without him for that two-week stretch, their offense curled up in a fetal position:
Dodgers Offense With and Without Will Smith
Through April 12
Since April 28
To the Dodgers’ credit, they didn’t rush Smith back despite the team’s struggles, which owed something not only to his absence but to backup Austin Barnes‘ struggles at the plate; he’s batting .088/.197/.105 in 66 PA overall, and was at .111/.194/.111 during Smith’s absence. Rather than promote a catcher from the minors, the Dodgers picked up Austin Wynns, who had just been released by the Giants; he hit .182/.250/.273 during that stretch before being designated for assignment. In other words, Smith’s absence left an outsized hole in the lineup.
Now he’s back and not only in working order but wielding one of the most potent bats in the game. Due to his absence, he’s 19 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title, but among NL hitters with at least 100 PA (a cutoff I’ll continue to use for these comparisons), his .613 slugging percentage leads the league and his 173 wRC+ trails only Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 175, with his .323 batting average fifth and .412 on-base percentage seventh. Among catchers in either league, only the Braves’ Sean Murphy (.268/.404/.561, 161 wRC+) and the Rangers’ Jonah Heim (.315/.371/.528, 148 wRC+) have provided comparable production, albeit in about 30 or 40 more plate appearances.
Being at the head of the class among catchers is no fluke for Smith. His 135 wRC+ since entering the league in 2019 ranks 17th overall, one point behind Jose Altuve and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and 10 points ahead of any other catcher (Salvador Perez is second at 125). Among catchers, only J.T. Realmuto has outdone his 12.7 WAR, and he has a 500-PA advantage on Smith. Somehow, Smith has never made an All-Star team, a glaring injustice.
Smith is still in small-sample territory in some respects this season, but his numbers are eye-opening and worth a closer look; the ones I’m pointing out are generally from samples large enough to have begun to stabilize. To these eyes, the one that most stands out is that he’s striking out in just 7% of his plate appearances, the lowest rate of any player with at least 100 PA this side of Luis Arraez. That rate is less than half last year’s 16.6%; his 9.6-point drop is the majors’ third largest behind only Victor Robles’ 12.5% (from 25.6% to 13.1%) and Gleyber Torres’ 9.8% (from 22.6% to 12.7%). Batter strikeout rate starts to stabilize at 60 PA, so this is particularly notable.
What’s odd is that Smith isn’t swinging particularly less than in years past, or chasing out of the zone particularly less; his 42.5% swing rate is 0.6% above his career norm, his 25.7% chase rate 1.3% above. His 94.1% zone contact rate and 4.4% swinging strike rate, however, are out of character given respective career marks of 87.2% and 7.5%. When he’s swinging at strikes, he’s making a ton of contact, more on which momentarily.
When he hasn’t swung, Smith has struck out just once; on April 29, the Cardinals’ Jordan Hicks put a slider on the outside edge that Smith could only observe. Only four other hitters have seen at least 400 pitches this year and taken just one called strike three, namely Arraez, Charlie Blackmon, Joc Pederson, and Masataka Yoshida. Meanwhile, Smith has walked in 14% of his plate appearances, about five points behind the rate of NL leader Juan Soto but three points above his own career mark.
Another thing that stands out about Smith is the 43-point gap between his batting average (.323) and BABIP (.280). It’s rare to see a batting average higher than a BABIP, even in a small-ish sample; of the 227 players with at least 100 PA this year through Sunday, only 10 had a higher AVG than BABIP, and six of those were by five points or less. Of the 12,423 player-seasons of at least 100 PA during the Wild Card era, just 431 (3.4%) have a higher AVG than BABIP, the vast majority by fewer than 10 points. Smith, though, he’s in some wild company:
Largest AVG-BABIP Gaps Since 1995
AVG – BABIP
Minimum 100 plan appearances.
All of these guys walk(ed) a lot, but remember, walks aren’t part of the equation for either batting average or BABIP. The power and low strikeout rate do have something to do with it, but given its magnitude, this is most likely a sample size fluke, albeit an amusing one.
As for Smith’s contact, it’s mostly unremarkable:
Will Smith Statcast Profile
A couple of things do stand out here, namely his unusually low barrel rate — which places in the 29th percentile, compared to the 70s for his exit velo and hard-hit rate — and his SLG-xSLG gap. Smith is barreling the ball less than half as often as in any other season, yet still slugging .613. Only one other batter currently has a barrel rate below 5% and a slugging percentage of .500 or better, namely the Diamondbacks’ Geraldo Perdomo, who has a 1.3% barrel rate but a .545 SLG in 105 PA, well ahead of his .314 xSLG. Even at the 100 PA threshold, nobody has combined a sub-5% barrel rate and a .500 SLG in a season since DJ LeMahieu and José Iglesias did so in the pandemic-shortened 2020, though it happened 15 times from 2015-19. Nobody else this season has combined a sub-5% barrel rate and even a .450 xSLG, and only one batter did it in either 2021 or ’22, namely Yandy Díaz (4.8% and .424 last year, one point higher than his actual slugging percentage).
Smith’s 137-point SLG-xSLG gap is tied for third at the 100-PA cutoff, but even so, he’s got the highest xSLG of anyone in the top 20 by 15 points:
SLG-xSLG Gap Leaders
Minimum 100 plate appearances.
What has helped boost that gap for Smith is that he’s 2.4 homers ahead of his Statcast-expected total, which trails only Pete Alonso’s 2.7. Monday night’s homer did bounce off the top of the Dodger Stadium right-center field wall, but its 398-foot estimated distance was one foot shy of his longest such shot of the year, and its 104.5-mph exit velocity and 24-degree launch angle gave it a 3.164 xSLG, his highest for any homer in 2023 (note that such measures don’t account for direction). Still, that one would have been out at only nine of the 30 ballparks. It’s not as though Smith can’t drive for distance, as he hit a 465-footer in Arizona last year, one of his seven homers of at least 420 feet; he averaged 405 feet on last year’s homers but is at just 382 this year. Go figure.
Anyway, there’s a fair bit here that still reads as Small Sample Theater, including the aforementioned 19-5 record with him in the lineup. Smith has had plenty of help during his post-concussion run; since April 28, Mookie Betts (175 wRC+ with six homers), Freddie Freeman (157 wRC+), Chris Taylor (128 wRC+), and Miguel Vargas (124 wRC+) have also been tearin’ up the pea patch, with the rotation (2.71 ERA, 3.50 FIP) and bullpen (2.70 ERA, 3.32 FIP) both holding up their ends of the bargain as well. Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urías, Dustin May, and Tony Gonsolin have each come up big by posting ERAs of 2.41 or lower over their last three starts.
Particularly by beating the Padres in five out of six meetings during this stretch, the Dodgers have seized control of the NL West. They were one game behind the Diamondbacks when Smith returned from his IL stay; Arizona has gone a respectable 10-6 but San Diego has gone just 7-8 while the Dodgers have gone 14-2. Can they sustain this? We’ll see, but if they do, Smith’s role in the turnaround shouldn’t be forgotten.