At the start of September, Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts said this of Will Smith: “For me, he’s with Mookie as far as the best consistent approach, at-bat quality, from the beginning of the season to now.” At the time Roberts said this, Smith was hitting .228 and just came off the IL (neck inflammation). But he was also the unluckiest hitter in the majors, which is why I had decided to start writing an article about him. And then, he ruined that article by hitting .464/.545/.786 over the past two weeks and .533 this week, canceling out the bad luck. What a jerk. Roberts also said of Smith, “He’s just got a good heartbeat and consistent pulse,” proving that 50% of what a manager says is as useful as a fishnet COVID mask.
But back to the Mookie Betts thing. I wrote up Will Smith in my Buy/Sell piece last week as an all-formats must-buy, noting the same parallels to Betts despite having not seen Roberts’s quote. I don’t think it’s crazy to say Smith may already be the best catcher in baseball. And yes, I know J.T. Realmuto exists. I think it’s also not crazy to say that Will Smith may very well be one of the best hitters in baseball, period.
Born to Reign
Will Smith was drafted at the end of the first round in the 2016 compensation round (pick 32 overall). He was lauded for his plus speed, arm and defense, but scouts were concerned he only had gap power. In 2019 Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel rated him baseball’s #80 prospect, noting the Dodgers helped him become more aggressive in his swing mechanics while adding loft for power. They projected he could be a .240 hitter with 20 homers, which would be enough to wrest the job away from Austin Barnes. But then he had an even bigger 2019, hitting .268/.382/.603 with 20 home runs in just 270 Triple-A PA before his call-up. While some of that was surely aided by the Triple-A bouncy ball, it was notable that he lowered his strikeout rate from 28% in 2018 to just 18%, and with an improved walk rate. And that was just the beginning
In the majors, Will Smith made quite a splash when he arrived on the Dodgers’ squad. For most of the first half, the 25-year-old’s playing time was sporadic, and then in August he burst into fantasy relevance hitting .270 with 8 home runs, 15 R, 18 RBI. He hit two walk-off homers, collected a franchise record 19 RBI in his first 14 games, and matched a major league record with 12 taters in his first 28 games. However, in September he faded fast, hitting just .175/.284/.298 over 57 PA, and then going just 1-for-13 in the postseason. Despite the rough finish, his season line was still a healthy .253/.337/.571 with 15 home runs in just 196 PA.
As with most big 2019 debuts from non-star level players, regression was expected for 2020. After all, it seemed like an unsustainable small sample and he had apparent strikeout issues, with a below average 27% K% and 9% BB%. Folks pointed to how Cody Bellinger’s rookie playoff struggles were an omen for his sophomore slump as a cautionary tale for valuing Smith in 2020. But Big Willie Style had other ideas.
Gettin’ Stingy Wit It
Remember what I said about Smith’s 27% K% and 9% BB%? Well leave it up to Will Smith to go “Switch”, because his strikeout and walk rate have practically traded places. 2020 Will is sporting a 19% Walk rate (6th in MLB), over double his 2019 mark, and his Strikeout Rate has plummeted to just 13% (18th in MLB). Combine the two, and his BB/K of 1.5 is 2nd best in baseball, only behind the inimitable Tommy La Stella at 2.63.
Now of course, this could be a small sample size fluke as he still only has 76 PA on the season. It’s much more believable if it’s supported in the per-pitch metrics that stabilize much faster than strikeout and walk rate. Last year, Will Smith was roughly slightly above average at plate discipline and slightly below average in contact rate. But a massive transformation has happened in 2020.
Comparison of Will Smith’s Plate Discipline Data by Year
|Year||O-Swing%||O-Swing% Rank||Contact%||Contact% Rank||SwStr%||SwStr% Rank|
Now, one can argue that a low chase rate (O-Swing%) laying off pitches outside the Strike Zone isn’t in itself a skill. Poor hitters, such as pitchers and Roberto Perez, in the past have chosen to not swing at anything and challenge the pitcher to throw strikes. But it’s a key component of selectivity, to be able to lay off balls but to also swing at strikes. So let’s see how he stacks up against the other Chase Rate leaders. Stat guru Ariel Cohen of the award-winning ATC projections even came up with a metric to determine this called mPDI (Maddux Plate Discipline Index). Then of course, once you actually decide to swing, it helps if you do make contact.
Comparison of O-Swing% leaders in Plate Discipline Outcomes
It’s not a common quality to be able to make Mike Trout look inferior. Not only is he the best by a large margin in laying off bad pitches, he’s also better than all of the other stingy swingers at swinging at the good pitches. That makes him the king of mPDI. And of course, you have better batted ball outcomes if you make contact on pitches on the plate (Z-Contact%). Will Smith didn’t need to rub that in our faces, but he just had to one-up Mike Trout again.
Now, this is an amazing feat of improvement by itself. But one could assume that Will Smith accomplished this by sacrificing his power for contact, as other sluggers have attempted with varying levels of success. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Fresh Prince of Big Air
Last year, I wrote about the rise of David Fletcher and Luis Arraez, two players who, despite their lack of raw talent, were able to maximize their value by avoiding strikeouts and only swinging at pitches on the plate. But they lack upside due to having very little power. It’s an extreme type of player, and on the other extreme you have mashers with high hard contact like Luis Robert and Miguel Sano. When a player has both power and good plate discipline, like Trent Grisham did early this year, they exhibit true star potential.
Comparison of Will Smith’s Statcast and Batted Ball Data by Year
|Year||Barrel/BBE (mph)||AVG eV||FB+LD%||Pull%||Soft%||HardHit%|
Smith already displayed power in 2019, but he’s managed to not only turn his greatest weakness (strikeouts) into his greatest strength, but he strengthened this strength too. Smith still lacks the raw max exit velocity of the league’s top sluggers, as his 109 mph max exit velocity is merely average (albeit in fewer attempts than most) and is tied with… Tommy La Stella, we meet again. It’s actually interesting as La Stella is known for combining his high contact approach with flyballs, but Will Smith is even more extreme with the second-lowest groundball rate, behind only Anthony Santander, who had a pretty fine year himself.
While it may concern some that he’s hitting so many balls in the air, the fact that he’s doing it while limiting soft contact suggests he can make it work. And the fact that he’s spraying the ball to all fields evenly suggests he may have even more power upside he can unlock if he starts pulling more flyballs. That’s not to say his power is world-beating. But still, he’s now making this high-quality contact on a lot more balls, which has a big impact on his stats and expected stats.
Will Smith’s Actual Vs. Expected Stats
See, this is why we should be careful in using expected stats on rookies to attempt to prognosticate their future. I have never been guilty of this and definitely didn’t make a 2020 bold prediction that Danny Santana would outproduce Fernando Tatis Jr. because Tatis had a mediocre xBA and xSLG last year. What’s crazy is that Smith is actually still slightly below his expected rates. Sure, Statcast’s expected stats are more descriptive than predictive, but swing rates, contact% and flyball% are all sticky skills. Even with some regression baked in with his combination of all three, I can’t see how he can fail to hit for power, average, and elite OBP.
Will.I.Am Legend – The Search for a Top Comp
Smith currently rates 5th in the league in wRC+, behind Soto, Cruz, Judge, and Freeman, and just a smidge ahead of Mike Trout. But I think his combination of skills is different from these hitters, and it’s more instructive to look at the most similar hitters based on some of the most important outcome-driving categories. After all, the four pillars of a good batter are exit velocity, good launch angles, plate discipline, and contact ability. I used HardHit% for exit velocity and FB+LD% for launch angle since they are less prone to being influenced by outliers. I also added a fifth category, Barrel/PA, as that’s the special sauce that combines elements of all of them, at least in some sense, and thus is a decent heuristic for overall batter quality.
I tried to find the most similar players I could, alternately sorting by O-Swing%, wRC+, Swinging Strike Rate, GB%, and these were the closest matches. It’s a shame that Statcast’s Player Similarity Feature is down for 2020 as I didn’t much enjoy pretending to be their fancy algorithm. As you can probably tell by a brief poring through the charts, there is no player that is that identical to Smith in every aspect of his game. But the names that come closest? Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Anthony Rendon, in that order (Trent Grisham and Freddie Freeman were the runners-up). These are all elite hitters. I thought this article would confirm that once you remove the speed and defense component (which granted, are important), Will Smith is a catcher-eligible Mookie Betts. But it turns out he’s just as close if not closer to being a catcher-eligible almost-Mike Trout. Neat!
Well, okay, maybe I should say almost almost-Mike Trout. There is a big difference between a 58% Hard Hit% and a 48% Hard Hit%, as Mike Trout ranks 3rd in baseball and Smith ranks 29th. The latter is still quite good but not at that truly elite level. Even though Smith beats Trout in Contact% and O-Swing%, it’s quite possible if not probable that Hard Hit% is a stronger indicator of success (though I’d argue that Barrel% is the most important and they tie there). And these categories are not weighted for standard deviations or predictive value. Lastly, perhaps it’s worth differentiating fly balls and line drives, since line drives are flukier but have better outcomes. Perhaps Smith’s extreme flyball-heavy approach isn’t such a good thing if you can’t back it up with power (see Tommy La Stella once more). But the point stands that if Will Smith keeps this up, these fantasy studs are the hitters he should be compared to, and other top catchers like Yasmani Grandal and Willson Contreras don’t even come close to comparing.
This is a lot of fun to compare, but I admit one very big caveat… At the end of the day, I’m getting hyped over less than 100 plate appearances… 95 PA, to be exact. In a regular 162-game season, this would be less than 1/5th, maybe even 1/6th of the at-bats he’d have over the year, and could easily degrade with more exposure or fatigue. And no, I’m not saying Will Smith is Mike Trout (stolen bases notwithstanding) because part of what makes Mike Trout Mike Trout is his ability to consistently deliver this level of production year after year. All I’m saying is that at least in these small samples the signs are there for his potential to hit sort of like Mike Trout, the 2020 version of Trout, anyway.
When we look at the pool of elite catching talent it’s worth noting that Smith is the youngest. Realmuto is 29, Willson Contreras is 28, Gary Sanchez is 27, Salvador Perez is 30 (I assumed Sal would be a lot older actually), but Smith is just 25. Although catcher bats often develop late, age 26 is often the peak season, and I don’t see any reason to think going forward he can’t be the best catcher in baseball, at least offensively. Even if he doesn’t improve further and his 2021 numbers regress some with more plate appearances, he already leads all catchers in barrel rate (per PA), walk rate, strikeout rate. Realmuto could have an edge in stolen bases, but Smith can still get a handful of bags with his 69th percentile sprint speed and outpace J.T. enough in the other categories to still provide more value.
One criticism of Smith is that he had struggled vs. lefties, which has limited his exposure to tougher matchups. There may be some truth to the matchup advantage, but with his stats against lefties in just two seasons is still mostly small sample size noise. Thanks to facing more lefties during his hot run, this year he’s batting .333 with 2 Homers and a 6/2 BB/K, so he has earned more playing time versus southpaws. While he may not play quite as regularly as the bulldog-esque Realmuto and Salvador, if the NL keeps the DH in 2021, they can cycle him in there for rest. This would be the smart move, as he’ll provide more offense at the DH slot than anyone else. And even if there is no NL DH in 2021, Will’s bat may be big enough to still make him baseball’s top offensive catcher anyway.
At some point the fantasy community will catch up, but I think he’s displayed enough offensive prowess to be an early round target on draft day and deserving of a Top 75 overall pick in 2021. Maybe by the time his reign is over, people will see the actor/rapper and say “Hey, that’s the guy with the same name as the MVP and Future Hall of Famer Will Smith!” Hey, a man can dream.