Dodgers: Underlying numbers behind Will Smith, how the ‘Fresh Prince’ grew stale
The Underlying Numbers
The overall sense I got from looking at Smith’s statistics was that there is a lot of conflicting analysis. No player I’d ever analyzed before had so many strange data points. While that worried me at first, I’ve gotten pretty good and making these sorts of calls based on the data, and so I’ll try and do just that again for you, but just know it might get bumpy.
For starters, Smith’s had a small sample size of playing time at the Major League level. During that small sample with the Dodgers, he’s put up two even smaller sets of data, one in which he was the best hitting catcher in the league, and one in which he’s hit like, I don’t know, Austin Barnes.
In that first sample, the league took notice, and the great first impression helped him keep his newfound gig. Here’s what Fangraphs blogger Tony Wolfe wrote on Smith back in late-August:
Smith, 24, had played in just nine big league games before being called up. A month later, he might be the best offensive catcher in baseball.That sounds jarring until you look at his numbers. In 102 plate appearances, Smith is hitting .318/.392/.818 with 12 homers and a 197 wRC+. In just 28 games, he already leads all catchers in offensive runs above average (Off). That is a counting stat.
Basically, through his first real stint as an MLB starter, Smith was the best he could possibly have been. Here’s some more context from Wolfe:
… there’s evidence to support the notion that he’s a top-tier catcher bat. With 64 batted ball events under his belt, his barrel rate is 9.8%. For reference, Peter Alonso’s barrel rate is 9.9%
That was all back about a month ago though. How does he look now? Has he kept up the ‘Alonso-esque’ barrel rate? Is he still the game’s best offensive catcher?
Not by any metric. He no longer has the insane numbers that warranted his early spot in the lineup, and we’ve all seen him fall back down to Earth, and consequently fall back down into the eighth spot in the lineup.
But back in August he certainly was. He had the second-best ISO and SLG (both power statistics) amongst catchers, while leading all catchers (in a tie with Gary Sanchez) in home runs.
What’s changed since? His strikeout rate has leaped up from 24.7% to 33.3%, moving him from being average in that measurement to the fifth-worst rate amongst catchers this month. His batting average has also gone down, thanks to a BABIP that has dipped from .270 in August down to its September mark of .120. His ISO is currently 0. In August, he had an ISO of .378. He also has no home runs this month, as he hasn’t left the yard since August 31 at Arizona.
What in his batted ball profile has changed though to cause these shifts? A .120 BABIP is insanely low, that’s one number that stuck out to me, as is an ISO of 0.
BABIP, batting average on balls in play, is a stat affected by how you hit the ball. Guys who make a lot of hard contact on the ground and in the form of line drives have healthier BABIPs, while guys who hit a lot of fly balls, even if they hit them hard, have lower BABIPs. Smith has a flyball rate of 55.2% this season. In August, he led all catchers with a 61.1% fly-ball rate.
That means he is already prone to a low BABIP, and he was at .261 in August. So why did it go down? He’s still hitting a lot of flyballs, but there must be a difference in how they’re being hit.
In August, his HR/FB sat at 24.2%. So far in September, he has no home runs for a Dodgers team that misses his bat, but he still has a 56% fly-ball rate. In August, Smith also had a 14.8% soft contact rate, meaning he hit the ball well more than 85% of the time, and that number is only 1.2% higher in September.
He’s still making seemingly good contact, and if you watch Dodger games it has shown, especially in the series with the Rays, that he’s been unlucky. The question now is just whether or not he can translate that contact into the results he did in August.