As he has many times already this season, Clayton Kershaw turned into vintage Kershaw on Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Angels. The Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw spun seven scoreless innings with five strikeouts, five hits and two walks.
Driving in the second run of the game to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead (which they would hold) was Will Smith, who was behind the plate to catch Kershaw and bat third in the lineup. This was a surprise for many, as Kerhaw's right-hand man Austin Barnes is typically behind the plate when he pitches.
While Barnes has caught more Kershaw games this season, this is not the first time Smith has caught Kershaw in 2023. In total, Smith has caught six of Kershaw's 15 starts, with the other nine going to Barnes.
This is more than just a one-game sample size, though. Smith catching Kershaw on Tuesday night should be indicative of something bigger; something Dodgers fans have been hoping to see for quite some time.
Clayton Kershaw's gem with Will Smith proved the Dodgers don't need Austin Barnes
If you just look at the surface-level pitching stats, it seems like Kershaw is far better with Barnes behind the plate than Smith. Kershaw has a 1.77 ERA with Barnes catching versus a 4.32 ERA when Smith is catching. However, those numbers for Smith are inflated by Kershaw's one awful start this season: his May 21 outing where he let up four runs in 3.2 innings pitched.
When it comes to team success, the Dodgers are far better when both Kershaw and Smith play. In the six games where Smith has caught Kershaw, the Dodgers are 5-1. In the nine games where Barnes has caught Kershaw, the Dodgers are 5-4.
Plus, it is not like the rest of the pitching staff is benefitting from Barnes. Dodgers pitchers have a 4.56 ERA with Barnes behind the plate and a 4.26 ERA with Smith behind the plate.
This proves that the one good reason to keep Barnes around — to help Kershaw — is just a facade. It really does not seem to make a difference and, if anything, Barnes' atrocious offense is actively hurting the Dodgers when he's in the lineup.
Barnes is batting .107 with a .339 OPS this season. His OPS+ is -5. For those unaware, an OPS+ of 100 is considered average. To be in the negative is to be a new level of bad that is hard to comprehend. In 2019, NL pitchers batted .131 with a .329 OPS. Kershaw is a career .162 hitter with a .390 OPS.
If the Dodgers are going to use Barnes to catch Kershaw then they are legitimately better off letting Kershaw hit for himself and instead DHing Barnes. That's how bad it has gotten.
Not every backup catcher is going to be great offensively, and expecting great offensive numbers out of Barnes is expecting failure. But to be so bad that he equates to a starting pitcher? That warrants change. It especially warrants change when Barnes has played in 30 games this season, and in those 30 games, the Dodgers are 15-15. They are 25-18 when he doesn't play. That's the difference between a 94-win team and an 81-win team.
What makes it even worse is the Dodgers have Hunter Feduccia waiting in the wings to be a backup catcher and provide a much better offensive outlook than Barnes. Sure, the Dodgers may prefer that Feduccia get more consistent playing time in AAA, but it's not like he's even the catcher of the future.
With Diego Cartaya and Dalton Rushing also in the system, Feduccia was never expected to be the starting catcher of the future. Him getting fewer reps as the backup at the big-league level is not going to change the bigger picture.
It certainly would be a far better option than Barnes, though.