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Is Will Smith The Future C1 in Fantasy?

Now, this is a story all about how Will Smith is trending up right now. And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, and I’ll tell you how Will Smith can become the top fantasy catcher in the land.

In Northern Kentucky, born and raised, on the diamond is where he spent most of his days. Chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool, and all hitting some dingers outside of the school.

When a couple of pitchers whose stuff was no good, started grooving fastballs in his neighborhood. He hit a bunch of home runs and pitchers got scared, and said “You’re gonna go catch for the Dodgers in Bel-Air”

Okay, I’m not going to do the entire song, but just couldn’t resist opening with that.

Apparently, if your name is Will Smith, you’re probably pretty talented at something. Between the two we have in the Major Leagues and the superstar movie actor, this name carries a lot of weight around the world and in our fantasy baseball world as well. The catcher out in Los Angeles is the one we’ll be focusing on today after an impressive first full season that put him among the elite fantasy backstops heading into 2021. But just how good can Smith be long-term and can he be the top fantasy catcher at some point? Let’s get jiggy with it and dive in.

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Just How Good Can Will Smith Be?

Minor League Track Record & 2020 Performance

After a breakout final season at Louisville vaulted him up draft boards, the Dodgers nabbed Will Smith with the 32nd overall pick in the 2016 MLB draft. His minor league career was fairly consistent year after year, showing below-average contact skills, plus raw power, and a higher walk rate that allowed him to post a .351 OBP despite hitting only .243 over 288 games. Then, in 2019, with the PCL whispering words of encouragement into his ear and bat, Smith posted his best professional season to date, slashing .268/.381/.603 in 62 games with 20 home runs. Add in his impressive debut for the Dodgers and he combined for 35 homers, 96 RBI, and 78 runs scored in 116 games. Those are fantasy C1 numbers right there.

You’d think that a sophomore slump might be in the cards for a catcher coming off a .907 OPS in his rookie season. Nope. While he only played in 37 games (Thanks, Dave Roberts), Smith improved across the board, raising his triple-slash line, improving his walk rate, and drastically cut down his strikeout rate. Strikeouts were never a major issue for Smith in the minors with a career 23% rate, but seeing Smith cut his strikeouts from 26.5% in 2019 to 16.1% in 2020 is very encouraging, even in a shortened season.

Outside of the improved plate approach, Smith dominated most offensive metrics when it came to catchers.

MetricWill SmithCatcher Rank
Avg Exit Velo90.8 mph7th
Contact %85.0%1st
O-Contact %76.2%5th
Z-Contact %88.2%1st
O-Swing %18.2%1st
SwStr %5.7%1st

Plate Approach/Contact Skills

This is the section of this article where your league scoring format really comes into play. When Will Smith was coming up through the minors, a lot of 40 or 45 grades were thrown on his hit tool. And when you see batting averages in the .230-.245 range for his first three professional seasons, the grade makes sense. Smith’s contact skills were the one thing that kept him out of any “future top catcher” discussions, especially if you play in leagues that use AVG instead of OBP.

But with that said, Smith made major improvements nearly across the board with his contact and swing metrics. Most notable are his improvements in O-Swing%, O-Contact%, Contact%, and SwStr%. Call it a small sample size all you want, but these are very encouraging improvements in the area where Smith struggled the most.

Now, is Smith going to develop into a guy that hits .280-.300 regularly? Not likely. However, if some of these improvements can stick, that would go a long way towards Smith hitting around .260 instead of the .240ish hitter he was in the minors. At least his quality of contact metrics are working in his favor, as you’ll see below.

But the great thing about Smith at the plate, outside of the power which I’ll get into shortly, is his ability to work the count and draw walks. This is a skill that has improved as Smith has matured as well. After posting a solid 9.5% walk rate at Louisville, Smith increased that to 12.1% in the minors with a similar 11.4% rate in the Majors. And outside of a 25-game Triple-A stint in 2018, Smith posted a walk rate above 10% at every level as he climbed the organizational ladder.

The solid approach goes further than just posting a high walk rate. When hitters work the count like Smith does, it sometimes can push their strikeout rate higher than their skill set deserves. That hasn’t really been the case with Smith though who has shown good pitch recognition throughout his professional career, never chasing too much junk outside of the zone.

You can see that with his impressive O-Swing metrics so far with the Dodgers. Pitchers would try to get Smith to chase, throwing 52% of pitches outside the zone, but Smith rarely gave in. Even before he improved his O-Swing% 6.7% in 2020, Smith’s 24.9% mark would’ve ranked 18th best in 2019 if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. In 2020, if you lower the threshold to 130-plus plate appearances, Smith had the 4th lowest O-Swing% behind Cavan Biggio, Mike Trout, and Clint Frazier. Not too bad for a catcher.

On top of all that, Smith cut his already above-average chase rate by 7.3% and his whiff rate by 9.5%.

Overall, Smith’s steady improvements at the plate give me plenty of hope that he can settle in as a .260ish hitter that annually finishes with an OBP north of .350. That still makes him a tad more valuable in OBP formats, but I don’t believe Smith will drag down your batting average by any means.

Power Potential

As I mentioned above, the power department is an area where Smith has stood out throughout his professional career. Smith produced at a 31-homer pace per 162-games in the minors and has increased that pace to 41 homers per 162 so far in his 92 games with the Dodgers. I’m not banking on Smith ever reaching that 40-homer plateu which is nearly impossible for catchers to reach these days given the added time off, but Smith absolutely has the power profile to pump out plenty of 25-plus homer seasons which the upside to exceed the 30-homer mark a few times as well.

There are three main reasons why I’m confident in Smith’s power moving forward.

  1. Natural loft in swing
  2. Impressive exit velocity and hard-hit rates
  3. Pull side tendencies in Dodger Stadium

Let’s start with the launch angle. Smith has a slight uppercut swing path through the zone with great rotation and torque. His quick hands allow him to really whip the bat head through the zone with the swing path creating plenty of natural loft. And as you can expect, that has led to a higher launch angle and flyball rate. Smith’s launch angle in 2019 and 2020 was nearly identical at 23.8 and 24.2 degrees respectively while his flyball rates have been 53.7% and 49.5%. Simply put, Smith’s swing is geared for power.

Outside of the launch angle, Smith has posted impressive quality of contact metrics in the Majors, especially in 2020. Smith finished the 2020 season with an 80th percentile or better rank in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xSLG, and barrel % in addition to his 95th percentile xwOBA and 89th percentile xBA.

That’s a lot of pink and red I see. Well, outside of framing, of course. Smith’s power has come as advertised and backs up the plus grades thrown on it during his days as a prospect. With his raw strength, bat path, and pull-happy tendencies, Smith should have no problem ranking as one of the best power-hitting backstops year in and year out. Dodger Stadium has usually played favorably to right-handed pull power as well.

Comparing to Realmuto

You’ve heard the old saying, “To be the champ, you gotta beat the champ.” Well, in order to make the title of this article come to fruition, Will Smith will have to dethrone the current fantasy C1, J.T. Realmuto. While Gary Sanchez challenged for the fantasy catcher crown in 2018/2019, Realmuto currently stands alone atop this position as the lone proven elite option. But will that last for much longer?

In 2020, Realmuto produced better overall stats but also had 58 more plate appearances than Smith did (195 to 137). When you break it down, pound for pound, Smith was actually better in 2020. And that’s no slight to Realmuto in any way, shape, or form. But it’s definitely promising if you’re a Smith fan or roster him in dynasty leagues.

MetricWill SmithJ.T. Realmuto
Avg Exit Velo90.8 mph90.2 mph
Contact %85%73.2%
O-Contact %76.2%61%
Z-Contact %88.2%80.3%
O-Swing %18.2%28.1%
SwStr %5.7%12.1%

Once again, Realmuto finished as the top fantasy catcher in 2020 for fantasy purposes, but when you break it down, he only was able to best Smith in barrel rate when looking at the above metrics.

So why did Realmuto finish as the fantasy C1 and not Smith? It’s all about the volume. Those 58 additional plate appearances in a 60-game season are huge. That would extrapolate out to an additional 157 plate appearances over a full season. That’s hard to overcome. Scratch that, it’s damn near impossible.

As talented as Smith is, the scaled-back playing time is concerning when projecting him as the guy that could knock off Realmuto. A big reason for that is the presence of Austin Barnes. While Smith is highly-talented with a bright future, the Dodgers often looked to Barnes due to his veteran presence and ability to handle the pitching staff. In fact, Barnes served as Clayton Kershaw’s personal catcher in 2020. That’s one start out of five at least where Smith is on the bench. And unfortunately for him, Barnes is under team control for the next two seasons. There’s also Keibert Ruiz waiting in the wings that could absorb some of the reps behind the plate.

2021 Fantasy Outlook

A big part of how you value Will Smith in 2021 and beyond boils down to whether your leagues use AVG or OBP. Don’t get me wrong, he’s highly valuable in both, but his higher walk rate makes Smith a tad more valuable in OBP formats.

For 2021, I have Smith ranked as my #3 catcher overall and debated putting him 2nd above Salvador Perez. Ultimately, the potential for slightly less playing time made me give that 2nd spot to Perez. If you could guarantee me that Smith will get the same amount of playing time, he’d be my no doubt #2 catcher for 2021 redraft leagues. That’s how he was drafted in the nine too early TGFBI mock drafts that took place in October.

  1. J.T. Realmuto – 47.6
  2. Will Smith – 110.9
  3. Salvador Perez – 120.3
  4. Yasmani Grandal – 138.6
  5. Willson Contreras – 140.0

While I’m fully buying in on Will Smith, that 110.9 ADP does seem a tad high to me. But then again, that might just boil down to my philosophy when it comes to drafting catchers in fantasy. That’s a 10th round price tag in 12-team leagues and 8th round in 15-team leagues. I’m 100% fine if Smith is the 2nd catcher off the board, but using one of my top 8-10 picks on a catcher isn’t a route I usually take. I’d rather wait for several rounds and take someone like Sean Murphy or Christian Vazquez.

Dynasty Value

When it comes to dynasty leagues, Will Smith currently slots in as my #2 catcher (behind Realmuto, of course) and barely outside of my top-100 overall. That rank has been steadily climbing over the last 12-18 months as well, inching closer and closer to Realmuto.

When it comes to my initial question, I absolutely believe Smith can overtake Realmuto in 2021 or 2022 as the top fantasy catcher in the game. As long as he gets enough playing time, that is. The National League adopting the DH permanently would be huge for Smith’s playing time and overall fantasy value.

With Smith still only 24 and Realmuto entering his 30’s in March, I do see Smith moving ahead by the time we draft our fantasy teams in 2023. It might even happen in 2021. He better hurry up though, because he’s going to have uber-prospect Adley Rutschman nipping at his heals soon enough.

Media Credit: Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, David Dennis/Icon Sportswire

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