Last Thursday, the Dodgers boarded a flight from San Diego to San Francisco for the regular season’s final series like it was Halloween. A baseball ritual historically earmarked for rookie hazing, no one was spared from dressing up. The entire traveling party — players, coaches, trainers, interpreters, broadcasters — participated. The Dodgers ditched tradition. The rookies were not treated any differently.
It is a theme the Dodgers carried throughout their 106-win season. Rookies were welcomed in the clubhouse. Most contributed. Some thrived. Almost all of it was unexpected. The Dodgers began the season with one rookie — outfielder Alex Verdugo — on their opening day roster. Other promising prospects teemed the upper minors but their arrivals were not on the immediate radar. They were, if anything, potential trade bait to fill holes for a playoff push.
But over the next six months, nine more rookies — some celebrated, others anonymous — appeared in games for the Dodgers. Eight made their big league debuts. A few became mainstays. They energized Dodger Stadium with hyped arrivals, walk-off home runs, and electric fastballs. None were traded. As many as five of those rookies will be on the Dodgers’ roster for the National League Division Series that begins Thursday. Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May, starters converted to relievers in preparation for October, could pitch out of the bullpen. Utility man Matt Beaty could contribute key at-bats and Gavin Lux, the youngest of the bunch, should start at second base against right-handed pitchers.
But only Will Smith’s role appears solidified. After advancing to the World Series the last two seasons despite paltry production from their catchers, the Dodgers are expected to turn to the 24-year-old Smith to start most games behind the plate. They hope to buck history.
The last team to win a World Series with a rookie as its primary catcher was the 2010 San Francisco Giants with Buster Posey. The last team to win a championship with a catcher who debuted that same season? The 1946 St. Louis Cardinals. A 20-year-old man named Joe Garagiola started five of the Cardinals’ seven World Series games.
“I think that with a young catcher, who I don’t think has the mental capacity to handle the stage, potentially,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said when asked if there was any uneasiness about Smith’s lack of experience. “But Will, (with) his mind-set, his intelligence, I’m not concerned about that at all.” A year ago, Smith went home to Kentucky to watch the playoffs after spending September in an intern-like role with the Dodgers. Club officials thought he possessed the defensive skills to play in the major leagues, but were not convinced he was ready offensively. By May 28, after a torrid start with triple-A Oklahoma City, Smith was making his major league debut.
Smith was sent back to the minors after six games, but returned in late June. In his first game back, he clubbed a walk-off home run against the Colorado Rockies after Beaty and Verdugo delivered walk-off blasts the previous two days. It was one of the 12 home runs he slugged in his first 28 games. The Fresh Prince was an instant crowd favorite. The remainder of his season presented more of a challenge.
Smith batted .192 with a .609 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over his final 25 games. He was limited to three home runs and one double. He accumulated 22 strikeouts in 90 plate appearances.
“There’s just some bad habits he got into and that can happen time to time,” said Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations. “And sometimes they’re difficult to work through while mired in playing every day.”
Smith finished the regular season stronger, recording hits in five of his last six starts. He said he believes he has done a good job of adjusting to pitchers. He remains confident. “I’ve learned that I belong here,” Smith said. “I got what it takes to be a really good hitter.”
But the Dodgers will not lean on Smith for offensive production in October. Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Max Muncy and others will assume the offensive load. Smith’s chief responsibility will be to properly handle the pitching staff and navigate games when the intensity is heightened every pitch.
Seager isn’t a catcher but he can relate. In 2015, after 27 games in the majors as a September call-up, he was the Dodgers’ starting shortstop in the NLDS against the New York Mets. He went three for 16 with eight strikeouts and the Dodgers were eliminated in five games.
“I think you work yourself up more than anything,” Seager said. “It’s the time before the games start that get you. The three days off, talking about it, going through all the meetings. It definitely can be overwhelming.”
Smith and the Dodgers’ other rookies have not experienced anything like it. The biggest games of their careers were state championships in high school, super regionals in college, a minor league championship series or their recent major league debuts. Maybe one will shine on the stage and emerge as a breakout star as Andruw Jones, Francisco Rodriguez, David Price and others did for teams in the recent past. They will get the opportunity starting Thursday.
“I’ll be excited,” Smith said. “You just got to treat it like any other game. I’m sure I’ll sleep all right. Just kind of not make it too big.”
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