It was impossible to tell at the time, but Dodgers catcher Will Smith was playing his best this season when his body felt the worst.
That huge month he had in May, when he batted .318 with nearly twice as many RBIs as strikeouts? Or that steady performance through June and early July, when he earned his first career All-Star selection while playing more behind the plate than ever before?
Turns out, he was doing it with a broken rib and an oblique strain that dated to when he was hit by a pitch on April 30, injuries he first disclosed to AM570 last week.
“I felt it for like three or four weeks,” Smith said. “It was pretty painful.”
It’s only been recently, however, that the injury has begun to have an impact on the catcher’s play, with the Dodgers citing its lingering effects as one of several factors behind his second-half drop off.
Going into the All-Star break, Smith had a .279 batting average, 13 home runs and 46 RBI, an .889 on-base-plus-slugging percentage that ranked third-best on the team, and was one of just five qualified big-leaguers with more walks (44) than strikeouts (39).
Since then, his production has been in decline. In his last 54 games entering Friday, Smith is batting just .244 with five home runs and 26 RBI. He has an OPS of .702 in that span, registering as a below league-average mark. He’s not getting on base nearly as often, either, drawing just 18 walks while striking out 46 times.
Now, with the playoffs just a few weeks away, both he and the Dodgers are trying to rediscover the form that made him a dominant, middle-of-the-order threat earlier this season.
They remain confident the 28-year-old slugger will bounce back offensively before October arrives.
But they are on the clock nonetheless, running short on time to try and rectify the swing of one of their most important players.
“It hasn’t been great the last couple of months,” manager Dave Roberts acknowledged this week. “He went a little sideways.”
While standing in front of his locker Thursday, Smith did his best to explain the issues that have plagued his performance.
Instead of his typically smooth, compact inside-out swing, Smith said his bat path has been too “out to in” lately, leading to more whiffs and mis-hits on pitches he used to crush.
He said his front side is opening up too much, causing him to cut across the ball instead of driving it with his easy pop.
And in an effort to fix things, he has spent extra time working on his mechanics lately, taking dozens of hacks in early batting practice sessions with hitting coaches Aaron Bates and Robert Van Scoyoc, as well as several at-bats in an afternoon sim game against live pitching earlier this week.
“There’s days where it feels close, and there’s days where it feels terrible,” Smith said. “But that’s baseball.”
Though he initially played well in the wake of his rib injury — which came just days after he returned from an early-season concussion he sustained on a foul ball that hit him in the mask — the Dodgers believe Smith’s pain slowly caused some unintended bad habits to develop in his swing.
The problems he mentioned with his front side are in the same area of his body where he suffered his broken rib, which came on a 90 mph sinker from St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Jake Woodford.
And while his numbers didn’t begin dropping until after he started feeling better, it has taken much longer to undo some of the mechanical changes that have hampered him at the plate.
“He’s a competitor, so he’s never gonna say that he’s hurt,” Bates said. “But he was basically just playing through stuff, and it wasn’t doing him any good.”
Added Roberts: “There was probably a little bit of guarding [the injury] initially after. And then when you’re talking about the rib, the oblique, that sort of dovetails into some changed mechanics.”
There have been other contributing factors to Smith’s struggles.
While the fifth-year backstop has downplayed the impacts of his increased workload this season — he has started in 100 of the 139 games he’s been available for, on pace for a career-high rate — Van Scoyoc acknowledged that typical fatigue has taken a toll.
“He’s dealt with getting a little sore and tired,” Van Scoyoc said.
Bates also noted that, because catchers spend so much time squatting behind the plate, the team has tried to not let Smith’s body get too loose physically, putting him through a strength training routine designed to maintain the muscular tension that generates much of his power.
“All of it kind of plays into effect,” Bates said. “It slowly builds on each other.”
To this point, none of the issues have set off alarm bells within the club about Smith’s ability to contribute in the postseason.
Despite a season-worst .193 batting average in September, Smith believes he has been “hitting the ball pretty hard” the last three weeks without it being reflected in the results.
“There’s still some swing and miss, but the balls I have hit hard have been right at guys,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if some of those fall.”
Bates said the team has also identified the differences between Smith’s swing before the broken rib and after, helping him “break it down step by step” as he tries to re-establish the fundamentals that have made him one of the sport’s top offensive catchers.
“He’ll be all right,” Bates said. “He’s such a good player, he finds ways to get it done even if he’s not feeling his best.”
Still, the calendar won’t wait for Smith to get things completely straightened out.
It might have taken a while for the full effects of his rib injury to become clear. But the Dodgers — who are already short on pitching and heavily reliant upon stars Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts to spearhead the offense — can ill afford to enter October with Smith mired in a slump.
“It’s just part of the season, and you gotta deal with it,” Van Scoyoc said. “We’re just trying to get him back to his better version.”
Source: LA Times