Ability to turn balls into strikes puts Austin Barnes behind the plate for Game 3

Mike DiGiovanna
·6 min read
Dodgers closer Joe Kelly is congratulated by catcher Austin Barnes after earning the save in a win over the San Diego Padres.
Dodgers closer Joe Kelly is congratulated by catcher Austin Barnes after earning the save in a win over the San Diego Padres in the NLDS. (Associated Press)

The elite pitch-framing and solid game-calling skills of Austin Barnes is expected to net the Dodgers backup the start behind the plate with ace Walker Buehler in Game 3 of the World Series against Tampa Bay on Friday night. Hard-hitting catcher Will Smith is expected to start at designated hitter.

Barnes teamed with Buehler in the must-win Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, when Buehler threw six scoreless innings, allowing seven hits, striking out six and walking none, in a 3-1 win over Atlanta.

Smith, who has a stronger throwing arm than Barnes but is not as nimble of a receiver, caught Buehler’s first three playoff starts, the hard-throwing right-hander allowing four earned runs and eight hits in 13 innings, striking out 23 but walking 11 against Milwaukee, San Diego and Atlanta.

“I love both of our catchers back there, and with what Austin does behind the plate specifically,” manager Dave Roberts said Thursday. “I’m going to put the lineup out there that gives us the best chance to win.”

Opinions vary on the value of pitch-framing. A savvy catcher with soft hands can aid pitchers who can work at the edges of the strike zone, but many balls that are called strikes are simply the result of missed calls.

The Dodgers clearly emphasize it, and the numbers say Barnes is good at it. According to Statcast, Barnes converted 52.8% of non-swing pitches on the fringes of the strike zone into called strikes, the third-best rate of any catcher in baseball. Smith’s 44.2% rate ranked 58th of 62 catchers.

“He’s one of the top two or three in all of baseball,” Roberts said of Barnes. “That’s something that has to be weighed in. There’s a certainty of impacting potentially 125 to 150 pitches in a game. You can say Will is a better hitter and thrower than Austin, but Austin’s skill set to catch the baseball is elite.”

By starting his only two catchers in the same game, Roberts runs the risk of losing the DH if he pinch-hits for Barnes late in the game, like he did in Game 6 of the NLCS.

But that’s a risk worth taking because Smith, after an 0-for-11 start in his first four postseason games, is batting .279 (12 for 43) with two homers, three doubles and 12 RBIs in his last 10 games.

Wood carving a role

Alex Wood may have pitched himself into consideration for a potential Game 6 start with his two-inning scoreless relief stint in Game 2, when the Dodgers left-hander allowed two hits, struck out two and walked one.

Neither Tony Gonsolin, who has a 9.39 ERA with nine strikeouts and seven walks in 7 2/3 innings of three playoff games, nor Dustin May, who has a 10.38 ERA with five strikeouts and four walks in 4 1/3 innings of his last three playoff games, has seized the fourth rotation spot.

But Wood showed an ability to attack the zone Wednesday — of his 26 pitches, 24 were strikes—and he’s now pitched in six World Series games, including a 5 2/3-inning, one-run, one-hit effort in a 6-2 Game 4 win at Houston in 2017.

“I came here for one reason, to win a World Series, and we’re here on the cusp of doing something special,” said Wood, who was traded to Cincinnati before 2019 and returned to the Dodgers as a free agent in 2020. “I’m just grateful to be a part of it and contributing.”

The Dodgers' Alex Wood pitches during the NLCS.
The Dodgers' Alex Wood pitches during the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Rays evened the best-of-seven World Series with a 6-4 win in Game 2, but Wood said the Dodgers, buoyed by their comeback from a two-games-to-none deficit in the NLCS, remain confident they’ll win their first title since 1988.

“We weren’t really challenged in the regular season or the first two rounds,” Wood said. “Then you get punched in the face, you go down 2-0 [to the Braves] and it’s like, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’

“We’d been out-talenting everyone the whole season. We didn’t know what we were made of as a team until you get down 2-0 and see how you respond. Well, now we know who we are. Not only are we the most talented team, but we’ve got that swagger."

Big game hunting

Charlie Morton’s stuff is not as electric as Buehler’s — the 36-year-old right-hander, who will start Game 3 for the Rays, relies on a sinking fastball that averages 93.3 mph, a 78-mph curve and an 85-mph cut-fastball.

But Morton, who is 7-2 with a 2.84 ERA in 12 career postseason games, 11 of them starts, is every bit the big-game pitcher Buehler is.

Morton is 4-0 with an 0.46 ERA in four appearances in winner-take-all games, his latest gem a 5 2/3-inning, two-hit, no-run, six-strikeout start in a 4-2 win over Houston in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series last Saturday.

Morton has a 4.22 ERA in four playoff appearances against the Dodgers and allowed one run in the final four innings of the Astros’ 5-1 victory over the Dodgers in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series.

“Maybe I have extra adrenaline, and that allows me to maintain my stuff through an 80-100 pitch count, as opposed to the regular season, maybe my stuff is playing up because there’s more energy, I don’t know,” Morton said. “By now, there’s a large enough sample size to say I have the ability to perform well in the playoffs.”

Short hops

Mookie Betts (right field) and Cody Bellinger (center field) were named by Rawlings as finalists for Gold Glove Awards, which will be determined this season by statistics and advanced metrics instead of the usual coaches voting. The challengers for Betts, who has won four Gold Gloves, are Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon and Chicago’s Jason Heyward. Bellinger, who has one Gold Glove, is competing with Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. and San Diego’s Trent Grisham. Pitcher Griffin Canning was the only Angels player among the AL finalists.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.