Austin Barnes spent his 2015 season putting the finishing touches on his prospect development, earning his first big league call-up and, later, a September roster spot. Barnes lived up to the offensive expectations he brought in from Miami while exceeding the expectations on his catcher defense. Unfortunately for Barnes, his arrival to the organization came during a career renaissance season for A.J. Ellis, preventing him from taking full advantage of the playing time opening created by Yasmani Grandal’s shoulder injury. Barnes enters 2016 as the underdog in the battle to back up Grandal, but his inclusion in the discussion makes the Dodgers’ catching situation the best in baseball.
The biggest open question I had on Barnes entering 2015 was his defense behind the plate, and he answered any concerns in the biggest way possible. Statistically, Barnes’ performance in pitch framing, blocking, and controlling the run game was the second most valuable season across any level of professional baseball, according the Baseball Prospectus. While we had some clue as to Barnes’ ability as a pitch framer, it was good to see the "how" in person this season.
Barnes' short stature gives him the advantage of setting up lower in his crouch than most catchers. This allows him to frame pitches at the bottom or below the zone with minimal movement to drop down or the need to turn his glove over. His receiving is very quiet and his actions are subtle, not trying to oversell pitches on the black. Barnes has soft hands and his athleticism makes him a capable backstop, and his blocking will only improve with experience (he was a college second baseman).
While Barnes doesn’t have the strongest arm, his strength is at least average and he plays it up with a quicker-than-average release and plus accuracy. The only defensive question mark that Barnes has slowly answered with his track record is durability. His slight frame might make some question his longevity behind the plate, but he’s logged 256 games behind the plate since his minor league conversion, with no significant time spent on the disabled list.
At this point, defense might be Barnes’ calling card, which is saying quite a bit when you look at his offensive tools. Barnes has some of the best pitch recognition and arguably the best batting eye in the system. Barnes has never posted a walk rate lower than 9.5 percent at any stop during his professional career, and his 16.2-percent strikeout rate at the major league level (in only 37 plate appearances) is his high water mark.
Like several undersized hitters with better than expected pop, Barnes’ pitch recognition allows him to get away with a long swing. Barnes employs a high leg kick for timing and likes extending his hands through the zone, though his swing is fairly level. Barnes generally employs a gap to gap approach, but he’s capable of turning on a ball for pull power. Power is not likely to be a big part of his game, though, and his .164 isolated slugging percentage in Oklahoma City likely represents his absolute best case scenario.
While Barnes is an above-average athlete for a catcher with enough quickness left over from his second base days to possibly fill a utility role, his future is behind the plate as a starter. That outlook might be tough in Los Angeles, where Grandal casts a long shadow. If he makes the 2016 team, it will likely be in a pseudo-utility role, but he could be just as valuable long term to the franchise spending the year working with the prospect laden pitching staff in Oklahoma City. Obviously, Barnes is first in line for a call up should Grandal or Ellis spend time on the disabled list, and he could eventually supplant Ellis in a backup role if Ellis hits like the 2014 version.
Austin Barnes has been overlooked for too long by the prospect community, and brings a unique set of offensive skills and athleticism to the position in a slight frame somewhat reminiscent to Jason Kendall. He won’t match Kendall’s stolen base totals, nor would I rate his hit tool as high at his peak, but Barnes has the potential to be the rare catcher/table setter that will hold value on both sides of the ball. Between Barnes, Farmer, and Grandal, the Dodgers have an embarrassment of riches in young catching talent that any team in baseball (perhaps not their chief rivals by the Bay) would be envious to employ.