One of the most pleasant surprises for the Dodgers last season was Austin Barnes. He finally got a chance at the full-time backup catching job, and he thrived.
He hit .289/.408/.486 in 262 plate appearances. That was good for a 142 wRC+, which was better than Cody Bellinger (138), Corey Seager (127) and Chris Taylor (126). Among catchers with 250 or more plate appearances (an arbitrary sample size to fit the narrative, for sure), Barnes’ wRC+ was second to none. Yankees’ slugging catcher Gary Sanchez was next best with a 130 wRC+.
Barnes started 13 of the 15 postseason games for the Dodgers and folks — myself included — thought the starting job was his to lose. I expected the Dodgers to explore a Yasmani Grandal deal in the offseason to improve elsewhere, but nothing ever materialized. That might be a blessing in disguise, at least early on this season.
Dodgers catcher starts
This season has been a bit of a struggle for Barnes. He’s hitting just .211 and slugging just .289. I’m not so much concerned about the batting average because — besides the fact batting average isn’t a good statistic — that will likely positively regress. The slugging is a bit more concerning. For further context, his isolated power is down more than 100 points (.197 to .079) and his soft contact rate is 32.1%.
If that sounds bad, it is. It’s the second-worst percentage in baseball behind Reds’ speedy center fielder Billy Hamilton. That, combined with slightly diminished average exit velocity (86.5 MPH; MLB average is 89 MPH), has led to fewer extra base hits – and fewer hits on the whole. His batting average on balls in play is .273, down from .329 last season. MLB average BABIP is .293 so far this season.
Things aren’t going as well for Barnes when it comes to making hard contact with the ball (his contact rate is nearly 90 percent). But he has made up for it by drawing walks – something he has been known for since he was drafted. His 17.3% walk rate is best on the team and eighth-best in the league (minimum 70 PA). His strikeout rate is up 4%, but the fact he’s drawing a good number of walks bodes well for him turning it around on his batted-ball profile.
He’s hitting more ground balls and fewer fly balls this season. His game isn’t one that fits the typical “fly ball revolution” profile, so the fly ball rate dipping isn’t as concerning. And while he’s fast, it’d be nice if some of those ground balls turned into line drives if he isn’t going to hit as many fly balls.
While Barnes’ production is down overall, he’s still getting on base at a more than acceptable clip. Oh, and there’s this.
Top 3 catchers at getting extra strikes for their pitchers this season— Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) May 24, 2018
1. Austin Barnes
2. Tyler Flowers
3. Max Stassi
4. John Ryan Murphy
5. Tony Wolters
Never mind the tweet says, “Top 3” and lists five players, but Barnes is the best in baseball at getting extra strikes for his pitchers. And that cannot be overstated. Also, his ability to play a competent second base also helped while Logan Forsythe and Justin Turner were out.
For a guy hitting .211, he has still been worth half a win this season because of his stellar defensive play. He’s the antithesis of the guy we thought Matt Kemp was going to be this season. He’s still a valuable player when he isn’t hitting because he draws walks and is an asset on defense.
Barnes’ bat will come around. He might not get to the 142 wRC+ mark he hit last season, but even with his struggles, he’s still a 103 wRC+ guy and on pace to be nearly a 1.5 WAR guy. Again, not as great as last season, but still a valuable player nonetheless.
The Dodgers have an embarrassment of catching riches. Barnes is among those players. With Grandal still healthy and producing, Barnes will continue to serve as the backup. He hasn’t separated himself from the rest of the backup catchers around the league, but we saw what his ceiling could be with his performance last season. He’ll never be a big-time power hitter, but he’s still important to this team.
Things could be worse. The Dodgers could have one of these guys as their backup catcher.