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Austin Barnes’ hot spring gives hope for strong 2019

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Who needs Yasmani Grandal?

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago White Sox Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The last thing any of us should do is get excited about Spring Training stats and performances. Remember Brian Barden? Didn’t think so.

But what Austin Barnes is doing this spring is encouraging, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean a thing for his performance this season.

He has big shoes to replace, as the Dodgers opted not to bring back Yasmani Grandal (after extending him the qualifying offer). They also opted to pass on trading for J.T. Realmuto and instead brought in 36-year-old Russell Martin to, essentially, be Barnes’ backup.

Barnes is coming off a really rough season. His 77 wRC+ was seventh-worst among catchers in baseball with at least 230 plate appearances. His power all but disappeared (.290 slugging, .085 isolated power) and his strikeout rate jumped almost 12 percentage points from his 2017 mark of 16.4 percent.

He was a mess last season. He dealt with an elbow problem — reported in February 2017 — which could have been the culprit of his poor offensive season. There’s no definitive proof, but Barnes’ numbers in 2018 were more than him regressing to the mean.

Barnes’ batted ball numbers went the wrong direction in every significant category last season from his marks in 2017.

Austin Barnes Batted Ball Profile

Year LD% GB% Exit Velo Launch Angle Fly Ball Dist. All FB Dist.
Year LD% GB% Exit Velo Launch Angle Fly Ball Dist. All FB Dist.
2017 25.7 45.1 88.2 9.6 272 173
2018 20 53.8 86.3 4.4 261 126

The biggest thing that stands out here is the launch angle and the distance (in feet) when it comes to all non-ground balls (i.e., fly balls, line drives and pop-ups). The MLB average exit velocity last season was 87.7 mph last season, while Barnes’ was 86.3 mph. Those numbers show that Barnes was just pounding the ball into the ground, and not hitting the ball particularly hard to begin with.

Already this spring, Barnes has two home runs — one to the opposite field. That’s something he’s done just once in his MLB career to date. I’m not saying one opposite-field home run means the 2017 version of Barnes is back. But what he has done in the Cactus League so far is encouraging and at least gives a glimmer of hope that he can be closer to the ‘17 version of himself than the ‘18 version. If he’s somewhere in the middle, you’re looking at a Top 5-10 catcher when you factor in his framing ability (among the best in the game).

If that ends up being the case, then that’s one hole the Dodgers won’t have to fill at the trading deadline. It would also allow Martin to appear in fewer games, thus (in theory) making him more valuable at this stage of his career.

We’ve wondered what the Dodgers were going to do at catcher over the course of the winter. It appears they may have just “fixed” Austin Barnes. And that’s a good thing.