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2020 Dodgers in review: Austin Barnes

Great behind the plate, and a resurgent year at the plate

Dodgers Rays Series Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Austin Barnes played his way into a larger role in 2020, thanks to his elite skills behind the plate and a resurgence at the plate. And he got to keep the baseball from the last out of the Dodgers’ first championship in 32 years.

Barnes started the season just 2-for-22, which in a 60-game season could wreck anyone’s numbers, especially someone who’s not a primary starter. But he recovered nicely, following that slump with an eight-game hitting streak, and ended the season with a .353 on-base percentage.

He hit .244/.353/.314, a 94 wRC+, after hitting just .204/.311/.316, a 73 wRC+ in 2018-19 combined. Barnes put in the work to get back to respectability at the plate, but he also credited Mookie Betts, who offered some unsolicited advice early in August.

“He’s actually been in the cage with me, watching me swing. It just shows you what kind of teammate he is, taking time out of his day,” Barnes said. “He has a great feel for his swing obviously, and he’s always making little tinkers and little adjustments. He just thought he’d help, and he really has.”

A quick ramp up to the restart in 2020 saw the Dodgers not want to overwork their catchers in the first part of the truncated season. Neither Will Smith nor Barnes caught games on consecutive days until the third week of the season. Add in an injured list stint for Smith, and Barnes’ share of the regular season catching load was as high as it’s ever been, starting 27 times behind the plate compared to 31 for Smith.

Barnes hasn’t been the primary catcher for the Dodgers in any of his four regular seasons, but in their three World Series he’s been behind the plate to start 15 times in 18 games. From 2017-2020, Barnes started 34.7 percent of Dodgers regular season games at catcher and 55.6 percent of their postseason games.

A huge reason for the trust in Barnes is his ability to frame pitches, ranking sixth among major league catchers by Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, and seventh by Baseball Savant.

“I think he’s one of the top two or three in all of baseball, and that’s something that it certainly has to be weighed in because there’s a certainty of impacting potentially 125-150 pitches in a ballgame,” manager Dave Roberts said during the World Series. “Will is very good as well. You can say that Will’s a better hitter and thrower than Austin, but Austin’s skillset to catch the baseball is elite.”

Most Dodgers World Series starts at catcher

Player Years Starts
Player Years Starts
Roy Campanella 1949-56 32
John Roseboro 1959-66 21
Steve Yeager 1974-81 20
Austin Barnes 2017-20 15
Source: Baseball-Reference

Barnes started four of the six games in the World Series this year, and in the postseason caught two Walker Buehler starts and one by Tony Gonsolin in addition to every Clayton Kershaw start.

Another reason Barnes seized the postseason reins behind the plate, at least in previous years, was Yasmani Grandal slumping terribly offensively late in the year, and at least in 2018 became almost unplayable defensively in October. But Barnes struggled at the plate too, hitting .160/.238/.227 in the 2017-18 postseasons, and didn’t make the roster for the 2019 NLDS.

This year was another story.

After years of all Dodgers catchers underperforming at the plate in October (a combined .148/.268/.272 from 2016-19), Smith was an important fixture in the lineup, but Barnes was transcendent, at least relative to regular season performance. Barnes reached base in six of his eight starts, including four games reaching base twice. He hit .320/.393/.440, with a 133 wRC+ that ranked fifth on the team, trailing only Corey Seager (205 wRC+, wow), Joc Pederson (168), Max Muncy (155), and Mookie Betts (138).

2020 particulars

Age: 30

Stats: .244/.353/.314, 94 wRC+, 0.6 WAR

Salary: $1.1 million

Game of the year

The pinnacle of Barnes’ offensive resurgence came in Game 3 of the World Series, when he caught Buehler for a second straight start. Barnes executed a perfect squeeze bunt in the fourth inning to extend the Dodgers’ lead to 4-0, then blasted a home run in the sixth against reliever John Curtiss to widen the Dodgers’ lead to five runs. What a combo of small ball and power ball.

The 425-foot home run is the longest of Barnes’ career, and he joined Yankees outfielder Hector Lopez (Game 5 in 1961) as the only players with a home run and squeeze bunt in a World Series game.

Roster status

Barnes has four years, 98 days of service time, and is eligible for salary arbitration this winter. The average of the three projection models by Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors has Barnes earning just shy of $1.5 million in 2021.