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Austin Barnes 2021 salary arbitration preview

Barnes and the Dodgers exchanged salary figures on Friday

2020 World Series Game 6: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Dodgers have two salary arbitration cases pending, with pitcher Walker Buehler and Austin Barnes. Both sides have already exchanged salary figures, so let’s examine what the catcher might make in 2021.

We already did a deep dive on Buehler, and my guess for him was $3.5 million. On Friday, he filed at $4.15 million, and the Dodgers filed at $3.3 million. If it goes to an arbitration hearing, both sides will essentially argue for their side of the midpoint of $3.725 million. Buehler’s side will essentially come down to arguing he’s as good as or better than Jacob deGrom ($4.05 million in 2017) was after the 2016 season, which is a tall task, so I’ll take the Dodgers’ side if it goes to a hearing.

Both sides can still negotiate before going to a hearing, though the team’s willingness to do so for a one-year deal is unknown. Last year was the first time in six years the Dodgers front office under Andrew Friedman did not agree with all arbitration-eligible players by the exchange date. Of the four players to exchange salaries, Max Muncy and Chris Taylor signed multi-year contracts, while Joc Pederson and Pedro Baez went to hearings, the first for the club in 13 years.

Barnes this year filed at $2 million and the Dodgers filed at $1.5 million, with a midpoint of $1.75 million. He had a $1.1 million salary in 2020, pro-rated to $407,407 in the 60-game season.

With four years, 98 days of major league service time, this is Barnes’ second time through arbitration. After two down years on offense, Barnes had a bounce-back year of sorts with the bat, hitting .261/.362/.342 in the regular season and postseason combined, to go with excellent framing skills behind the plate.

Since the start of 2017, Barnes has started behind the plate in 35 percent of Dodgers games during the regular season, never more than 61 starts in one year, putting him firmly in the backup catcher category. There are several comparable catchers with four years of service time over the last five offseasons.

Catcher arbitration comparables

Player Year Service time Salary Prev. salary % increase C starts PA Career HR Career wRC+ bWAR (yr) bWAR (career) fWAR (career)
Player Year Service time Salary Prev. salary % increase C starts PA Career HR Career wRC+ bWAR (yr) bWAR (career) fWAR (career)
Austin Barnes 2021 4.098 TBD $1,100,000 TBD 202 920 18 94 0.7 4.0 6.3
Sandy León 2019 4.149 $2,475,000 $1,950,000 26.92% 281 1,107 20 65 -0.5 3.1 2.3
Robinson Chirinos 2017 4.103 $1,950,000 $1,550,000 25.81% 225 871 33 96 0.8 5.1 1.6
Martin Maldonado 2017 4.156 $1,725,000 $1,125,000 53.33% 256 1,094 28 72 0.8 3.2 6.8
Hank Conger 2016 4.051 $1,500,000 $1,075,000 39.53% 249 997 28 90 0.4 2.5 6.8
Jose Lobaton 2016 4.138 $1,387,500 $1,200,000 15.63% 268 949 14 76 -0.6 1.2 2.9
Chris Herrmann 2018 4.001 $1,300,000 $937,500 38.67% 121 811 22 64 -0.8 -0.9 -1.9
Eric Kratz 2019 4.156 $1,200,000 $545,000 120.18% 205 868 30 65 0.0 0.2 3.6
Austin Romine 2018 4.045 $1,100,000 $805,000 36.65% 146 611 7 52 -0.9 -2.0 -1.4
Josh Phegley 2019 4.087 $1,075,000 $905,000 18.78% 226 843 22 72 0.3 2.0 1.0
Sources: MLB Trade Rumors, Baseball Reference, FanGraphs

One might argue that Barnes compares quite favorably to the top comp here — Sandy León, who made $2.475 million in 2019. Barnes is a better offensive player and outstrips León in both versions of Wins Above Replacement at this point in their careers. But León has 79 more catching starts and 187 more plate appearances, which is essentially one extra season for a backup catcher. And León was coming off seasons in which he started 77 and 78 games behind the plate, something Barnes hasn’t done.

We also have two players at nearly the exact salary figures exchanged by Barnes and the Dodgers. Robinson Chirinos through the 2016 season had more homers than Barnes but they were roughly equal offensively, thanks in large part to Barnes’ vast edge in on-base percentage (.344 to .303). Chirinos made $1.95 million in 2017.

On the other end, Hank Conger made $1.5 million in 2016, the same number filed by the Dodgers for Barnes this year. Conger has the edge in career starts, home runs, and fWAR, with Barnes owning the edge in wRC+ and bWAR.

Barnes’ case could come down to how his work behind the plate is evaluated. Last year he ranked sixth in FanGraphs’ catcher framing measure, ranked seventh in catcher defensive adjustment at Baseball Prospectus, and tied for fourth in Defensive Runs Saved, despite starting less than half the Dodgers’ games.

Per the collective bargaining agreement, those defensive stats are admissible in an arbitration hearing:

Only publicly available statistics shall be admissible. For purposes of this provision, publicly available statistics shall include data available through subscription-only websites (e.g., Baseball Prospectus). Statistics and data generated through the use of performance technology, wearable technology, or “STATCAST”, whether publicly available or not, shall not be admissible.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts during the World Series said Barnes was “elite” at pitch framing. “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,” Roberts said.

There’s also the trust factor, with Barnes starting four of six World Series games, and eight of the Dodgers’ 18 postseason games behind the plate. That has to be worth something, doesn’t it?

The best solution for all parties is probably a modest two-year deal to cover both of Barnes’ remaining arbitration seasons. Maybe something like two years, $4 million: the midpoint $1.75 million in 2021, and $2.25 million in 2022. It won’t break the bank, and it keeps the personal catcher in house for the start of Clayton Kershaw’s inevitable next contract.

But if it goes to a hearing, I think last year’s salary could factor in. Barnes in a full year would have made $1.1 million in 2020, and bumping him to $2 million is an 82-percent raise. That’s far larger than any of the comparable catchers above except Eric Kratz, who got a raise from the minimum salary after getting his first real playing time in four years in 2018. If this goes to a hearing, I think the Dodgers will win, and Barnes will make $1.5 million this season.