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2021 Dodgers in review: Austin Barnes

Colorado Rockies v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Austin Barnes continued his role as trusted backup catcher for the Dodgers, though in a rarity, that didn’t extend into more October playing time in 2021.

Barnes struggled offensively even relative to position, his 79 wRC+ ranking 37th among the 58 major league catchers with at least 150 plate appearances. There were a mix of good and bad signs.

Barnes hit fly balls in 30.3 percent of his batted balls, up from his 22.5-percent career mark. That produced six home runs, eight doubles, and a .130 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) after just a .104 mark from 2018-20.

Two of Barnes’ six homers came as a pinch-hitter, tying him with Albert Pujols for the most pinch homers on the team.

Barnes hit .215, the third time in four years his batting average was near the Mendoza Line (generally used to mean .200, though it’s worth noting that Mario Mendoza, for whom the line is named, hit .215 in his career). That usually comes with excellent plate discipline from Barnes, but this year saw a precipitous decline.

Austin Barnes 2021 splits

Dates PA BB rate BA/OBP/SLG
Dates PA BB rate BA/OBP/SLG
through June 13 111 15.3% .228/.355/.348
June 14 & after 114 2.6% .204/.246/.343

Barnes only walked three times after mid-June.

Behind the plate, Barnes remained strong. He ranked 19th in framing runs above average and catcher defensive adjustment, per Baseball Prospectus, despite catching only the 44th-most innings (442⅓).

In spring training, manager Dave Roberts referred to Will Smith and Barnes as 1a and 1b on the catching depth chart.

“I think with Will and Austin, the sum is very good,” Roberts said. “I’ll take that sum against any combo in all of baseball, production-wise, offensively and defensively.”

Smith played his way into a larger role, which lessened Barnes’ chances behind the plate. Here are Barnes’ catching starts in each third of the season:

He started behind the plate for 17 of Clayton Kershaw’s 22 starts, and caught 31 of Kershaw’s 37 starts in the last two years. Barnes also saw time at second base, totaling 18 innings over seven games, all in reserve.

Barnes has been the backup catcher for most of the last five seasons, but every October he worked his way into even more action, including starting 15 of the Dodgers’ 18 World Series games. But in 2021, Smith was so integral to the Dodgers’ offense that he started every game and played every postseason inning behind the plate.

Barnes, who hit .333/.364/.714 (7-for-21) with four extra-base hits as a pinch-hitter, was limited to three pinch-hit chances in 12 postseason games.

Given that the Dodgers traded their most major-league-ready catching prospect in Keibert Ruiz in July, Barnes’ status as the backup catcher seems secure for at least 2022.

2021 particulars

Age: 31

Stats: .215/.299/.345, 79 wRC+, 6 HR, 0.4 bWAR, 0.8 fWAR

Salary: $1.8 million

Game of the year

For the first time since 2018, Barnes batted higher than sixth in a starting lineup, when he hit fifth on July 24 against the Rockies. The decision paid off, since Barnes homered off Jon Gray for the only run of the game, and caught a five-pitcher shutout along the way.

This is one of only nine games in the last 15 years won by the Dodgers 1-0 on a solo home run.

Roster status

Barnes will make $2.6 million in 2022, the final season of a two-year contract. He can earn an extra $100,000 for each of 70 and 80 games played.