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2023 Dodgers in review: Austin Barnes

San Diego Padres v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

It was a rough year offensively for Austin Barnes in 2023. The Dodgers never seemed to waver from their support of Barnes even when his offensive struggles and his inability to prevent stolen bases under MLB’s new runner-friendly rules spurred a lot of flak from the fan base.

As the backup catcher to starter Will Smith, Barnes is mostly used as Clayton Kershaw’s personal catcher or to give Smith some rest every few days. Barnes hit well in his first full season in 2017 (.289/.408/.486 with eight home runs), but he has struggled to find that same consistent offensive results since.

Barnes started the 2023 season an abysmal 0 for 16 but although he was season ice cold at the plate, his long-tenured leadership on the team along with his valuable pitch framing and rapport with the pitching staff allowed the Dodgers to continue to lean on Barnes.

Smith missed two weeks due to a concussion in mid-April. It wasn’t until September that it was revealed per David Vassegh of AM 570 L.A. Sports the Dodgers’ primary catcher also suffered a broken rib after being hit by a pitch by Cardinals starter Jake Woodford just three games back from the concussion.

Barnes went 3-for-30 (.100 BA) in the month of May. He continued to struggle at the plate for most of the first half (.319 OPS/108 PA). The backup backstop finished the season with the eighth-lowest batting average in the NL among players with at least 100 plate appearances this year.

Although Barnes has never really been an offensive threat with a career batting average of .217, many of Barnes’ offensive numbers registered this season were among the lowest of his career. His power numbers including ISO (.062), SLG (.242), exit velocity (83.7 mph) were some of the worst of his nine-season career in the majors with the Dodgers.

The Dodgers didn’t make a move for another catcher at the trade deadline, placing their faith in Barnes who adds value to the team in other ways.

Patience paid off for Dave Roberts and the Dodgers as Barnes had a bit of a resurgence in the second half. His second-half split was improved (.268/.330/.378, 96 wRC+). This was an important turnaround for the Dodgers who had seen Will Smith’s offensive production decline down the stretch.

August was Barnes’ best month when he slashed .355/.375/.484 with one home run in 31 at-bats.

The ways in which Barnes adds value to the team may go unnoticed at times. His pitch-calling and relationship with the pitching staff is often praised by his teammates and coaches alike. Barnes, having experience with much of the Dodgers’ pitching staff, helped navigate the early-season injuries to the L.A. pitching staff and the use of their young pitchers who filled in when many of their starters were out.

Pitch-framing has been a skill valued by the Dodgers’ current front office, and Barnes has been one of the best MLB catchers at framing since being acquired by the Dodgers from the Marlins in 2014. Old friend Yasmani Grandal was top in catcher framing runs from 2015-2023.

Barnes, who had been an integral part of the Dodgers’ 2020 World Series team, only got one at-bat in NLDS Game 3 against the Diamondbacks. The lone at-bat was a controversial decision made by Roberts who decided to pinch-hit Barnes for David Peralta.

The second-string catcher had not batted since September 30 before being called upon in a late-game situation to pinch hit off the bench in the top of the seventh inning. The move failed when Barnes grounded out to third to end the frame and the rally.

Roberts explained his decision to put Barnes in that situation.

“Austin is a guy who has been in many postseasons, got huge hits for us. It was a chance to get a lefty — a righty on the lefty. And he just expanded. It was a ball down below the zone and let him off the hook right there.”

Barnes may not hit many bombs anymore, but his consistency behind the plate is worth a lot to the pitching squad including his batterymate Kershaw.

Clayton Kershaw explained to Jack Harris of the L.A. Times Barnes’ importance to the team.

“Barnsy’s a winner. Obviously, his offensive numbers, when you look at it on paper aren’t great. But that’s not what he’s here to do. He’s here to help us win. And he does that behind the plate, the way he calls games, and the way he competes. He’s really good at it. It’s hard to describe.”

2023 particulars

Age: 33

Stats: .180/.256/.242, 41 wRC+, 200 PA, 2 HR, 2 2B, -0.8 fWAR, -1.2 bWAR

Salary: $3.5 million

Game of the year

On August 17 Barnes hit a solo shot in the bottom of the eighth inning off right-hander Joel Payamps, helping the Dodgers win their 11th straight game with a 1-0 win over the Brewers.

It was the first home run for Barnes since Sept. 20, 2022. He also singled in the third inning for his second multi-hit game of the season.

His second, and final, home run of the season occurred exactly a month later, on September 17, a two-run shot off Mariners right-hander Logan Gilbert.

Roster status

Barnes is under contract for one more season at $3.5 million for 2024. The Dodgers also hold a club option for 2025 worth $3.5 million.