Finding More Work for the Dodgers’ Other Great Catcher

While so much recent focus on the Dodgers has (rightfully) centered on their recent stretch of poor play, how about this ray of sunshine: the club is on the cusp of receiving a nine-win season — the sort of value one can only dependably expect from Mike Trout — from a lone source this year.

Surprisingly, the player responsible for this unusually high level of production isn’t Corey Seager or Justin Turner or even Clayton Kershaw. It’s not even a single player, at all, but a combination of two players at one position: catchers Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes. The pair has accounted for 8.1 BWARP, the Baseball Prospectus version of wins above replacement that also accounts for pitch framing.

I’ve made my affection for Grandal’s talents well known. But it’s his younger backup — who’s becoming less of a backup and more of a timeshare partner — who’s opening eyes and winning over my heart this season.

Grandal has been worth 4.4 BWARP this season, while Barnes has posted a 3.7 mark in just 225 plate appearances. Over the course of 450 plate appearances (roughly average for a catcher), that equates to 7.4 wins, a total exceeded only by Buster Posey last year among catchers and by just five other players total.

Would he continue this over the course of a full season? Perhaps not. But it’s an interesting performance from a player who’s exhibited a combination of excellent plate discipline, contact ability, and receiving skills. Among MLB hitters with at least 220 plate appearances this season, he ranks 11th in walk rate (15.1%) and 16th in zone contact rate (93%). It’s roughly the same profile he possessed during his minor-league career.

He’s been consistent throughout the season, too:

I was asked in Monday’s chat if Gary Sanchez has displaced Buster Posey as the game’s top offensive catcher. In Sanchez’s first 162 career games, he hit an astounding 50 home runs. But according to wRC+, Sanchez isn’t even the best offensive catcher in his first full season in 2017. That distinction is held by Barnes, who towed a whopping wRC+ of 140 into play Thursday. Grandal, after posting a 121 wRC+ last season, has a mark of 98 this season.

Barnes is warranting more and more playing time.

While Grandal is one of the best framers in baseball, if not the best receiver, Barnes is also excellent. The former ranks second in framing per-game value among catchers who have received at least 1,000 pitches this season, while the latter ranks fifth, according to StatCorner.

Over the last week of play, Barnes has made three starts while Grandal has made three, as well.

Entering play Thursday, Barnes had made 99 plate appearances in the second half of the season and produced a .309/.434/.383 slash line. What’s also notable is that Barnes has a 15.2 % walk rate in the second half and a 11.1% strikeout rate. Grandal has had 161 second-half plate appearances and has slumped, batting .207. In the first half, Barnes recorded 126 plate appearances and Grandal made 280.

So Grandal enjoyed nearly 70% of the playing time in the first half, but that number has fallen to 62% in the second. The Dodgers had used Barnes to spell Grandal against some left-handed pitching, but Barnes’ role continues to grow. In fact, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told Bill Shaikin of the L.A. Times this week that Barnes could become the club’s primary catcher in the postseason.

“If you’re looking to win 11 games in October, there needs to be consideration of who gives you the best chance to win that particular game,” manager Dave Roberts said Wednesday. “Austin deserves that consideration. He’s earned it.”

Barnes is batting .297 with six home runs and an .887 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, the highest of any National League catcher with at least 200 plate appearances.

In September, Grandal has one hit in 30 at-bats, with 16 strikeouts.

“I fully expect Yasmani to get on track,” Roberts said.

In other words, this 27-year-old rookie is playing so well that he could become a postseason starter for the National League’s best team over a player who has routinely been one of baseball’s top catchers.

But Barnes is exceptional in a number of ways. He is, for example, an excellent athlete who has also played some in the middle infield. Barnes has recorded 49 innings at second base this season, posting a 10 UZR/150 and +1 DRS in a limited sample there.

The Dodgers’ weakest positions according to FanGraphs WAR are second base (2.5), right field (2.5), and first base (2.1). Cody Bellinger has turned around the club’s first-base production since his late-April promotion. But perhaps Barnes could see more time at second base, where Logan Forsythe has been serviceable but not spectacular since being acquired from Tampa Bay in the offseason.

Grandal and Barnes are two of the Dodgers’ best position players. Ideally, a club would find a way to get both in the lineup more often. And thanks to Barnes’ versatility and athleticism, there’s perhaps a path to do just that.

With Grandal set to become a free agent after the 2018 season in an industry that now values framing, the 27-year-old Barnes might be the future starter at the position. Maybe even the immediate future. But in the short term, there’s also a way to get Barnes and Grandal on the field, together, more often. Even the Dodgers, leading the NL in wins despite their skid, need every bit of extra value they can find.

The Dodgers ought to find some more time, somewhere, for Austin Barnes.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Barnes has some really wonky splits numbers. He has actually faced more lefties than righties this year so he is being heavily platooned. However, he has actually hit righties (.415 wOBA) significantly better than lefties (.355). BUT, he also has a .429 BABIP against righties and .250 vs. lefties so you would assume that will even out some. BUT, he hits lefties for quite a bit more power – .220 ISO v lefties to .126 against righties.

For his career, the numbers level out some and he has basically no platoon splits but the weird BABIP and ISO trends with lefties and righties is still there.

The whole thing is kind of a weird mish-mash of somewhat contradictory stats that to me scream out SSS weirdness that will surely sort itself out but it’s not clear in what way.

6 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Obligatory interjection that platoon splits take more than a year to stabilize, and so there’s little to learn from 220 total PA.

6 years ago
Reply to  Anon

The platoon is due to grandad being a switch hitter who is awful right handed. Barnes as backup mostly got starts vs grandals bad side.

Dan Greermember
6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Grandal has historically been just fine batting righty – career wRC+ of 106 versus 116 batting lefty. Even this year the split is only 17 points (83 versus 100).

But I’m not arguing that Barnes shouldn’t be playing versus LHP – he absolutely should.