The Dodgers’ Framing Surplus

The Dodgers have an unusual surplus: they’re hoarding all the framing runs. Well, many of the framing runs.

Framing and receiving is just another area where the club separated itself from the field in 2017. Even as pitch-framing data went insane this last year, the Dodgers nevertheless extracted considerable value from their catchers, a development illustrated by the following chart.

The Dodgers have on their roster two of the game’s great receivers, Austin Barnes and Yasmani Grandal, each of whom who possess above-average offensive skills for the position.

According to Baseball Prospectus’s framing measurements, Grandal (20.2) and Barnes (14.5) ranked third and fifth, respectively, in the game in framing runs above average. And Barnes, who was the backup for most of the season, ranked first in framing runs per opportunity, while Grandal ranked sixth. Nor are those numbers surprising: Grandal has been consistently excellent and Barnes’ minor-league track record suggests he might be able to repeat the skill.

According to BP’s wins-above-replacement recipe, which includes framing, Grandal (4.79 WAR) and Barnes (4.4) finished 32nd and 38th in WAR. So, in essence, the tandem gave the Dodgers the equivalent of Mike Trout-level production at the position. That’s quite a hidden advantage.

Of course, there appeared to be a changing of the guard late in the season, as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts allotted Barnes more and more playing time. And Barnes earned it. If you double Barnes’ playing time (he had 262 plate appearances) and extrapolate his performance, he would have led baseball in BP’s version of WAR.

While one could argue that Barnes benefited some — as a weak-side platoon partner for Grandal — by facing mostly left-handed pitchers early in the season, he was actually better against righties (147 wRC+) than lefties (136).

Overall, his .408 on-base percentage ranked eighth among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, sandwiched between the marks produced by Kris Bryant and Paul Goldschmidt. Barnes tied Joey Votto in two-strike wOBA performance (.359).

We’ll have to see if Barnes can repeat the performance. He was rookie-eligible as recently as 2016, after all. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old has posted double-digit walk rates and high on-base percentages at nearly every professional stop he’s made since the Marlins drafted him in the ninth round out of Arizona State in 2011 and traded to L.A. as part of the Dee Gordon deal. Barnes rated as a well-above-average defensive catcher at Triple-A in both 2015 and -16. He doesn’t look like a small-sample wonder.

Barnes, who isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2020 and won’t become a free agent until 2023, appears to be the future and present at the position for the Dodgers. He has usurped a player who is still a star-level catcher, one whom this author placed seventh on his 2016 NL MVP ballot.

Barnes’ ascent naturally leads to this question: should the Dodgers trade Grandal? In Monday’s chat, I received a number of questions about Grandal and his trade value and where he could land.

The Dodgers don’t have many glaring needs, but teams are always looking to acquire young assets. Grandal can become a free agent after this season. He’s projected to earn $7.7 million in arbitration, according to MLBTR’s projections, so he should have plenty of short-term value.

While Grandal struggled against lefties last season (83 wRC+ compared to 106 wRC+ versus righties), he has marks of 106 wRC+ versus lefties and 116 wRC+ versus righties for his career. While he’s had some durability issues, this is still an elite framer with an elite batting eye and above-average power for a catcher. Grandal has value and there are a number of teams that could use him.

Among 2017 playoff teams, the Astros, Cubs, Nationals, and Rockies all rated as below-average framing teams, though the Dodgers might not want to help out an NL rival or team they could face in a World Series rematch. Still, half of baseball is looking to improve framing capabilities and Grandal’s ability has held steady — unlike that of, say, Jonathan Lucroy.

So Grandal has plenty of value right now and might not be with the Dodgers beyond 2018, particularly if he wants to enjoy the lion’s share of playing time at the position. That makes him something of a luxury for the Dodgers, something of a surplus item, and if it were any other position, perhaps a trade would make a lot of sense.

But catcher is a thing unto itself. It requires a backup, a wingman, who’s employed regularly. It includes more wear and tear; more off days are required. So if the Dodgers want to have a 162-game framing edge, they’d likely have to keep Barnes and Grandal on the roster in 2018. And given the physical nature of the position, it’s a place where having quality depth is also important. In other words, Grandal is the type of luxury a team can afford and ought to keep. (Triple-A option Kyle Farmer, also on the 40-man roster, is not the defensive ace that Grandal or Barnes is.)

What’s best for the Dodgers — unless they are absolutely blown away — is to keep the game’s best catching tandem as a significant advantage, for one more year, another season when they enter as likely NL favorites.

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

I agree with this. Catchers are often only good for about 400 PAs a year. Are they going to get someone to help more than Grandal would in those 200-300 PAs he takes? I don’t necessarily think so.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I agree here. Grandal really fell off late in the year; I wouldn’t be surprised to see Barnes have a similar experience as the primary, and Grandal to be the one who is fresh instead.

Barnes is very athletic, though, which helps.

6 years ago
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