After a breakout performance in 2017, in which he posted a .289/.408/.486 slash line and an impressive 2.6 bWAR, Austin Barnes fell well short of expectations this season. In 2018, Barnes regressed in virtually every offensive statistical category, and despite splitting catching duties in the Postseason with a struggling Grandal, he continued to look overmatched at the plate.
In his 32 Postseason plate appearances, Barnes posted a meager .069 BA, .156 OBP, and struck out in nearly half his at bats. To his credit, however, Austin’s defense, particularly his blocking skills, was a marked improvement over Grandal, who had costly errors in the NLDS. Barnes also had this clutch RBI in the NLCS:
Austin Barnes with a double whammy.
— MLB (@MLB) October 17, 2018
What went wrong?
It would be easy to chalk up Austin’s regression to a “Sophomore slump,” in line with what fellow teammates Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger experienced. Still, neither of those players suffered from such a steep season-to-season decline, and as a prospect Barnes’ contact and plate discipline were his most heralded tools.
From a Statcast perspective, the most interesting year-to-year outlier is in Barnes’ average launch angle, which shrunk from 9.6 degrees to 4.4 degrees. Based on 2017 data, the ~5 degree difference reduces expected batting average by 142 points, and has an even larger effect on the likelihood of an extra-base hit—Barnes had 36% fewer XBHs in 2018. To add insult to injury, Barnes’ average exit velocity dropped by nearly 2 MPH, his walk-rate decreased (despite seeing more pitches per at bat), and his strikeout-rate nearly doubled.
After the 2018 season was all said and done, Barnes had a discomforting .205/.329/.290 slash line, a 77 wRC+, and a bWAR of .5.
What’s ahead for Austin?
Despite his offensive struggles in 2018, Barnes is still a valuable long-term piece for the Dodgers. He’s an elite framer (top 5 in MLB this year), versatile defensively (can shift over the second base), is making a league-minimum salary until the 2020 season, and he’s already demonstrated a ceiling that would guarantee him a starting position on most clubs. Ultimately, consistency will be key question for Barnes.
If the Dodgers choose to pursue another catcher this off-season, like Realmuto or Wilson Ramos as rumors have suggested, Barnes should be more than an apt backup. If they opt for the more patient approach, waiting on their highly-touted catching prospects to develop, Barnes will have some big shoes to fill. Despite his struggles in the Postseason, Grandal had an impressive offensive season, particularly with his power numbers. No one’s expecting Barnes to be a middle of the lineup, 20+ home run type of player, but if he’s going to be successful at the top of the depth chart in 2019 he will undoubtedly need to maintain his elite plate discipline, while improving his abysmal 2018 slugging numbers.
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