It’s said that the definition of insanity is to continue doing the same act time and again; expecting different result. This column isn’t to raise the question of the Dodgers moving on from Austin Barnes as the back-up catcher. No, we will bypass that entirely. The Dodgers need to end the experiment today; even if Barnes wakes up and goes 4 for 4.
The facts say that Barnes was a phenomenal player in 2017. He produced a 142 wRC+, bettering Cody Bellinger (138), Corey Seager (127), and Chris Taylor (126). He had some big postseason hits including a home run in the NLDS and a stolen base. His versatility became an added weapon late in games. Furthermore, the 14.9 walk percentage and .408 on-base are evidence that he possesses some degree of plus base-on-ball skills and plate presence.
Still – Austin Barnes is proving that 2017 will be the year that forever stands out on the back of his baseball card. The magical ‘age 27’ season, when so many players turn in a peak performance; will be the best season that Barnes ever has.
Those are beliefs. Here are more things I believe about Barnes:
- Barnes is good enough to hold down a big league (reserve) role – albeit not on one of the league’s elite teams.
- He will settle in as a .350 to .360 on-base percentage player regularly even in down offensive seasons.
- His batting average (currently .200) and ISO power (currently .042) are close to what he will produce.
- He is an above average-to-plus catcher defensively in some aspects.
Barnes As A Receiver/Defensively:
Take a look at these two interesting tidbits about Barnes’ defensive prowess:
Top C at Getting P More Strikes Than Expected
1. Austin Barnes
2. Max Stassi
3. John Ryan Murphy
4. Tony Wolters
5. Tyler Flowers
6. Roberto Pérez
7. Sandy León
8. Jeff Mathis
— Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) August 14, 2018
Top catchers in Defensive Runs Saved
1. Jeff Mathis 10
2. Sandy León 9
2. Austin Barnes 9
2. Austin Romine 9
— Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) August 15, 2018
We aren’t here to say Barnes is useless – that’s simply not true. However, what do the catchers on those two interesting lists have in common? They’re fringe-level catchers around baseball largely. Several of them remain only at the Major League level due to these aspects defensively; because it’s their one redeeming quality.
In many of those instances – the other half of the tandem contains a player who is above average offensively that can offset the deficiencies created at the position by their back-up.
The bottom line is that if Barnes was not at an elite level at these small aspects that do not show up in box scores – he wouldn’t survive. With all the things Barnes can do well defensively, it’s still barely enough to keep him above replacement-level water. His season WAR sits at 0.1 according to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.
Why Does Barnes Need Replaced?
If Barnes were to hit anywhere close to the level he did in 2017, his value changes dramatically. However, the large body of work aside from his performance last season meets the public narrative. Barnes is an ordinary (near replacement-level) player who played well above his probable norms during his age-27 season.
The Dodgers have sunk over 200 plate appearances into Barnes in 2018, showing more than enough patience for signs of life to emerge. While Barnes is in a funk and likely just struggling to a worse than normal .572 OPS – a deeper look tells us what is different from when he performed with excellence last season.
For one, his line drive percentage is at 23.6% compared to 25.7% in his career year. As I mentioned, his ISO power is down. This is supported by his fly ball rate decreasing (29.1% to 23.6%) but his infield fly ball percentage has increased (7.8% to 11.5%). Barnes’ ground ball rate has climbed to 52.7% which is near a career high at any level he has played professionally.
In a nutshell, Barnes is not hitting the ball hard when he makes contact. He’s rolling over on a lot of weak ground balls and his ability to hit fly balls that have backspin and carry are almost non-existent. With a strikeout rate that has climbed to a career high at any level professionally to 26.3%, not much is left over in the way of even making productive outs.
When Barnes comes to the plate – we are reduced to him hopefully working the pitcher to a deep count before making an out – or drawing a walk and turning the lineup over.
Not to sound elitist, but this is no way to try and live if you’re the Los Angeles Dodgers. There are options – and there are better options that are worthy of similar experiment. When you are replacement level and you’re 28, you get replaced. It’s a results business at day’s end.
The Dodgers thought highly enough of Kyle Farmer to include him on the postseason roster leading up to the 2017 World Series. In 91 career big league plate appearances, Farmer has an OPS of .621; which is around what Barnes has offered this season. The front office has probably sat in a conference room and had this discussion multiple times – do they replace Barnes with Farmer? A conclusion they’re probably arriving at is that Barnes’ defense we pointed out in advanced metrics is superior to Farmer’s.
Still, Farmer is hitting .303 in AAA with an .815 OPS. He’s not struggling, and has proven the ability to have some pop at the big league level. During a pennant race, the Dodgers must evaluate if it would be worthy of the investment to carry Farmer and his pinch-hitting with some pop ability in a back-up role over the anemic Barnes and his defense.
When you’re replacing a guy hitting .200, you’re simply not running a huge risk. Remember, Barnes great defense has still made him just a 0.1 WAR player this season. In a coin flip, Farmer squares up a few more balls than Barnes has in a small sample size; and makes up for an error or two more he would make. At worst, the in-house solution is probably no worse than a break-even. At best, you add a player who performs admirably behind the dish while being able to hit more than your pitchers.
Los Angeles has the option of making a non-waiver deadline trade for a back-up catcher. The cost wouldn’t be high, but we look to an example of Carlos Ruiz in 2016 as someone comparable to the landscape available. Ruiz checked in with an OPS of .683 in 14 games for the Dodgers down the stretch that year. That’s probably what the organization would be looking at – flipping a prospect for a handful of games from a veteran catcher who produces around that clip.
We circle back – and you have a catcher in the organization who costs nothing to bring up and try for 14 or so games. His name is Kyle Farmer. Remember, Farmer’s OPS at the big league level in an irregular cycle of appearances is .621 in his career.
When rosters expand, the Dodgers are going to bring up Farmer and give him a shot behind the plate. There aren’t many signs that point to them making an extreme move before then – even if they should. The likely scenario is that the Dodgers ride the current situation out for two more weeks. Then, they will see if Farmer’s audition goes well enough for a postseason roster spot (should they qualify).
A worthy question is why have the Dodgers been so patient with Barnes? For one, he’s proven to be a good minor-league offensive player. Sending him down would only prove that he can master AAA pitching. That’s already been proven. In 166 AAA games, Barnes displayed an .845 OPS. Second, the Dodgers saw the same things everyone else did in 2017. Barnes was remarkable in those 102 games – enough that he earned the degree of patience the organization has given him this year. Lastly, the in-house sensible option of Farmer simply isn’t a sure-fire upgrade. Even if you’re more than ready to see Farmer – and we are – the organization doesn’t want to upset the house of cards to do just that. It’s close, but it’s not overwhelming enough in one direction or the the other to see it through.
There remains valuable time left in this 2018 season, albeit a short amount. While it’s worth remembering what Barnes contributed to one of the most memorable Dodger teams ever, it’s time to make a change on the run with an eye on the future. And the immediate present.
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