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Dodgers: It’s Time To Move On From Austin Barnes As Reserve Catcher

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:

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.

Possible Solutions

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.

Final Thoughts

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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Written by Clint Evans

Clint lives in Ohio, and played collegiate baseball. He loves the Dodgers due to his first memories of Chavez Ravine when he was nine years old. The voice of Vin Scully has been a staple in his life since he was a kid. No amount of baseball talk is ever enough, and he wishes the regular season was year round. He has written about baseball online since 2007.

15 Comments

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  1. Completely disagree, the Dodgers have enough offensive weapons that gives Barnes a pass offensively. With your breakdown Grandal would have been replaced last year.

    Barnes is an elite defensive catcher and I believe his woes at the plate are hiding some sort of injury that hasn’t hurt his defense too much if at all. He is solid with the staff and this team should have the offense even without his unproductive at bats. “Think it though H. I.”

    • His strikeout rate is up 10 percent, his ISO is an abysmal .042, his wRC+ is a terrible 67, and he’s slashing .199/.332/.573

      I agree his defense is good, but Grandal even ranks much higher than him on positional value. They have caught the same percentage of base stealers, but Barnes’ 0.1 WAR probably warrants a replacement.

  2. Clint, the article is excellent and I sincerely hope that the Dodger management is seeing the same “black & white” details about Barnes. As a team we definitely need another consistent bat especially with so many hitters on serious droughts…….. and Farmer would definitely be a solid upgrade over Barnes offensively at the most important time of this ’18 season. Barnes has been mired at or just above the Mendoza line ALL year with only 1 HR and 9 RBI’s in mid-August! **GO DODGERS!**

    • Dave: I sincerely appreciate the kind comments and taking the time to give it a read. I am certain the Dodgers’ brass has spent hours discussing all this (and much more), they’re smart individuals! I just feel like it’s a good time for a possible change. Whether we see it or not remains to be seen. I’m actually excited to see what farmer does when he’s in the LAD dugout next.

  3. Your statistics, like those of Dodger management, are faulty, and thus a waste of time. Barnes is having a down year, but it is NOT time to give up on him. It’s time to give up on and get rid of every single loser in the pen – that’s what all of you writers should be saying every day, until management listens. Do I sound angry?

    P.S. Who is paying the relief pitchers to throw every game? I’m serious.

    • Appreciate the comment Jim as always. What would you say is a stat to continue down the path with Barnes in his current state? There could be something I am missing.

      • Barnes’ performance late last season and postseason is the reason it’s too early to give up on him. He’s in the sophomore slump, just needs to adjust to the pitchers who have adjusted to him this year.

  4. I am reminded of the year that Yadier Molina was absolutely horrible offensively and Tony La Russa was asked about replacing him with a better hitter. Paraphrasing La Russa, I don’t care what Molina hits, his value is his defense and pitch calling. With all of Grandal’s offense this season his WAR is only 2 games above Barnes. NO way should Barnes be replaced.

  5. Barnes has lost the a.ggressiveness he showed last year on pitches in the zone. He takes way too many strikes and has been called out on strikes a lot! I thought they should have sent him down after the all star break to find his stroke and confidence, because he looks lost at the plate and has all year. If Farmer couldn’t hack it for a few weeks, Barnes could always have been recalled. With two weeks left until the roster expansion, they could still give Barnes a couple of weeks at AAA to see if he could turn his offense around.

    • from the point forward every game matters and replacing Barnes with Farmer messes with the pitching staff’s confidence, not a good thing when you are trying to win the NL West and go to the WS.

    • Great post GLpeck. It would be nice if Farmer (or another catching option they deem worthy around baseball) was meeting the team in Seattle. It would be an easy roster move, and Barnes could return in a few weeks at no cost; worst case.

  6. First off ive always said yaz is starting catcher. yaz and barnes combined in the catcher position are in the top 3 in the NL. Last year when yaz was going through a difficult pregnancy with his wife barnes stepped up. Barnes has the experience of being a post season catcher. I think he’s shown to be a good #2 catcher. The only reason you guys are all freaked out is the guys who are supposed to hit and knock in runs aren’t. Manny , kemp ,max ,bellinger ARE supposed to be run producers. Barnes is NOT the reason the Dodgers aren’t scoring runs. You guys are scapegoating.

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