Dodgers’ backup catcher, Austin Barnes, knocked in seven runs on a grand slam and a three-run home run in Friday’s win over the Padres. It was the highlight of his season so far, but his season itself has been worth highlighting. What Barnes has put together in the first half of 2017 is good enough to earn him a starting spot on almost any other big league roster. Having him and Yasmani Grandal creates a strong tandem at a vital position.
The life of a major league catcher is incredibly difficult. They are the only players that have to worry about every facet of the game. They are charged with the duty of defending behind the plate alone. In order to avoid pass balls and wild pitches, catchers need to build the trust between their pitchers. On top of all of this, they are also responsible for not being an automatic out at the plate.
Despite manning such a demanding position, ironically, it’s tough giving them a day off because they have these relationships with pitchers. That is why having a solid backup catcher is so important. A legitimate backup catcher doesn’t necessarily have to be as good as the starter but has to maintain the defensive standard and supply some sort of offensive production.
Austin Barnes is doing everything and more.
Like pinch hitting, spotty at-bats make it difficult to maintain a good average. Barnes is slashing .284/.398/.537 entering Saturday night. He’s also made shallow-playing outfielders turn their backs with four homers and eight doubles. Don’t fall asleep on him on the bases either because he’s a catcher. The former second baseman has four swiped bags without getting caught.
On defense, Barnes is holding up his end. Though not amassing enough innings to qualify, he has a solid catcher’s ERA of 3.78. Grandal is best among starting catchers with a 3.09 CERA. Barnes and Grandal are fifth and sixth in the National League in the percentage of runners thrown out at about 39%. Barnes has bested Grandal in the pass ball department, with his measly one to Grandal’s seven. Grandal’s been known for his framing skills, but now Barnes is stealing strikes as well.
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Last year, a glaring weakness in the Dodgers’ offense was from the catcher’s position. The only catcher to hit over .240 was Carlos Ruiz who only appeared after he was swapped for A.J. Ellis. However, an effective catcher’s position evidently gives the lineup more depth. The six of the last seven World Series winners had a catcher who hit in the middle of the lineup. Though three of them were Buster Posey.
Grandal has the third-most at-bats on the team, which is surprising for a team known for resting its starters. However, Barnes’ success can help lift the load off Grandal, who has been plagued with fatigue before. It also keeps Grandal left-handed where he’s had all his success. Barnes is slugging .556 off of left-handed pitching.
Barnes was converted to a catcher from a second baseman. Though he’s improved dramatically at his new position, he still has what it takes to field his former position. His versatility may benefit the Dodgers in the long run, especially in the postseason.
So with Barnes making all this noise, that leaves the question, is it enough to replace Grandal as the starter?
Though Barnes is having a career year, Grandal is more valuable as a starter because of his ability to call a game. Offensively, last year, he flashed his power by smacking 27 long balls. This year, his power numbers are on track to come near those numbers, but with a higher average thanks to his red hot May. He could easily finish the season hitting .275 with 25+ home runs and 60 to 70 RBI if his play levels out or if he has more months like May. Barnes has shown remarkable consistency for not seeing consistent playing time, but why change something that works?
The Dodgers are lucky to have a productive backup catcher, who can also play infield and run. Though it’s harsh to say it’s not enough to replace Grandal, Barnes’ production can prove to be just as important in the long run. It will give Grandal more rest, keep him left-handed, and provide versatility from the bench. Most teams have a weakness at the backup catcher position; the Dodgers are fortunate they don’t.