Dodgers: Austin Barnes’ Play Should Raise Questions About Grandal’s Future
By Sunit Bhakta
Austin Barnes has been balling all year long for the Dodgers and is starting to raise an interesting, yet legitimate, point.
The Dodgers swept the Diamondbacks to advance to the NLCS, and a big reason is the continued success of Austin Barnes. But before we get into that, can we appreciate how much of a steal he was?
Anyways, Barnes started off the season as the backup catcher and at the time, didn’t mean much. He entered the season with a .180/.310/.229 career slash line in 74 plate appearances across two seasons. He was a stud in Triple-A, but it did not initially translate to the big leagues. His real value was in his defensive versatility.
He has played at catcher, second and third for the Dodgers over the past three seasons, and even logging nine innings in center for Oklahoma City. What an athlete.
This season he broke out in a significant way. In 262 plate appearances, the 27-year-old hit .289/.408/.487 with eight home runs, 15 doubles, and a 137 OPS+. According to Fangraphs, he had a 2.5 WAR, which is excellent for a “backup” along with an elite a 142 wRC+. And he just flat-out put in great at-bats, hit or not.
In comparison, his starting counterpart, Yasmani Grandal, hit .247/.308/.459 with 22 home runs and a career-high 27 doubles. While the power was there, he was incredibly streaky and got on base at a below-average rate.
Barnes, on the other hand, had an elite .400+ OBP while supplying some stable power. Also, he only struck out 16.4% of his plate appearances, while walking an absurd 14.9% of his trips up. To see that kind of eye and patience from a young (experience-wise) player is exciting. And Grandal too had a 2.5 WAR but in 220 more plate appearances and 484 more innings on defense.
But why stop there? Barnes has better splits against both right-handed and left-handed pitchers. Against righties, he hit .321/.444/.459, while raking to a .514 slugging percentage and .886 OPS vs. southpaws.
We all know of Grandal’s struggles vs. lefties so let’s not even go there. We always think of him as a guy who hits righties, and in the power department, it’s true. But he still only had a .790 OPS vs. them, just under 100 points lower than his “backup.” So Barnes’ worse splits are still so much more superior than Grandal’s better ones.
And his raking ability has not succumbed to the bright lights and pressure of the postseason. In his three NLDS games, he had four hits and one walk in nine plate appearances (eight at-bats) with a double and a home run. He’s swinging such a hot bat that he got two starts and even one against right-hander Zack Greinke instead of Grandal.
Barnes is also the superior runner. He has sneaky speed, but at this point, it shouldn’t be sneaky anymore. The guy is athletic, which allows for his defensive versatility, and athleticism usually allows for good speed. He’s shown his speed on the basepaths all year long, even though he doesn’t have the gaudy stolen bases numbers.
But there are other ways to judge speed. For example, if he is at first base, he will pretty much guarantee a run if the hitter can find a gap or hit it down one of the lines, You can’t say that for a lot of players, let alone Yasmani Grandal.
He is also capable of putting pressure on the defense and getting infield hits. And whether if he is at first or the plate, a double-play is not guaranteed because he can run out of one.
Defense is the only place Grandal has the advantage, although Barnes can hold his own. Both are among the best in the league at pitch-framing (Grandal #2 and Barnes #7). And while metrics say that Grandal is elite behind the plate (he is) unlike Barnes, he can still be erratic at times, as shown by his 16 passed balls. To be fair, passed balls and wild pitches are entirely subjective, but he has let some easy ones slip bye.
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But Barnes is no scrub either though. He’s solid. And the difference between the offensive abilities of the two is so much broader than the defensive gap.
Also, keep in mind that Barnes is a year younger, much cheaper and under team control through 2022. Grandal is a free agent after 2018 and will require a high penny to retain. And I doubt that the Dodgers will shell out the cash when there are better places to use it.
And the wear and tear the catcher’s body takes as he ages is something to keep an eye on. A lot of catchers shift to first base to prolong their career, but the Dodgers have that position locked up for the next ten-plus years.
He will require a raise on the $5.5 million he’s making this year and something between $10 million and $15 million a year seems reasonable. He is an elite defensive catcher with some pop.
But again, the Dodgers probably wouldn’t and shouldn’t pay him. They should be prepared to let him walk. Does that mean trade him this winter? I don’t know, but what I do know is that Kyle Farmer is waiting in the wings to take over the role Barnes had in 2017, and Barnes is deserving of a chance to start. This means Grandal’s tenure in Los Angeles may be coming to an end soon.
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Barnes is cheaper, younger, under control longer, has more versatility, is the better hitter and can hold his own on defense. The Dodgers need to start prepping for Barnes to be their catcher of the future.