Dodgers- Once a Starter Hopeful What Happened to Austin Barnes

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 03: Austin Barnes #15 of the Los Angeles Dodgers warms up on deck during the fourth inning of the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on May 3, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Dodgers defeated the Diamondbacks 5-2. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 03: Austin Barnes #15 of the Los Angeles Dodgers warms up on deck during the fourth inning of the MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on May 3, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Dodgers defeated the Diamondbacks 5-2. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Baseball is weird, isn’t it? One year, a player can be so good that he convinces the world that he will be the next year’s starter at his position and the next, he can completely destroy that expectation, faster than a 105 mile per hour two-seam fastball from Jordan Hicks. This was the case with Austin Barnes.

Barnes was young, good and ready for the spotlight in 2017. He was the second fastest catcher in the league behind now household name, JT Realmuto and his bat put together a compelling case for the then 27-year old to take over the Dodgers’ starting duties behind the dish, supplanting Yasmani Grandal in what would have been a changing of the guards, unforeseen by many prior to the 2017 campaign.

He had me convinced. Barnes hit .289 with 8 home runs and 38 RBI’s. He stole 4 bases in 2017 and hit .321 against right-handed pitching and .257 against lefties- a crucial statistic given Grandal’s struggles against southpaws. In his 262 plate appearances, Barnes buoyed his OPS to an expectation-exceeding .895 and as I already mentioned, with Grandal essentially ending his season in July (he hit a collective .187 in August and September combined), the 2018 starting catcher position was Barnes’ to lose.

I’m not even going to waste your time here: he lost the job without question and did so emphatically. The struggle started at Camelback Ranch for Spring Training. The starting hopeful collected just 4 hits in his 36 at-bats all while striking out 10 times (27.7%). Life for Barnes started to get harder and harder and what looked like a meaningless Spring Training blunder, turned into a struggle that would follow the 28-year old into the regular season: it was a mess.

Grandal retook his role and did so really well but the point here is that Austin Barnes developed a weakness in 2018 that was not at all present in the previous season. He went from high-quality back-up to a well below average bench piece and, rather obviously, this is a cause for concern.

Struggles like this don’t just “happen” for argument’s sake. Something has to go wrong and in more cases than not, it is one or two specific categories of statistics that take a full speed ahead skydive into oblivion. Both by the numbers and anecdotally, Barnes followed suit in this trend- his numbers were awful in certain groupings while others stayed on-par with his 2017 performance.

They start in a simple area- batting averages, contact and strikeouts against right-handed pitching. I said it earlier but it bears repeating, Barnes slashed .321/.444/.459 against righties translating to a 147 wRC+. He was lights out. The right-handed Barnes hit better off of right-handed pitching in 2017 than he did lefties and, in a way, this felt like his own small claim to fame.

More from Dodgers Way

The following season erased any hope Barnes instilled in the fans that he could hit righties. Last year, he slashed .151/.298/.186 against the right side of the mound good for a 48 wRC+. The difference in wRC+ is almost 100 and here in lies our first major discrepancy: Austin Barnes essentially forgot how to hit a ball coming from a righty.

Now the big question at this juncture is something along the lines of “what about against lefties?” The answer may surprise you. Without spending too much time here, Barnes essentially did the same exact work he did in 2018 as he did in 2017 against southpaws. Yes, his batting average did dip by roughly .010, but that is rather expected when you are having the worst season in your young career. Moral goes a long way and I suppose we measure that by the minute difference in batting average.

His issues, however, get more advanced from here and this second set of discrepancies from 2017 to 2018 can be found in his batted ball profile. We can tie this into the struggles at the plate against a certain side of the mound but this issue, unlike his nearly .200 point difference in batting average between 2017 and ’18, can go on to cure almost all of his problems.

First, Barnes could not keep the ball off the ground. Despite grounding in just one more double play in 2018 than he did in 2017, 56 percent of all batted balls stayed on the ground. Let’s add some perspective to the situation. In 2017, Barnes had a ground ball percentage of 44.6, 10 percent lower than last year. In 2018, the league average groundball percentage was 45.8, Barnes also beat that one by 10 percent.

Now let’s expand on this. Not only did Austin Barnes keep the ball ground on the ground last year he was not hitting as hard as he did the previous year. In 2017, Barnes had a weak contact percentage of 3.4 percent. As has been the trend of this article, the 2018 figure was significantly less attractive at 7.5 percent while his solid contact percentage went from 6.3 percent in ’17 to 1.5 percent last year.

This one is the most significant. Put simply, Barnes is not hitting the ball well. What he was hitting well in 2017, he did not last year. Barnes was getting on top on the ball last year when he was getting under it in 2017.

Next. Dodgers- Bryce Harper and the Numbers that Come With Him. dark

The discrepancies are significant. Austin Barnes was a starting catcher in terms of quality just two seasons ago but played like a completely different player last year. With two young prodigies coming up in the minor leagues to start at catcher, Barnes may not be in the Dodgers’ plans for future. But, until they are ready, the plan appears to be platoon Barnes with one other player. To do that, he will need to fix his splits.