The Los Angeles Dodgers finished the regular season with the best record in baseball at 104 wins, two games ahead of the Cleveland Indians. They've had contributions up and down the roster. They built the best team in baseball by developing a roster without any real holes. Their starting pitchers and bullpen both rank top five in FanGraphs' wins above replacement. Their weakest point according to fWAR, first base, still ranked 16th in baseball. Their next-worst position, right field, ranked thirteenth. Each other position ranked in the top ten.
And yet, despite MVP-caliber performances up and down their roster, their catching unit was the strongest.
Los Angeles's catching tandem of Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes finished ahead of the likes of Gary Sanchez, Buster Posey, and every other catching unit in baseball in WARP (Baseball Prospectus' wins above replacement player, which includes framing) and second in fWAR behind the Atlanta Braves (which doesn’t include it).
It starts with Grandal, who may be one of the most underrated players in baseball. He has been worth nearly 5 WARP this year, placing him behind just Sanchez, Posey, Tyler Flowers, and JT Realmuto in individual wins above replacement player. He is having somewhat of a down year offensively, but he remains one of the top hitting catchers in the league. His 22 home runs and 27 doubles both rank fourth among all catchers. His .459 slugging percentage ranks ninth among catchers with over 300 plate appearances.
Grandal pairs his solid offense with world-class defense and framing. According to FanGraphs' defensive runs above average metric (which looks at blocking and throwing only), Grandal ranks fourth-best among all catchers. Baseball Prospectus' defensive runs above average likes him even more, ranking him second behind the San Diego Padres' Austin Hedges.
Grandal gains most of his defensive value through his framing numbers. He ranks third-best in baseball behind Hedges and Flowers in framing runs. Grandal's 20.2 runs of value from framing is more value than Kyle Seager has generated offensively this year. In other words, Grandal’s receiving skills behind the plate, alone, have been as valuable as an above-average major league hitter.
But the Dodgers haven't obtained the best catching unit in baseball from Grandal's value alone; a big chunk of the credit must go to Austin Barnes as well. Barnes has actually been just as valuable as Grandal according to FanGraphs' WAR, with both at 2.5 wins above replacement. Barnes has been comparable in value despite almost half as many plate appearances and much less time spent behind the plate.
Not only has Barnes been a much better hitter than Grandal, but over a small sample size, he has been one of the best hitters in the league. Among those with over 250 plate appearances, Barnes has the tenth-best walk rate in the league at 14.9 percent. He pairs his excellent walk rate with a decent strikeout rate, placing him ninth in baseball in BB/K ratio at 0.91. He posted a .408 on-base percentage along with fifteen doubles, two triples, and eight home runs in just 262 plate appearances.
Barnes himself is also one of the best defensive catchers in the league. He ranks sixth in baseball in fielding runs above average adjusted according to Baseball Prospectus. He is also, along with Grandal, one of the top framers in the league. He ranked fifth in baseball in framing runs despite having less than half as many framing opportunities as his competitors ahead of him. By called strikes above average (CSAA), which measures framing ability on a per-pitch basis, Barnes ranks as the best framer in baseball.
Neither Grandal nor Barnes would be named as one of the most important Dodgers this year by most fans. But despite being overshadowed by bigger, flashier names, their duo behind the plate has been Los Angeles’s strongest point. Not only have they outperformed most other catching units offensively, they have been arguably the best team defensively, and no doubt the top unit as far as framing goes.
If the Dodgers finally break through and win their first World Series since 1989, it will have as much to do with their elite duo behind the plate as their deep line-up and dominant pitching staff.