The Dodgers have to be pretty happy with their situation behind the plate. Yasmani Grandal is the closest thing to Buster Posey you can get outside San Francisco, and he won’t hit free agency until after the 2018 season. After the Dodgers (somehow) acquired him from the Padres in exchange for Matt Kemp and a boatload of cash, he’s maintained his excellent offensive abilities and elevated his defense from great to sublime. Last year, he racked up 6.7 wins by Baseball Prospectus’s WARP (which accounts for framing), and he’s projected for only slightly less in 2017.
The player behind Grandal, though, is pretty interesting as well — and not just interesting, but potentially quite good. Austin Barnes, a 27-year-old who has accumulated only 74 plate appearances in the majors, looks likely to be Grandal’s main backup this season, and while he doesn’t come with much prospect sheen or hype, I’m excited to see him play.
At 5’9” and 190lbs, Barnes is smallish, and his frame certainly isn’t that of the typical catcher. In Eric Longenhagen’s write-up of Dodgers prospects, he described the fear felt by scouts and coaches that Barnes wouldn’t “hold up under a 120-plus-game workload” at catcher. As a result, and thanks to his high general athleticism, he’s played second, third, and both corner outfield spots during his time in the minors.
Most players with as much positional versatility as Barnes don’t have catcher as their main spot, but while Barnes has the mobility to play other positions, his most valuable skill is one that works only behind the plate. Baseball Prospectus tracks framing at AA and AAA as well as in the majors, and the rankings make Barnes look like a defensive superstar. Behind Posey at #1 and Grandal at #2 (and the less-exciting John Ryan Murphy at #3) sits Barnes at #4, with an estimated 18 runs added just through receiving pitches.
So there’s a good reason for the Dodgers to want Barnes as their catcher once every five games. But there might be good reasons for them to give him playing time elsewhere on the field, too. While a triple slash of .180/.315/.230 in his 74 major-league plate appearances doesn't show it, Barnes’s stat line is not just underwhelming, but wonky. A .315 OBP despite a .230 SLG indicates some serious plate discipline, and Barnes’ minor-league performance makes that look like something more than a fluke.
In 2015 and ‘16, Barnes accumulated 720 PAs at AAA, and while he showed some pop (15 home runs and 39 doubles, albeit in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League), it wasn’t particularly exciting coming from a 25-/26-year-old. Instead, the most interesting bit of his profile was his 10.8 percent walk rate, accompanied by a 12.4 percent strikeout rate. Accumulating those sorts of figures without threatening to crush the ball requires both plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills.
Barnes hasn’t acquired many plaudits from scouts, however. Longenhagen described his raw power as “fringey” and his bat as “a little short of profiling” at any single one of the positions he can field at, and that’s one of the more optimistic things you can read about Barnes. He didn’t make Baseball Prospectus’s 15-player list of Dodgers prospects, and he scraped into 10th place on Baseball America’s ranking. That’s probably not a surprise; he’s old for his level, he's small for his position, and he lacks easily visible tools.
But the projection systems, on the other hand, are pretty high on him.
Austin Barnes Projections
All three of the major systems think Barnes is a decent hitter: PECOTA projects him at a .272 TAv (just above league average), Steamer at a 97 wRC+ (just below), and ZiPS at a 90 wRC+ (slightly more below). The difference in overall values between the systems comes from the fact that, as mentioned, PECOTA takes into account his excellent framing abilities. For any catcher, league-average offense is fine. For one as skilled at framing as Barnes seems to be, it’s excellent. For a catcher who is great at framing and can also slot in at second, third, left field, or right field as needed, it’s downright exciting.
Barnes is exactly the kind of player you’d expect the Dodgers front office to like: undervalued skills (framing, versatility) in prodigious quantities and a very high floor, despite not looking the part of a professional baseball player. He probably won’t knock anyone’s socks off this year, but he’s poised to add substantial value in a lot of small ways, and help Dave Roberts make the most of the Dodgers’ fragile roster.