(Photo by Keith Birmingham/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)
Fun Fact #1: Among all catchers who had at least 250 plate appearances last season, no one had a higher OPS than Austin Barnes, who produced an .895 mark that bested Gary Sanchez (.876), Buster Posey (.865), and Willson Contreras (.855). To be perfectly unbiased, however, this did come in a limited sample size, as Barnes had only 218 AB, compared to 471 for Sanchez, 494 for Posey, and 377 for Contreras.
Here’s the leaderboard so you can see for yourself
It’s tempting to look at the leaderboard and just write off Austin Barnes as a cherry-picked statistical anomaly. Kurt Suzuki is #2 on that list with an .887 OPS, with Robinson Chirinos (.866) and Chris Iannetta (.865) rounding out the top 5. Just statistical noise, right?
Though it’s almost a reflex to write Austin Barnes off as a small sample wonder, I’m going to make the case that we should take Austin Barnes seriously, not just as a startable catcher, but as someone with a clear path to finishing the season as a top-5 catcher.
Plate Discipline/Strike Zone Command
For starters, Austin Barnes demonstrated a command of the strike zone that no catcher other than Buster Posey himself could have rivaled. In 262 plate appearances, Barnes accumulated 39 BB: 43 K, good for a 0.91 BB/K rate and a 14.9% walk percentage. Across more than twice as many plate appearances, Posey had 61 BB: 66 K, good for a 0.92 BB/K rate.
As a direct comparison to the consensus top 3 catchers (Sanchez, Posey, Contreras), let’s see what we get:
Plate discipline is tough to quantify and can be subject to statistical variance, but it’s a promising start to see that Barnes drew walks at a significantly higher clip than any of the other top catchers. His BB/K rate was right there with Posey, as Posey balanced out his lower walk rate with a relatively lower frequency of striking out. Admittedly, drawing walks has only a small impact on the standard 5×5 fantasy baseball categories, but what this does tell us is that Austin Barnes has a quality approach at the plate, with an ability to grind and not give away at-bats that solidifies him with a higher floor for batting average and runs scored. To wit, his minor league profile confirms this aspect of his game, as he has never failed to post a walk rate lower than 10% in any professional season (spanning all the way back to 2011).
It’s also worth mentioning that Austin Barnes is NOT a product of an anomalous power surge artificially inflating his slugging percentage and OPS. Kurt Suzuki is 2nd on that OPS leaderboard because he homered 19 times in 276 AB. Chirinos popped 17 in 263 and Iannetta bashed 17 in 272. A rough extrapolation of that would put all of those catchers on a par with Gary Sanchez, who is the only catcher in the game with a realistic chance at popping 40 home runs. Barnes hit a respectable but not astounding 8 HR in 218 AB, which is not a significant deviation from what he accomplished through different levels of minor league baseball (12 HR in 348 PA with the Marlins’ AA affiliate in ’14, 9 HR in 335 PA with the Dodgers’ AAA team in ’15). The upshot of all this is that Austin Barnes already has a claim to being one of the best pure offensive catchers with sustainable production.
Speed Kills (Or At Least Helps Move the Fantasy Needle)
Historically, catcher has almost never been a speed-oriented position. The consensus top 3 catchers are known for their contributions with power and/or BA, with a combined 13 SB between the three of them. In an abbreviated half-season with the Dodgers, Barnes stole 4 bases and he has the minor league profile and speed metrics to hint at upside for double-digit SBs. In 85 games with the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate in 2016, Barnes stole 18 bags, and he also swiped 12 in 81 games at the same level in 2015. Despite relatively modest power (similar to Austin Barnes), JT Realmuto has found a consistent path to mid/late round relevance, thanks to his rare ability to provide a burst of speed at a slow position (28 SB from 2015-17). Barnes easily has the capability to match or exceed that level of SB production, and that aspect of Barnes’ fantasy profile should not go overlooked. Among catchers, Barnes’ sprint speed of 27.3 ft/s ranked 3rd, which was actually within spitting distance of both Cameron Maybin (27.8) and Ender Inciarte (27.5), center fielders who both have a reputation for bringing speed to the table.
The elephant in the room is Yasmani Grandal’s continued existence on the Dodgers roster. Grandal is still the de facto starter until he either gets traded, gets hurt, or gets outproduced. However, Justin Turner’s recent injury has a ripple effect across the Dodgers roster. Logan Forsythe is currently viewed as the team’s best regular option at 3rd base, which moves him off of 2B and creates a more consistent timeshare between Chase Utley and Barnes. Barnes logged 21 games at 2nd base and can play it capably, giving him another path to semi-regular playing time.
Payroll concerns are also working in Barnes’ favor, as the off-season carried rumblings of the Dodgers trading Yasmani Grandal so that they could comfortably fit under the luxury tax, even after paying up for an ace like Yu Darvish. That never materialized, as Darvish signed with the Cubs, but the Dodgers’ need for another strong pitcher behind Clayton Kershaw is obvious. With the Dodgers back at where they were before they pushed to acquire Darvish last July, it’s difficult to imagine that the Dodgers won’t make aggressive overtures to acquire Chris Archer or whoever else becomes available. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Grandal traded to make the finances work, and that would blow the window of opportunity wide open for Barnes.
Even if that never happens, though, the Dodgers are a championship-caliber team that is committed to fielding the best personnel they can, even if it means pushing aside more established veterans. When Cody Bellinger proved himself to be the way of the future, the Dodgers had no problem with shifting Adrian Gonzalez aside, despite a half-decade of him anchoring the middle of the Dodgers’ lineup. When the playoffs rolled around, Austin Barnes became the primary catcher because the organization recognized that they had a superior option in house. Although Grandal remains a productive player, his overall offensive profile displays some red flags, as his OBP has dropped from .353 in 2015 down to .308 last season. Once touted for his plate discipline, Grandal’s walk rate has plummeted, from 15.3% in 2015 down to 8.3% last season. You could already make a strong case that Barnes is the clearly superior offensive option, and I’d argue that the only reason Barnes isn’t already the clear-cut starter is because the Dodgers stand to gain from showcasing Grandal and preserving his trade value.
Relative Value/Snap Back from Reality
Bringing it back to fantasy, part of the reason why I’m riding the Austin Barnes train is because of how incredibly cheap he remains, with an ESPN ADP of 222.9 (late 23rd round in a 10-team league). Though I’d expect that ADP to rise at least a round or two with the news of Justin Turner’s injury, a 21st-23rd round pick is nothing for someone who already profiles as JT Realmuto with better plate discipline and a better lineup surrounding him. Realmuto is currently going 6th among all catchers on ESPN, but his counting numbers were nothing special last season, with 65 RBI and 68 R across 532 at-bats. Barnes, by comparison, accumulated 38 RBI and 35 R in around 40 percent of the AB (218), and would have paced at around 90 R and 90 RBI with a similar amount of playing time. Mark Barnes down for the initial lack of consistent PT and for some natural regression, and you still get JT Realmuto with the upside for more at a significantly lower cost. This is before even mentioning Realmuto’s dreary supporting cast on a Miami team that seems to have no interest in respectability.
Bold Prediction: Austin Barnes finishes top 5 among all catchers, with a faint chance at finishing inside the top-3. Take him with a late round pick if nothing else jumps out at you as a worthwhile stash and don’t hesitate to reach for him in a 2-catcher league.