Digging For Diamonds: Austin Barnes
I know what you’re thinking: “he’s a catcher and the catching landscape is so boring it’s Elon Musk’s right hand man at The Boring Company” (yes that’s a real thing, they have hats). While that is generally correct, the fact that he’s a catcher probably played a role in why he was a bit overlooked in 2017. Let’s dive into some reasons why you should give him a look in 2018.
In 218 ABs across 102 games, the right-handed hitting Barnes slashed .289/.408/.486 in his age-27 season, with a bb/k ratio of 39/43 (.907). That bb/k ratio is good for 2nd out of all catchers that played at least 15 games, behind only Buster Posey and his 61/66 (.924) ratio. And Barnes’ walk rate of 14.89% was good for 3rd, behind Posey’s 16.49% and Andrew Knapp’s 15.20%.
But let’s deep dive on that .408 OBP, which was tops for all catchers that played in at least 15 games or more. While I do expect the OBP to drop below .400, I don’t expect it to drop by much, and there are peripheral numbers that point to his ability to get on base often. In 6 years in the minors Barnes compiled a .388 OBP, proving that he’s always been able to get on base while facing increasingly difficult competition, and there’s reason to believe that can continue at the Major League level. Contributing to the strong OBP is Barnes’ ability to see a lot of pitches at the plate. In 2017 Barnes’ patient approach allowed him to see an average of 4.08 pitches/plate appearance, which is solidly above the league average of 3.91.
Now that we know Barnes has a pretty solid handle on when a pitch is a ball or a strike, which is certainly a plus-quality in a catcher, how about when he actually swung the bat? Barnes’ BABIP was a modest .329 in 2017 and judging by the quality of the contact he made –20.3% Soft, 50.9% Medium and 28.8% hard, considered “average” by Fangraphs, –it’s safe to say this is probably the neighborhood where that lives, which is a very pleasant number to see especially at the catcher position.
And for those of you that play in AVG leagues, Barnes could still be your ticket to ride. In his 6 minor league seasons he posted a batting average of .299 (.304 in 628 AAA at bats) which is a suitable track record to show he should hit enough to be relevant in AVG leagues as well as OBP leagues. Barnes was also tops for all catchers that played at least 15 games in wRC+ in 2017 at 142 showing that his production had merit.
Another area where Barnes can help, surprisingly, is steals. His career minor league totals are very encouraging: 61 for 74, which is an 82% success rate. His last three years in the minors yielded an 84% success rate, swiping double digit bags each year (11 in ‘14, 12 in ‘15 and, 18 in ‘16, and getting caught a total of 8 times). In 2017 there was not a single catcher that stole double digits. In fact, that has only been accomplished once by a catcher in the last 5 seasons (Realmuto, 12 in ‘16). In 2017 Barnes was 4 for 5 in stolen base attempts and I certainly expect that number to be closer to double digits in 2018.
The cherry on top of the Austin Barnes sleeper sundae is that he looks primed to supplant Yasmani Grandal, who struggled in the second half of 2017. In the playoffs Barnes started 13 of the 15 games the Dodgers played, and should head into spring training with the inside track to take the job for himself.
Barnes is certainly worth a lot of attention heading into 2018, especially in OBP leagues. Barnes’ career path thus far has actually mirrored that of a guy who should have occupied this space last year- Whit Merrifield. Both were under-the-radar minor leaguers with late arrivals to the majors, and both held their own well in their first cup of coffee. Last year at age 28 Merrifield broke out; Barnes, entering his age 28 season, is primed to do the same. You’re going to want to jump on Barnes before his value takes off like a Space-X launch over LA.