The Low Ceiling Barn(es)
Austin Barnes is a talented baseball player. He’s an elite contact hitter with some pop, has speed, and is a strong defender. What’s not to love? Well, there’s reason for worry that he won’t ever reach his ceiling, and for reasons that have nothing to do with his talent and not much to do with Yasmani Grandal.
Barnes’ 2017 didn’t come out of nowhere; he’s been a really good player in the minors for a number of years. However, his statistical output never matched up with the scouting community’s evaluation. They didn’t think his slight frame could handle a starter’s workload. So far he hasn’t proven them wrong:
|Games Started at Catcher||31||16||72||73||85||67||49|
You can argue he hasn’t had the opportunity yet, but many minor league catchers start far more games behind the plate. Both the Marlins and the Dodgers organizations have decided not to give Barnes a full starter’s workload behind the plate despite his prowess there, instead opting to spread his playing time at other positions.
There’s a reason catchers are typically bigger and stronger players- catching is incredibly difficult. Barnes is listed as 5’10” and 190 pounds. As an historian by training, I wanted to see how many catchers of Barnes’ size have ever been a team’s primary catcher. Using a completely arbitrary sample size of the last 25 years, I looked for players that 1) were listed at 6’0″ or shorter, 2) weighed 200 lbs. or fewer, 3) had over 400 plate appearances in a season, and 4) were primarily a catcher (sorry, Brandon Inge).
From 1993-2017, a catcher crossed the 400 PA threshold 440 times. Of those instances, only 40 were done by catchers 6’0″/ 200 lbs or smaller, and only five were able to repeat the feat- Jason Kendall (14), Brad Ausmus (11), Mike Lieberthal (7), Kirt Manwaring (2) and Tucker Barnhart (2) (Mitch Meluskey, Greg Zaun, Jim Leyritz, Matt Walbeck each had one). History is not kind to catchers of Barnes’ stature.
The Dodgers organizational philosophy will also put constraints on Austin’s playing time- they hoard depth at every position. Yasmani Grandal is still very good, and they have a bunch of prospects ranging from potentially adequate to potentially elite (Kyle Farmer, Will Smith, and Keibert Ruiz among others). All of that conspires to limit Austin’s opportunities at catcher and second base (where Barnes also has eligibility at present).
All of these factors make it unlikely that Barnes will be able to consistently have enough playing time to be a strong fantasy catcher. I wouldn’t expect more than roughly 350 plate appearances (85-90 starts) this year, or in future seasons, without 1) Barnes proving to be an historical exception, and 2) the Dodgers dramatically changing their organizational philosophy on depth.
His 2017 was amazing, but he still has a lot to prove. For me, its too early to rank him as a top 10 catcher.