The K Zone
December 27th, 2017
The New Best Catcher in Baseball by Mojo Hill
If you could pick any catcher to have on your team for the next, say, five years, who would you pick?
The first name that probably comes to most baseball fans’ minds is Buster Posey, who has been the undisputed best all-around catcher in the game for the past several years. Additionally one might think of rising stars such as Gary Sanchez, Willson Contreras and J.T. Realmuto. One is not wrong for doing so, as the four names I mentioned are all fantastic players and certainly deserve credit for being some of the top catchers in the game. But if I had to choose just one catcher to have on my team for the next five years, I would not pick any of those guys.
I would pick Austin Barnes.
Some might think I’d be crazy for picking a guy who was a backup catcher for almost all of last year. But Barnes was, in my opinion, the Dodgers’ deadliest secret weapon. Everyone knew about the sudden emergence of Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger, but Barnes often got lost in that conversation. While he didn’t receive as much playing time as the average starting catcher, he was one of, if not the best catcher in baseball in the playing time that he did receive. Among catchers with at least 250 PA (Barnes had 262), he ranked first in wRC+ with 142, ahead of Sanchez’s 130, Kurt Suzuki’s 129 and Posey’s 128. Relatively small sample size aside, Barnes was the best hitting catcher in baseball last year.
So if Barnes was the best hitting catcher in baseball, why did he spend almost the entire year as a backup? Well, we can’t blame Dave Roberts too much for that one, considering that they also had Yasmani Grandal, a guy who has established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball with his elite framing skills and power. However, while being a switch hitter, Grandal has always been worse as a right-handed batter than as a left-handed batter, (106 wRC+ vs. 117) and had considerably less power against lefties (.138 ISO vs. 211), so Barnes was used mostly against lefties while Grandal played most games where the Dodgers faced a right-hander. And while one could argue that Barnes’s success was a product of playing against more favorable matchups, he actually had a reverse platoon split, hitting worse against lefties than he did against righties (136 wRC+ vs. 147).
In the middle of the season while Barnes was posting better numbers than Grandal and the Dodgers were in the division race, I do think that it was actually smart of the Dodgers to continue playing Grandal over Barnes the majority of the time, since Grandal was an established player and there was understandable skepticism that Barnes would maintain these numbers. It’s not uncommon for mediocre players to ride an insane BABIP-fueled hot streak for a month or two before regressing back into mediocrity. Just look at Sandy Leon’s 2016. But as Barnes started to get more at-bats and Grandal started to regress in the second half, it became clear that Barnes was not just a fluke, but a legitimately really good player.
First, the offensive side of things. As mentioned earlier, Barnes had the best wRC+ among catchers with at least 250 plate appearances. He hit .289 with a .329 BABIP, which is a little high but certainly not unsustainable considering his above-average batted ball profile. His quality of contact percentages were all roughly or slightly below league average, but what sticks out is that he hit line drives 6% above league average, and instead of strictly pulling the ball, he went up the middle and used the opposite field a lot. Barnes maintaining a .289 average in the future is a completely reasonable proposition.
Perhaps the most undervalued part of Barnes’s game was his above average power. He had a .197 ISO, so he wasn’t just some singles-only slap hitter. To put that into context, Barnes had more power than Corey Seager, Hanley Ramirez and Joc Pederson. So while he hit line drives to all fields and was no slouch in terms of power, probably the most impressive part of his offensive profile is his plate discipline. Barnes walked 14.9% of the time while striking out only 16.4% of the time. His BB/K of 0.91 was second among catchers behind only Posey’s 0.92, and 11th in all of baseball. This was due to his tremendous plate discipline and selectivity. He swung at only 17.4% pitches outside of the strike zone, whereas the average MLB batter swung at 29.9%. And when he did swing at pitches outside of the zone, he made contact 7.8% more often than the average batter. While he did swing at pitches in the zone at a below average rate, due to his selectiveness, he made contact with the pitches he did swing at in the zone 7.3% above league average at 92.8%. This is the sign of a batter with a truly great eye, swinging at the pitches he was confident he could hit while laying off the ones he couldn’t. As a result, he swung and missed only 4.7% of the time.
But let’s get back to the original question that I’m trying to answer: why I would pick Barnes over any other catcher to have for the next five years. A lot of people might pick Posey due to his track record, but I would pick Barnes because, as I’ve explained, I believe he can sustain the numbers he put up this year. Plus, Posey has been declining in the last few years, specifically in his isolated power, which has been worse than Barnes’ ISO in every year of Posey’s career except in 2012 when he won MVP. One could technically argue that Posey is still better than Barnes due to the tiny edge in BB/K, but while Posey has similar overall plate discipline, he also walks 4.2% less than Barnes and has been experiencing a power decline as he’s gotten older. His ISO last year was .142, .055 lower than Barnes. Plus, he’s three years older and on the wrong side of 30. Plate discipline is a skill that ages well, but power is not, and the fact that Posey has about equal plate discipline and significantly worse and declining power easily puts Barnes over the edge for me. I’m a believer in the notion that strikeouts don’t matter that much as long as you walk a lot, so I’ll gladly take Barnes’ extra walks over Posey’s lower strikeout rate, meaning I prefer Barnes’s plate discipline and power over Posey’s. Posey’s career accomplishments can’t be denied, and I’m sure he’ll still be great in the next few years, but I would much rather take my chances with a less-proven Barnes.
Defense (which is also extremely important for catchers) is a whole other story I’ll get to after I wrap up my analysis of his offense. But as far as offense is concerned, Barnes simply has a much more impressive and well-rounded offensive profile than any other catcher in the game today. Does he do everything better than everyone? No. Sanchez has more power and Realmuto is a better baserunner. But Barnes is the best overall hitter among them, walks more than all of them except for Alex Avila and Andrew Knapp (who are clearly worse catchers than Barnes for a myriad of other reasons), strikes out less than most of them, has above average power, and has speed. Using Bill James’s Speed rating, or “Spd,” Barnes gets a 4.9, which puts him 4th among catchers, a tick behind Realmuto and Chris Hermann (5.0) and Christian Vazquez (5.1). Catchers have always been notoriously slow, so to have a serviceable runner who can steal bases and take an extra base from the catcher position is extremely valuable, especially considering how awful most other catchers are at running. His baserunning is admittedly far from perfect, as evidenced by his -1.6 BsR, but he definitely has the speed and athleticism to steal more than the four bases he stole this year, and really anything you can get out of the catcher position in terms of baserunning is valuable, considering that there are MLB catchers who go multiple seasons without even attempting to steal a base. Barnes’s combination of contact, plate discipline, power and speed are the most well-rounded of any catcher in baseball, and it’s a coach’s dream to have a player with the amount of tools that he has.
Of course, these offensive tools would be valuable at any position. But what really makes Barnes special is that he’s additionally a fantastic fielding catcher. In Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average, which combines framing runs, blocking runs, throwing runs, and basic defensive components such as fielding ground balls, Barnes ranked 9th among all catchers and 8th in FRAA_ADJ, which takes out the “normal” FRAA components that are included in all players’ FRAA and instead focuses just on a catcher’s framing runs, blocking runs and throwing runs. If Barnes had played the same amount of innings at catcher that Grandal played, while defending at the same level, he would have had 23.7 FRAA, which would have been 2nd among catchers behind only Austin Hedges, and 25.5 FRAA_ADJ, which would have led baseball. Barnes is an elite defensive catcher. To say exactly how good he is would be tough due to the imperfectness of these fairly new defensive statistics and the relatively small sample size. But another argument one could make for starting Grandal over Barnes could be that Grandal is a great defensive catcher, which he undoubtedly is, but Barnes is just as good if not better. Additionally, Grandal had an alarming 16 passed balls in 2017, his second straight year leading the league in passed balls, while Barnes had just three. While Barnes is a fantastic defensive catcher, he’s also shown that he can play a serviceable second base as well due to his agility and athleticism that few catchers have.
Overall, there really just isn’t anything Barnes can’t do. He hits for average, gets on base, has great plate discipline, can hit for power, plays a great defensive catcher, and can even play second base. He’s a little old for a rising star, but still relatively young as he’ll be playing his age-28 season in 2018, and I would prefer to have him on my team than a younger catcher like Sanchez, Realmuto or Contreras. Posey’s entering a power and age decline, and while Sanchez and Contreras may be “flashier” with their towering home runs, I believe Barnes has a more well-rounded toolset that will age well and provide value even if he does happen to struggle with the bat, which I don’t think he will due to the reasons explained earlier. Realmuto is basically Barnes with slightly less power and far worse plate discipline, but is more well known by most fans, mostly due to him having already established a starting role. A case could certainly be made for any of these guys over Barnes, but after looking at the strengths, weaknesses, and tools of each player, I would be extremely confident to pick Barnes over star catchers such as Posey, Sanchez, Contreras, Realmuto, Grandal, Mike Zunino, and any other active catcher. Am I overreacting to 262 plate appearances? Maybe. But after looking closely at the stats and watching Barnes develop as a player, I am fully confident that he will blossom into one of the best if not the best catcher in the game over the next five years.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, you might want to check out my analysis of Kershaw’s postseason struggles, or if you like interviews, Mike has plenty of those. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram for updates on when we publish a new article or interview. You can also follow me on Twitter.