It didn’t take long at the start of his career for Austin Barnes to know what the Dodgers valued in their backup catchers.
“When I came up here, I realized early they weren’t gonna let you catch here unless you knew how to handle the defensive side,” he said. “They don’t just trust you out there.”
So, he went about trying to earn their faith with his play behind the plate.
And nine years later, he hasn’t yet lost it.
In almost any other situation, or with a player at almost any other position, Barnes’ leash might have run out long ago this season.
The veteran backstop is batting .147, the second-lowest average among players with 100 plate appearances this year. He has registered a minus-1.1 in wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs, the seventh-worst mark in MLB.
The 33-year-old Barnes has never been much of a threat at the plate, with a career .217 batting average and 80 OPS+ (an advanced stat in which 100 is considered league-average).
But he had never struggled quite like this, either.
“It’s been a grind this year,” he said. “A lot of … tough nights.”
Yet, rather than change course at backup catcher, the Dodgers waited for Barnes to correct his.
Even at the nadir of his slump, the team decided against a change at the position. While they evaluated the catching market ahead of the trade deadline, a move always seemed unlikely, with the club’s trust in Barnes outweighing the appeal of any other available backups.
“We just believe in what Austin has done and can do for our ballclub,” manager Dave Roberts said Saturday. “It’s been a trying year, as he’s said. But I think for us, we’re very bullish on betting on the person, the player, the track record.”
Lately, that belief has finally paid dividends, with Barnes delivering two key moments last week — a game-winning eighth-inning home run on Thursday, and a game-tying bunt single on Saturday — to cement his recent resurgence over the last month.
“It sucks that it took as long as it did,” he said. “But there’s nothing you can do about that. Just gotta keep going.”
Barnes started the season 0 for 16, had a sub-.100 batting average through May, then slipped back to .104 after a two-for-25 skid in mid-July.
In nine games since then, he is eight for 23 with a home run (his first of the season), three RBIs and two sacrifice bunts —- good for a .348 batting average and .878 on-base-plus-slugging percentage since July 26.
It might not sound like much, particularly for a bench player who has seen his playing time dwindle this season (since starting catcher Will Smith returned from a concussion in late April, Barnes has started less than one-fourth of the team’s games behind the plate).
But for a respected veteran with an outsized influence in the clubhouse — not to mention another season remaining on the two-year, $7-million extension he signed in July 2022 — Barnes’ turnaround has nonetheless been a welcome sight.
“Barnsy’s a winner,” said teammate Clayton Kershaw, the only current Dodgers player who has been with the club longer. “Obviously, his offensive numbers, when you look at it on paper aren’t great. But that’s not what he’s here to do. He’s here to help us win. And he does that behind the plate, the way he calls games, and the way he competes. He’s really good at it. It’s hard to describe.”
Indeed, Barnes has always made his biggest marks under the radar.
He has long been one of the majors’ better catchers at framing pitches and stealing strikes.
He has met the Dodgers’ lofty game-planning and pitch-calling demands from their backstops, serving as the primary catcher in all three of their recent World Series trips.
He has built a strong rapport with a star-studded list of battery mates, as well, his bond with Kershaw — whose 81 regular-season starts with Barnes are topped only by former Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis — most of all.
“He’s fun to be around,” Kershaw said, before stopping himself with a chuckle. “Well, I don’t know if he’s fun to be around, but he’s entertaining.”
“One of his skills is, he can call people out, but people think it’s funny,” Kershaw explained. “When other people do that, they take offense. But Barnsey has a really good feel for making fun of guys, or giving people a hard time, and them taking it well. It’s a skill. It’s a personality trait.”
That has proved particularly valuable this season, giving the Dodgers an experienced — yet approachable — presence in their “run-prevention” department amid a rash of early-season injuries and injection of young arms.
“There’s a lot of value [he brings] to the type of team we have now,” bench coach Danny Lehmann said. “To be able to trust him, and have the pitchers trust him and understand that he knows what he’s doing back there, that’s just big for our team to not skip a beat.”
At no point was that more clear than Smith’s two-week concussion-related absence in mid-April.
With Barnes in the starting slot, journeyman Austin Wynns was acquired to be the temporary backup. He and the pitching staff never appeared to find a rhythm, leading to a woeful 8.74 team ERA in Wynns’ four starts.
It’s partially why — even as Barnes’ offensive struggles drew the ire of some parts of the fan base, and his throwing arm was exploited on the bases under MLB’s new steal-friendly rules — the Dodgers never seemed to seriously consider moving on.
They knew there were few significant upgrades available. They accepted that, if Smith were to get hurt, there’d be no compensating for his offensive production behind the plate.
What they wanted in their backup was a steadying presence, reliable game-caller and someone who could handle the pitching staff regardless of how he was performing with the bat.
Such skills have always been part of Barnes’ calling card. And lately, he has finally coupled them with a subtle return to form on offense, rewarding the club’s prolonged faith with a turnaround month.
“He’s always been really skillful at taking a breath and separating [his offense and defense],” Lehmann said. “It’s tough to let those frustrations subside and focus on the defense. But he’s always been really good at that. It’s really hard to do.”