While the injury to Devin Mesoraco, causing the catcher to have surgery and be lost for the season early, was a blow, it was also an opportunity for Tucker Barnhart to show what he can do at the big league level.
In 2015, Mesoraco went down early as well, but Barnhart acted mostly as a platoon option with Brayan Pena. This season, with Pena gone, Barnhart stepped into the void full-time.
Last season, Barnhart hit .252 with just 12 extra-base hits in 242 at bats. With a lower slugging percentage, it naturally lowered his OPS to .650.
However, through the All-Star break this season, Barnhart already has a similar sample size with just 34 fewer at bats and 45 fewer plate appearances. He has seen a spike in both batting average — .269 – and OPS – .718. Barnhart has 13 doubles, a triple and three home runs.
The glaring improvement for the switch-hitting Barnhart was from the right side. Last season, Barnhart hit just .178 against left-handed pitching in 45 at bats. Against right-handed pitching, he was in good shape, hitting .269 with all 12 of those extra base hits.
In 2016, Barnhart is hitting .298 from the right side, including a double and a pair of home runs in 47 at bats. The improvement from that side of the plate is astounding. It is a glaringly similar sample size, and infinitely better results.
In fact, Barnhart has even better stats from the right side than the left side this season. However, he does have 12 doubles as a left-handed hitter, but two of his three home runs are from the right side.
What is to attribute to this? Getting in the work and gaining experience is key. Unfortunately, the experience is a benefactor from the injury to Mesoraco.
There has never been a question about Barnhart defensively, on the surface. While he does not have the strongest pitch frame ability and advanced metric success, there is no question about his pop time, footwork, and arm to nail attempted base stealers. This season, Barnhart has nailed 23-of-65 attempted runners for a 35-percent clip. The league average is at 29 percent and Barnhart ranks 14th in the category.
However, when digging deeper into the stats there are some questions.
He has committed five errors, which ties Barnhart for third worst in the league. He is also near the bottom of the league in pitch framing, according to statcorner.com, who uses Pitch F/X to determine how many extra called strikes that a catcher earns for his pitcher. According to the stats, Barnhart actually cost the Reds 1.13 called strikes per game, with -72 over the span of 4,952 chances. This gave Barnhart a -9.5 in RAA (runs above average) for the category.
Barnhart also ranked seventh in Major League Baseball with 21 wild pitches allowed and sixth with four passed balls. Some of those statistics can be related to the pitching staff that a catcher is working with, but he is consistently toward the top. The Reds have a relatively young staff, so there is no surprise that there are some growing pains. If you combine Barnhart’s skillset with track record of blocking pitches, this category is not a huge concern at all.
In combining his statistics, Barnhart was at a negative-five in BIS Defensive Runs Saved Above Average, which combines several defensive metrics. That ranked him 38th in the league and gave him a yearly total of -12. Barnhart also ranks as a -1.3 on the Sabr Defensive Index (SDI).
One aspect that can be overlooked is earning the trust of the staff and calling a solid game. Barnhart clearly has both of these aspects down pat, based on everything that comes out of the clubhouse.
Barnhart won the Minor League Gold Glove for a catcher in 2011, based on his ability to throw out runners. That has certainly carried over to the big leagues, but the other defensive aspects at the next level have not come through just yet.
The third-year backstop has put in the work and improved his ability when it comes to hitting on the right side of the plate – a former weakness. The next step in the progression is completing what was considered one of his strengths when he came up, the defensive aspect.
Barnhart already has down the part that is unteachable – the arm and athleticism. The next step is adding the intangibles that will ultimately make the team better defensively, as he touches the ball on most plays.