Editor’s Note: I hope you will join me in welcoming Ashley Davis to the Redleg Nation family. This is actually not Ashley’s first piece for RN; she wrote this piece six years ago (!) about Joey Votto and Yonder Alonso. I’m really excited that she’s joining us at RN for the 2017 season. Please make her feel welcome! — Chad Dotson
On Monday, Reds manager Bryan Price told the Cincinnati media the Reds will carry no more than two catchers when they break camp at the end of March. Ideally, he would like it to be Devin Mesoraco and Tucker Barnhart. Yes, there are still questions about the health of Mesoraco, but for the first time since 2013, when Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan split time behind the plate, it seems the Reds’ catching situation is stable. A big reason for that is Barnhart has established himself as at least a solid MLB back-up catcher. But did he do enough in 2016 to prove he deserves a platoon situation?
In 115 games last season, Barnhart hit .257/.323/.379, with an OPS of .702. He had 97 hits and drove in 51 runs. His numbers weren’t eye-popping, but the stats show he had a solid season for a player who was thrust into the role of everyday catcher in just his third season in the big leagues. Barnhart’s walk and strikeout percentages weren’t horrible, at 8.6% and 17.1%, respectively. He tends to hit more line drives than pop-ups or fly balls, as evidenced by his .299 BABIP and only seven home runs in 377 at-bats.
Barnhart can also make plays behind the plate with his arm. In 2016, he threw out 34 of 102 runners, for a 33% caught stealing percentage. This was six percentage points higher than the league average of 27%. Despite his lack of power, Barnhart has certain strengths and defense looks to be one.
At the risk of jinxing Mesoraco, he seems healthy going into 2017. He played in his first Cactus League game of the spring on Sunday and felt good. Reds fans haven’t seen him play regularly since 2014 when he was an All-Star. In fact, the last two years, Mesoraco has played in just 39 games. But, in 2014, it was a breakout year, and it showed the Reds what he is capable of when he is healthy.
In 2014, Mesoraco hit .273/.359/.534, with an OPS of .893. He showed his power by hitting 25 home runs and driving in 80 runs in 384 at-bats. He did hit a lot of groundballs (34%), but the percentage at which he hit fly balls was much higher at 43% to put his BABIP at .309. Mesoraco’s strikeout to walk ratio of 103-to-41 wasn’t the greatest in 2014, but you can’t have it all (unless you’re Joey Votto). Defensively, he threw out only 18 of 51 runners, but committed just three errors in 890 chances.
I would compare the tandem of Mesoraco and Barnhart to the combination of Ryan Hanigan and Mesoraco in 2012 and 2013. In both cases, there was a veteran catcher and a less experienced, but still capable catcher in the back-up role. However, this time around I believe the current tandem is the better one. Hanigan had a decent season in 2012, which is probably one of the reasons the Reds were so good that year, but in 2013, his production went way down. His OPS went from .703 to .567, and nearly every statistical category had a huge drop. It’s probably too early in his career to tell if Barnhart will be the same way, but early returns are good.
If both catchers can stay healthy, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them split time behind the plate, at least early in the season as the Reds ease Mesoraco back into the game. Barnhart has the stronger arm, but the offense that a healthy Mesoraco brings makes up for that. Barnhart proved he can perform at an MLB level last season, but didn’t quite prove he has an edge over Mesoraco, given Mesoraco’s 2014 performance.