Entering the 2017 season, two seasons and three surgeries removed from a breakout campaign in 2014, Devin Mesoraco was set to return to the starting catcher role and give the rebuild a nice boost forward. Tucker Barnhart, Mesoraco’s fill in and de-facto starter in 2016, would return to his back-up role. Since not much did go right for the Reds this past year, especially on the injury front, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Barnhart ended up seeing the majority of time behind the plate. While Devin did see time in 17 more games than 2015 and 2016 combined, a broken bone in his foot in August sent him back to the DL. This renewed challenge for the Reds was turned into opportunity for Tucker.
Barnhart debuted in late 2014, sharing backstop duties with Bryan Pena in 2015 after Mesoraco’s first injury, and taking the lion’s share of the work in 2016 when Mesoraco went down again. Because of the circumstances of his playing time, he has mostly been viewed as a backup catcher despite getting 423 plate appearances in 2016. And although he has been slightly below average for a catcher historically, he is well above the average backup catcher, according to analysis from earlier this year.
With defense as his calling card and main asset in the big leagues, Barnhart has never been a particularly potent hitter and entered the year with a career .317 OBP and 76 wRC+. However he showed continued improvement and put together a career best performance almost entirely across the board and more than doubled his WAR in nearly the same numbers of games. He may not be winning and Silver Slugger awards, but pairing slightly below average offense with very stingy defense turned him into a league average catcher, smack in the middle of a 17-player grouping ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 WAR.
His ceiling may not be as high as Gary Sanchez or Wilson Contreras, but there is absolutely a place for defensive-minded catchers who can switch-hit and get on base at a .350 clip. In fact, that is almost exactly what Dick Williams said in his press release when the Reds signed Barnhart to a 4-year extension worth $16MM guaranteed and a $7.5MM club option. The move was praised as a smart decision by both parties and certainly seems to be mutually beneficially. As Mesoraco tries to recover from injury, again, and is set to become a free agent after 2018, the Reds locked in their field general and a potential leader for the next Reds contender.
Coincidently, nearly a month before the extension was signed, FanGraphs took notice Barnhart’s strong year and did a great interview with him in mid-August. Among the topics discussed was working with and helping develop young pitchers, a quality impossible to quantify but too important to ignore. Tucker says “you have to help them understand what will make them successful. I take a lot of pride in that. It’s extremely fun, and with the arms we have, I believe we’re going to reap the benefits of that, long term. Hopefully I can be with this organization for the long haul and see all of that come to fruition. It’s taken a little bit of time — and it’s going to take more time — but I truly believe it’s going to happen.” Hearing quotes like that are encouraging, as is knowing that Tucker will be the one continuing to develop the many talented and raw young pitchers flowing through the system.
So while it is clear that Tucker had a good year in many respects, there is one notable area where Tucker struggled in 2017; pitch framing. According to Baseball Prospectus, Barnhart was 4th worst in the majors at pitch framing and cost the Reds -11 framing runs, roughly one win, due to his inability to convert fringe pitches to strikes. This was down from -4.2 framing runs in 2016. One win for the Reds in 2017 would not have mattered, but in the thick of a wild-card race, one win can be significant.
The good news in terms of framing is that it fluctuates quite a bit, and Barnhart’s decline was nowhere near as bad as some other prominent names, including Jonathan Lucroy and Francisco Cervelli, who in the past were seen as the best in the game. J.T Realmuto, a player Barnhart compares quite closely with, increased 15 runs in 2017 from -12.9 framing runs saved to 2.2. A similar jump for Tucker would solidify his defensive game and help give the young pitchers a bit more of an advantage on close pitches.
All things considered, 2017 was a success for Tucker Barnhart. He earned his contract extension that bought out one year of free agency and provided financial stability for his family, including his first child who was born this year. He improved offensively and maintained his mostly superb defense, earning a spot as a Gold Glove Finalist and potential Gold Glove winner. The Reds will be hoping he can build on this performance and continue to lead and develop the young pitchers as the team tries to turn the corner of the rebuild in 2018.