2017 Reds

2017 in Review: Tucker Barnhart

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.

barnhat

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.

35 thoughts on “2017 in Review: Tucker Barnhart

  1. I find it incredible that a catcher with a nearly .350 OBP could still be considered “slightly below average” offensively. Isn’t getting on base the name of the game?

    Regarding pitch framing, could it be that the umpires just aren’t calling fringe pitches any more, regardless of how the catcher frames them? As you mentioned, some other notable names had dropoffs in their pitch framing results as well. Was this universal across the board? If so, that would seem to indicate factors outside of the catchers’ control were to blame, not the catchers themselves.

    • The slightly below average comment is in reference to his 92 wRC+. In terms of OBP, his .347 is above average (.324).

      I’ll admit I don’t know enough about pitch framing to know what would cause the huge variances year over year. To your point, maybe the decline was driven in part by all the young pitchers who couldn’t throw strikes and didn’t get calls. However, I don’t believe Tucker has ever rated favorably, so it seems valid to say that is an area that he struggles with.

      • That’s just it, though. How can someone with an above average OBP be considered below average overall offensively? I’ve noticed the wRC+ doesn’t seem to weight OBP as heavily as it seems to be valued when evaluating a player.

        As Steve has pointed out before, if you had a team full of players with a 1.000 OBP, how many runs would they score? (Answer: Infinity, since they would never make an out.) Therefore, wouldn’t it stand to reason that an above average OBP should necessarily mean the player is above average offensively, since getting on base is one of the most important stats when determining a player’s offensive value?

        Here is an honest question: Would you rather have a player that hits 30 HR a year with a .275 OBP, or a player who hits 5 HR with a .350 OBP? (Assume both players are the same age and play the same position with equal ability.)

        • It really comes down to the power component (or lack of) in Barnhart’s game. He’s so far below average in power that his OBP can’t compensate enough. While OBP is the most important aspect, power matters. It matters a lot in terms of increasing the probability of scoring runs.

          • Ha, neither? Truth is those two hypothetical players would both be less than 100 wRC+. This approximates a comparison of Dave Kingman and Tucker Barnhart (though neither play the same position, so it’s hard to make a straight up comparison). So then it probably comes down to what other hitters you had on your team.

          • Power is important, but so is context. The Reds have a lot of power hitting, so Tucker’s obp makes him a good cadidate to score runs. Same idea as the value of Joey’s walks, isn’t it? I know that Joey also hits for power, but he isn’t doing that when he draws a walk, and we still want him walking, since he has a chance to score when somebody else drives the ball.

    • C13J,
      I see I’m not the only one who doesn’t put much (if any) stock at all in the pitch framing metric and that I’m also not the only one who believes that it’s heavily or completely umpire dependent. I think this metric should be discarded and thrown away to no longer be used as an evaluation tool for catchers.

      I had made my initial statement regarding this metric before I read your comment.

  2. The pitch framing question has so many moving parts that it offers very little of value in assessing a catcher’s defensive IMHO. Everything else measurable about Tucker’s defense, and according to observers far more knowledgeable than me, the intangibles of calling a game, monitoring, encouraging, and developing young pitchers is superlative. Now that Tucker’s offense is improving I’m delighted that he’s the Reds long term catcher. More than half the league would take a straight up swap in a heartbeat. And if Mesoraco somehow contributes in 2018 that’s just gravy. Given Mes’ failure to stay healthy I think the Reds were incredibly lucky to have Barnhart ready to take his spot. Let’s just say catcher is the last position I’ll be worried about for the next few years (okay, after 1B).

    • To me, pitch framing seems comparable to the value a manager adds. It’s really not much, and the only noticeable difference would be between the top 5 players and bottom 5 players, where you could argue that is a 1-2 win a year gap. The problem is that Tucker was in the bottom 5, so while he is still fantastic defensively and should probably win a gold glove, its still an area he could stand to improve on.

      • Matthew, it don’t matter where Barnhart ranked in pitch framing bcuz it’s so heavily or completely (imo) umpire dependent. It’s a useless evaluation tool for catchers bcuz of it being completely dependent on the umpire.

      • Matthew, it don’t matter where Barnhart ranked in pitch framing bcuz it’s so heavily or completely (imo) umpire dependent. It’s a useless evaluation tool for catchers bcuz of it being completely dependent on the umpire. How can Barnhart or any catcher improve their pitch framing when it’s completely up to how the umpire sees the pitch?

        • Presumably the stat should take into account who the umpire is. Even then it should assumet he umpire is consistent from one game to the next, then you could argue that umpire X sees a pitch 2 inches off the plate but consistently call its a strike for Molena, but consistently calls it a ball for Tucker…AND does so because Molena fools him and Tucker doesn’t AND NOT because Molena is Molena and Tucker isn’t (at least not yet). I would think, too, that an umpire’s call is also impacted by who it is pitching.

  3. I noticed yesterday that Ryan Hanigan had declared free agency. With Wallach gone, & Meseraco’s health always a concern, signing Hanigan might make sense. Barnhart can’t catch every game & Justin Turner needs to play everyday in AAA to work on his hitting.

  4. It may have been he was hurt but, IMO the 1st bad game Garrett pitched was when Med was behind the plate and not Tucker. Tucker had caught all of his previous games I believe. Tucker is the best.

  5. First thing: Tucker saying that it’s going to take more time doesn’t sound encouraging to me. Maybe I’m missing something there.

    Secondly: I don’t put much stock into this pitch framing metric or whatever it’s labeled bcuz of one reason only. That metric seems like it would rely heavily on the umpire’s strike zone. And we all know that not all ump’s have the same strike zone. Maybe I’m not understanding just how much control the catcher has over that but I believe I’m right.

    • First: Am I missing something? What are you referring to Sandman?

      Second: Agree. See my comment near the top.

      • cfd3000, that’s just it…I don’t think I am missing anything. But on the off chance I misinterpreted something I included that statement. Maybe Tucker didn’t mean it the way it sounded. There’s always that I suppose.

        • You’re not missing anything – I was. I hadn’t read the interview in a couple months so didn’t reread it until just now. I see that you were referring to Barnhart’s statement about the development of the young Reds pitchers. I choose to focus on the last bit where he says “I truly believe that it will happen.” It’s easier for me to be patient with the young pitchers if Barnhart has that much confidence in them.

  6. As a catcher through most of my formative years–and of course witnessing the career of John Bench–it’s always been the focus of my attention, and with the advent of MLB.com and (almost) daily live feeds, I’ve renewed and accelerated my obsession. Loved Jason LaRue and was even more impressed with Hanigan, but this year’s performance by Barnhart was really amazing. I guess I get the knock on the framing issue, although I think there is a bigger problem of MLB umpires failing to “frame” properly.

    Regardless, I think the one aspect that really stayed with me throughout the 2017 season was just how good Tucker was at defending the plate. Especially given the knotty language of the rule book on “blocking” access, he seemed to me to be the best “last defense” at home since maybe MIke Soscia (sp?). Working his choreography around the rulebook, cutting off approaching lanes and nearly always making a clean grab of outfield and relay throws, he was amazing. Don’t have stats, tho–this is all anecdotal and impressionistic, but it also seemed like every day Barnhart sat, we had a close play at the plate that was somehow flubbed.

    Again, don’t know how many of our dazzling, well-armed outfielders’ numerous assists were at home, but I think they all owe number 16 thanks and at least a steak dinner.

    • I was a catcher as well, through college, and am a Reds fan in large part because of Johnny Lee Bench, so perhaps we’re looking at things with a similar perspective. I agree that Tucker plays the position very well, and is as good defensively as I’ve ever seen with the possible exception of Pudge Rodriguez. Bear in mind though that Bench’s defense though legendary was never available to me in person or on TV in any significant way so he’s NOT included in my sample and was from all accounts the best ever. He’s a joy to watch.

      As for pitch framing, I get Matt’s point about Top 5 / Bottom 5, but it’s all so arbitrary. Umpires set up,over the catcher’s shoulder on the inside corner and often have only a vague notion of where the outside edge and bottom of the strike zone are. And then depending on whether the batter is on the same side as the pitcher (righty-righty and lefty-lefty) or not breaking balls curve away from the batter and either toward the inside corner or away from the outside corner or the exact opposite, it makes precise pitch calling highly variable. Now trying to measure whether a) a pitch was a strike or ball, b) whether the umpire’s call was correct or not, c) whether the way the catcher caught the ball influenced that call, and d) how all the other catchers would have caught that ball and influenced the umpire’s call, then add in e) the consistency and control of the pitcher, and f) how that detail influences an umpire (for example, Glavine and Maddox could repeatedly hit the same spot 2″ off the outside corner so got a strike call there way more often than a wild pitcher who occasionally hit that spot by chance) and it all seems like a really imprecise data set from which to draw any meaningful conclusions. Put me down as one who considers stats on pitch framing the least important way to measure a catcher’s defense.

  7. Nice write-up on Barnhart, but writing that he compares favorably to J.T. Realmuto?
    Maybe in pitch framing, but that is all.

    Realmuto is a 3.5 WAR player for 2 straight seasons, with more than 2x the home runs of Barnhart. Until Stanton became unworldly in the second half, Realmuto was the consistent force in the Marlins lineup.

    Barnhart is cost-effective for what he provides defensively and his below-average offense can be hidden easily enough in the current Reds lineup.

    • Depending on the source, Barnhart had a higher WAR than Realmuto and all but two NL catchers in 2017 (Posey and Contreras) so I think the comparison is valid. And that’s a counting stat for a guy who wasn’t the full time catcher and didn’t “Qualify” as a batter. If you prefer rate stats, there were only five catchers in the NL with a higher OPS than Barnhart who had more at bats than Tucker, and one of those was Molina whose OPS was .001 higher. Because WRC+ and OPS+ are calculated for all hitters, Tucker looks slightly below average. Compared just to catchers he’s clearly above average offensively. Consider his defense as well and I think he’s one,of the three or four most valuable catchers in the league.

  8. Tucker Barnhart represents a bright spot in the Reds rebuild.

    Homer Bailey and Devin Mesoraco were the bridges to get the Reds from 2014-2017. The Reds procrastination of the rebuild and the crippling injuries to Bailey and Mesoraco have delayed the rebuild till 2019. Small market teams can’t absorb multiple lost seasons from two core players in their prime.

    The emergence of Barnhart has allowed the Reds to move forward in a positive way at the catcher position. The Mesoraco contract will expire after 2018 and $13 million will be off the books.

    The other half of the Reds rebuilding bridge still remains to be answered: Homer Bailey. Can he come back in 2018 and be that elite power pitcher he was in 2012/13? If he can, then his 2018-19 contract years at $22 million AAV can be salvaged and the rebuild is on tract for 2019. It will be interesting to what Bailey can do with an entire offseason, a healthy arm and still only 31.

  9. Pitch framing is very underrated. There are a lot of things to like about Tucker’s game, but this is an area where he needs drastic improvement. As talented as he is defensively, he should be able to make great strides if he will do it.

    Many catchers catch a ball off the plate and pull it back into the zone, but everyone can see that. The great framers will catch a ball two inches off the plate in the edge of their glove so the center of their glove remains over the plate without needing to move it. Contrast these two approaches with Tucker, who often will catch the same pitch with his glove moving away from the plate. The second example looks like a strike. The third example looks like the catcher just saved a wild pitch. As long as strike calling has the human factor, there will be some subjectivity, and the eyeball test will matter.

    I read a quote by one young pitcher who works with one of the best framers in the game today. He said after he got called up, he thought he just throwing nothing but strikes until he realized what his catcher was doing.

    Catchers who frame pitches well lower the ERA of the pitcher. It affects not only walks and strikeouts, but whether the batter is hitting at 2-1 or 1-2. I think it is a very underrated aspect of what a catcher does.

    • Part of that is due to pitchers missing their spots in my opinion. It’s very, very hard to frame a pitch, even a strike, when you have to move your glove a good distance just to get to the pitch. An example is setting up on the inside corner but pitcher misses away, with the ball also running away. Pitch may well be on the outside corner or just off the plate but almost impossible to frame. Pitcher almost never gets the call there. Same pitch with a catcher already setup on the outer-half or on the outside corner, just off the plate away, and the catcher barely needs to move his wrist/elbow to catch it. Usually able to frame that one better and usually will get that call. Having pitchers who generally hit their spots helps in framing. The metrics take some of this into account but much of it is still unaccounted for or assumed to be neutral.

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