With nobody out and runners on the corners in the second inning of last night’s game, Tucker Barnhart strode to the plate. He sported a .210 batting average. The Reds last bastion of hitting prowess before the pitcher’s spot, Barnhart needed to a) put the ball in play and b) keep it off the ground. He did both. With a single to right, Tucker drove in one and jogged to first, his 14th hit of the season.
The rest of the night did not go as well. It’s a pattern that’s repeated for Tucker all season long: Success off of pitcher’s vertical breaking stuff (the single came off a splitter) but struggles against anything hard (fastballs, cutters, sliders, etc.). Barnhart lined out on a two-seamer his next at-bat, popped out on a slider in his third, and sacrifice bunt in his last plate appearance of the night.
RBI-single outstanding, Tucker Barnhart has looked, if not lost, at least not himself at the plate in 2019. Believe it or not though, Tucker Barnhart has actually hit pretty well for a catcher. In 2019, 26 different backstops have recorded at least 60 plate appearances and Tucker ties for 18th in wRC+! He’s a far cry from the position-leading Cubs’ backstop Willson Contreras and his 168 wRC+, but he’s also well above the Pirates’ sinkhole Francisco Cervelli and his 31 wRC+. Tucker is just a bit below average at the plate, which, with his improved framing numbers, makes him an okay option for the Reds.
But still, Tucker’s a better hitter than this.
Through Sunday’s game, Tucker Barnhart was slashing .210/.319/.339, well below his .252/.327/.368 mark. His OBP is up, sure, but he’s striking out much more than usual. His numbers should naturally rise as his .256 BABIP normalizes to a mark closer to .290, but not all of Tucker’s struggles can be explained by luck.
Of note, Tucker’s contact rate inside the zone has dropped 10 percentage points, from nearly 91 percent to just over 80 percent this season. Tucker’s whiff percentage has also jumped, which stands to reason given his contact drop. The root of the problem seems to be his timing at the plate.
Tucker’s pull percentage has risen nine percentage points from last year and 12 from his career average, with his up-the-middle percentage dropping as a result. Always a contact-first, power-sometimes hitter, Tucker should never be trying to pull the ball. If he does, he’ll likely generate more fly outs and sharp grounders to the pull side, which we’ve seen so far. Below are Tucker’s spray charts as a left-handed hitter courtesy of Statcast, which confirm these tendencies. His career spread is on the left and 2019 is on the right:
As is readily apparent, Tucker has been yanking the ball to the right far more this year. The pull-side approach indicates that Tucker has been ahead of pitches all season long. This theory is reinforced by his struggles against harder pitches, but success against softer stuff.
While Tucker has only whiffed on seven percent of fastballs and 17 percent of sliders for his career before 2019, those numbers have risen to 11 percent and 24 percent respectively this season. His whiff percentages against offspeed pitches have largely remained constant however.
The rise in whiffs against breaking pitches in the above graph can be entirely attributed to sliders, as Tucker’s whiff percentage against curveballs has actually fallen by a couple of percentage points this season.
Tucker might be pressing like many of his teammates, but more likely, he just hasn’t made an adjustment. Fastball velocities are rising across the league and many more starters and relievers pairing their fastball with a hard, biting slider. As a result, Tucker is probably just trying to do too much.
In fact, when pitchers are ahead of Tucker, he’s seen 10 percent more sliders this year than previously in his career. Either he’s consciously thinking about swinging for power and losing some of his balance at the plate or he’s outmatched in early counts by the fastball, allowing pitchers to go to the slider for their out pitch. Or both.
Whatever the case, Tucker’s troubles likely stem from his timing against the fastball/slider combo. Hopefully, as the season progresses, his contact rates will climb and his whiff rates will fall. But in the meantime, Tucker is walking more than he ever has and has shown similar power to last season’s jump. His hard-hit percentage has stayed in line with last year’s and his average exit velocity is the highest of his career.
In other words, as soon as Tucker stops swinging through the slider, the Reds catcher might start looking more like Willson Contreras and less like Francisco Cervelli. Or, at the very least, pass Yadier Molina on the wRC+ leaderboards.