Tucker Barnhart on Catching

Tucker Barnhart has quietly emerged as one of the better backstops in baseball. He leads MLB catchers in Defensive Runs Saved (14) and fielding percentage (.999), and he’s thrown out 22 of 50 runners attempting to steal. He’s coming around with the bat, as well. The switch-hitter is slashing a solid .271/.340/.398. Lauded for his leadership, Barnhart is becoming an increasingly vital part of the Cincinnati Reds’ rebuild.

A 10th-round pick in 2009 out of an Indiana high school, the glove-first Brownsburg native doggedly worked his way up through the Reds minor-league system. And while he’s still learning in his third full big-league season, he’s also a mentor. Of the 25 pitchers to toe the rubber for Cincinnati this season, 13 are rookies, and a baker’s dozen are younger than his 26 years.

Barnhart discussed his formative years at the position, and his hard-nosed-yet-thoughtful approach, a few weeks ago.

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Barnhart on his infield background: “I caught growing up, but I wasn’t necessarily a catcher first. Before my sophomore year of high school it was probably 50-50 between catching and the infield. I played a lot of middle infield, and I truly attribute some of the success I’ve had behind the plate to having done that. Being able to turn double plays, the footwork, the exchange… all of that helped with what I do behind the plate.

“Guys like Tony Wolters, who is in Colorado, was an infielder a lot longer than I was. He was drafted as an infielder, and he’s a good defensive catcher in my eyes. I think a lot of his success has to do with having an infield background, as well.”

On embracing the rigors of catching: “I recently did an event with a question and answer, and someone asked what advice I’d give a younger kid who wanted to play my position. I said you’ve got to want to catch. You have to want to catch 100%, because you’re going to get beat up. There are going to be long, hot days, and you have to be able to deal with it.

“There are things that come with the position that you can’t practice for. You can’t practice getting beat up and wearing the gear in 100-degree heat, squatting down for seven or nine innings, depending on the level you’re at. You’ve kind of got to have it somewhat in your blood — you’ve kind of got to be born with it in order to endure all of the things you’ll go through.”

On signing with the Reds out of high school: “I’ve wanted to play pro ball — I’ve wanted to be a Major League Baseball player — for as long as I can remember. That doesn’t mean [bypassing Georgia Tech] was an easy decision. I simply felt that with the skill set I had, my best chance to have a long career would be to get into pro baseball right away.

“I figured I would never be a guy who was going to hit 15-20 homers a year and that my power needed to develop in college. I felt that, being at the pro level, learning how to call a game, and everything else that goes into the position, at a young age would be most beneficial for me. I have zero regrets.”

On receiving advice about the decision: “I was fortunate enough to play for a guy named Dan Held, who runs the Indiana full-summer travel team, which was one of the organizations I played with growing up. Dan caught in pro ball and was a bullpen catcher in St. Louis. I confided in him, and he gave me a lot of the advice I needed. He wasn’t the only person — there were a few others who had been around pro baseball and had seen first hand what kind of learning was done at the lower minor-league levels compared to college.

“I went to high school with Drew Storen. I caught Drew when I was an underclassman — a freshman and a sophomore — and he was a junior and senior. He actually gave me the opposite advice. He’s obviously a Stanford guy, and he told me that it the best idea for me was to go to college. Not that it was bad advice, but at that point in my life, and from talking to other people, I felt like pro ball was the right decision. I wanted to go play baseball more than I wanted to have the college experience.

“I always played with older guys when I was growing up. That meant I had to grow up kind of quick or they would have wanted me out of there. Having had that experience, I felt I could handle playing pro ball when I was 18. I felt I was pretty mature for my age.”

On working with a number of young pitchers this year: “It’s definitely been a learning process the last couple of years, having to catch a lot of new guys and learning what they like to do, what they do when they’re successful, and what they’re doing when they’re not. It’s added another wrinkle, and another level of toughness, to the position of catching.

“When I’m catching guys like Homer Bailey and Scott Feldman, who have been in the league forever and have a lot of history with guys… they’re pretty much set in their ways in how they’d like to pitch. That makes it a lot easier. But when you have a bunch of younger guys, you have to help them develop the ways they like to pitch and develop the ways they can have success. And each of those guys is usually going to be different.

“You maybe go from a lefty who doesn’t throw as hard to a guy like Luis Castillo whose average heater is somewhere around 97. Those guys are obviously going to pitch differently, and 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.”

On which Reds pitchers have the best stuff: ““I would say that Raisel Iglesias has some of the best stuff we have, if not the best. Luis Castillo — a guy we got in a trade for Dan Straily — has remarkable stuff. He’s a joy to catch. Those guys would probably be my choices.

“They both have plus fastballs. Iglesias changes arm angles to where he’ll drop down to a lower three quarters, but he doesn’t lose any velocity when he does that. He’s consistently between 96-100 from both angles, which is really rare. And then Luis Castillo’s changeup is tremendous. Couple that with the fact that he throws 100 mph, and it’s fun to call a game for him.”

On scouting reports and reading hitters: “When I was first in the big leagues, I tried to decipher every little thing from the scouting report. I found myself getting into trouble because of that. A scouting report doesn’t necessarily show you what you need to know in a given moment. For example, it doesn’t show you Homer Bailey’s heater. It shows you the league’s fastball.

“There are so many variables that go into it. I was getting away from reading swings, and the instinctual aspect of calling a game. Now I’ve gotten to where there’s a better balance. I’m still reading scouting reports, for sure, but I’m not putting as much stock into them as I did before. What I see on video, and what I see behind the plate, is every bit as important.”

On reading swings and building a history: “I see what kind of takes the hitters are showing. If a guy is jumping out at a fastball, he’s probably not going to be on a breaking ball as much. Or if he swings and misses at a breaking ball by six feet, you’re probably going to throw that again. It’s a constant game of adjustments. It’s cat-and-mouse game, a mind game, with the hitter.

“As you start to face guys more and develop a history with them, you learn who they are. Does their approach change? Do they go the other way with two strikes? Developing that history with guys has allowed me to kind of shy away from the scouting reports… Maybe not shy away, but rather tap into my personal experience with the pitcher who is on the mound and the certain hitter who is at the plate.

“Going back to the younger guys, that’s a little tougher. I might have a history catching against a particular hitter, but the pitcher doesn’t have a history facing that hitter. You have to try to think your way through that and learn from it.”

On sequencing and acceptance: “Each hitter is different as far as what they look for at what point in the count. Obviously, if you continuously go with a first-pith fastball, hitters are going to understand that, so it’s probably not going to work to your advantage. You try to be as unpredictable as possible. When you’re behind in the count, you need to challenge a hitter — you need to throw heaters — more than when you’re ahead in the count. But you need to change that up a little bit, too. You have to be smart with sequencing, because when you become too predictable, bad things happen.

“Pitchers like Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw are going to be able to get away with more mistakes than most other guys, because their stuff is so good. So it depends on who you have on the mound. The hitter is getting paid, too. I know that’s the oldest cliche in the book, but it’s something that you have to recognize. Sometimes a pitcher executes his best pitch and it gets hit. You have to deal with that. All you can do is try to execute as many pitches as possible.”

On Trackman data and four-seam spin rates: “I don’t look at it a ton, but I do look at it. There are definitely guys you can use it for — especially if they’re a four-seam guy. The Dodgers do a great job of it. They have a lot of high-spin-rate guys, and they throw a lot of high fastballs. Some guys, if their fastball is 92, it’s playing a little bit harder than that, and it’s tough to get to, especially if they can command the top of the zone.

“We have a guy in Tony Cingrani who has a pretty good high-spin-rate heater*. We tend to throw some more high fastballs with him out here. He’s probably the only guy on our staff that is known for having high spin and can get away with throwing high fastballs if they’re not set up.”

*This conversation occurred before Cingrani’s trade to the Dodgers.

On leading all catchers in Defensive Runs Saved: “My agent has told me that. I’ve always prided myself on being the defender that I am — I definitely don’t take defense lightly — and I try to make sure I never take my at-bats with me behind the plate. There’s so much reliance on the guy behind the plate that you can’t afford to do that. I don’t want anything clouding my head.

“So it means a ton. I work extremely hard. I want pitchers to know that I’m out there with their best interests in mind, doing whatever I can to get them through the game. And I think that’s what [the DRS] stat shows — that I’m out there busting it. I take a lot of pride in my defense, so it’s nice to see that the stats back that up.”

We hoped you liked reading Tucker Barnhart on Catching by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Kevin Grimes
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Kevin Grimes

Almost seams prescient that he would link the Dodgers and Cingrani- lends an extra layer of empirical credibility to everything he said. Not that he needed it! Great insight and great prompts too. Cheers!