Tucker Barnhart doesn’t provide enough offense to warrant being the Reds starting catcher.
For a club that’s hitting .205 overall, it may seem ridiculous to call for a change at just one position on the field, however, the Cincinnati Reds have two better options at their disposal for catcher. Both Curt Casali and rookie Tyler Stephenson each provide an opportunity to create more offense than Tucker Barnhart.
Entering his fifth season as the Reds primary backstop, Barnhart has seen his offensive production slide since reaching its peak during the 2017 campaign when he slashed .270/.347/.403 with a 95 OPS+ and a Gold Glove to his credit as well.
It appeared the Reds had found an able catcher and rewarded the Brownsburg, Indiana native with a four-year deal through 2021 with a team option for the 2022 season. However, that deal may now be for a backup catcher rather than a starter.
Since signing that contract, the 29-year-old Barnhart’s offense has regressed across the board and there’s no evidence to suggest he’s going to get better. Beginning with the 2018 season, Tucker Barnhart has seen his batting average fall each year from .248 to .231 last year to a dismal .178 through 45 at-bats this season.
A switch-hitter through his first six years with the Reds, Barnhart decided to hit from the left-side exclusively beginning this year after struggling mightily from the right side. This appears to be a last gasp attempt at reclaiming any sort of offensive consistency.
Unfortunately, the results are not there. Producing a slash line of .178/.245/.267 despite your reputation for being a quality defensive catcher is not enough. By the way, let’s talk about that reputation as a great defender.
Despite winning the 2017 Gold Glove, the numbers indicate that Barnhart is no longer an elite defensive catcher. After leading the National League by gunning down 44% of would-be base stealers in 2017 Barnhart has fallen to below league average the past two seasons. In 2018 the Reds catcher threw out just 24% and produced a nearly identical mark of 23% last year against potential base stealers.
If you want to make the argument that Barnhart calls a great game and has helped develop the Reds pitching staff into one of the best in the league, the numbers are unconvincing. During the 2018 season, the Reds team ERA was 4.63 and with Barnhart catching, the team posted a 4.93 ERA. Last year, Barnhart was neutral behind the plate as the team posted a 4.18 ERA and a 4.16 mark with Tucker.
What should the Reds do to remedy the problem? The first step is getting rookie Tyler Stephenson out of Mason, Ohio and onto the big league roster. Making his MLB debut on July 27th against the Cubs, the 24-year-old rookie needed all of one at-bat to match Barnhart in the home run category.
With less than 40 games remaining in the 2020 season, it’s time to give Stephenson his opportunity to lay claim to the catching position for the 2021 campaign.
There’s reason to believe Stephenson is major league ready. Last year at Double-A Chattanooga, the Reds No. 4 prospect, according to MLB.com, slashed .285/.372/.410 with six homers and 44 RBI in 89 games. However, it was the Arizona Fall League where he really opened eyes last year.
In 49 at-bats, Stephenson knocked the cover off the ball. Compiling a slash line of .347/.418/.490 he added six doubles for good measure. Even though his defense is behind his bat at this point in his career, there’s every indication his offense will more than make up for any liability with the glove.
Even if the front office is wary of promoting Stephenson, current backup Curt Casali is more than deserving of taking at-bats away from Barnhart. Even though his average is a paltry .179, Casali’s blasted four homers in just 39 at-bats this season. His career slugging rate of .409 easily outdistances Barnhart’s .369 mark.
As a potential playoff berth hangs in the balance, the Cincinnati Reds front office needs to act with a sense of urgency. The easiest upgrade to make to jolt the offense to life is behind the plate. Tucker Barnhart has shown us he’s a capable MLB caliber catcher, but not one who should be starting on a playoff team. It’s time for the Reds to embrace their future and bring Tyler Stephenson up to stay.