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Player Preview: Tucker Barnhart brings experience and stability behind the plate

The Tigers’ first off-season acquisition looks to be a stabilizing force behind the dish for Detroit.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers-Workouts Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY NET

If you put Tucker Barnhart and Eric Haase side-by-side, they look pretty similar. Both a bit under six feet tall and near 200 pounds. Strong beard game. Bona fide Midwesterners. The main way to tell them apart is their eye color: Barnhart’s are a steely light bluish-grey, while Haase’s are dark brown. Of course Barnhart mainly bats left-handed, and Haase is a righty who loves to mash left-handed pitching. So there are some obvious distinguishing features.

Finally, Tucker Barnhart was acquired very, very soon after the World Series to be the Tigers’ primary catcher, in the first major move of the off-season for Al Avila. The real difference is that Barnhart is regarded as a superb defensive catcher. Haase not so much. In fact, the Tigers are going to take Dustin Garneau as their primary backup catcher, allowing A.J. Hinch to mix in Haase’s power bat as needed, even playing some corner outfield when required.

At the Plate

Barnhart’s value is largely tied up in his defense, and there aren’t many good two-way catchers these days. So offense isn’t really the selling point here. Still, let’s see what Barnhart has done at the plate in the past three years, his ages 28 through 30 seasons, all in Cincinnati (all stats from Baseball-Reference).

Barnhart Batting

Year G BA OBP SLG OPS+
Year G BA OBP SLG OPS+
2019 114 .231 .328 .380 80
2020 38 .204 .291 .388 75
2021 116 .247 .317 .368 75

The next Mike Piazza, he ain’t. His career OPS is .696, which isn’t fantastic, but it isn’t a total embarrassment. Sure, he was flirting with the Mendoza Line in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but a 38-game sample is hardly representative.

All we can really point to in the plus column, is the fact that Barnhart is certainly a little better as a lefty hitting right-handed pitching. That’s largely what he’ll be called on to do this season. As a lefty, Barnhart does have a solid .331 OBP over the last three seasons combined. We could hope for more power, but we’re not likely to get it.

Behind the Plate

Now, a quick look at some relevant defensive statistics at catcher over the same three-season stretch. This is where Barnhart shines, and why he was the immediate target of the Tigers’ front office the moment the offseason began.

Barnhart Fielding

Year G dWAR CS% ERA Team ERA Framing Runs DRS
Year G dWAR CS% ERA Team ERA Framing Runs DRS
2019 102 +0.7 23% 4.16 4.18 +2 (20th of 64) 5
2020 36 +0.8 36% 3.87 3.84 +1 (17th of 62) 8
2021 102 +0.4 28% 4.70 4.40 +5 (8th of 59) 0

Barnhart’s 36% caught-stealing percentage was likely a factor contributing to him winning his second National League Gold Glove award that year; it was 12% above the league’s average. But, again, small sample size. He also routinely finishes in the top third or better in Framing Runs (from Baseball Savant). Fielding Bible’s Defensive Runs Saved showed him to be quite good in the shortened 2020, but in 2021 he slid back to average.

Where Barnhart really shines, is in getting extra strike calls on the edges of the plate. He’s pretty good at getting the low strike called as well, but those extra edge calls in particular could be huge for a pitching staff that doesn’t feature much lights out swing-and-miss stuff. The other big specialty for Barnhart is in his blocking. He’s typically regarded as one of the best at keeping balls in the dirt in front of him. That gives his pitchers the confidence to bury breaking balls and offspeed stuff, and should also help the Tigers rack up a few more punchouts.

Barnhart can help the Tigers’ pitchers get a few more strikeouts and control the running game. If his ability to call games and set hitters up is as good as advertised, Barnhart should pair well with pitching coach Chris Fetter’s game planning and the club’s dedication to effective defensive positioning. With an improved defensive infield, all these elements should combine to improve the Tigers’ run prevention, even if the pitchers themselves don’t really show much improvement.

Switch-Hitting Again?

Since Haase bats righty and Barnhart primarily bats lefty, you can figure out how the catching platoon is going to mostly play out this year. (Journeyman Dustin Garneau, who will likely be carried as a third catcher for at least the first month of the season, hits right.)

However, Barnhart — who started his career as a switch-hitter, but abandoned the right side in 2019 — has decided that switch-hitting is a thing he’s going to try again this season. He claimed in 2019 that the rigors of catching, plus the intricacies of maintaining not just one, but two separate swings, was just too much.

Let’s look at his OPS in various batter-pitcher situations, going back to 2017. The number of plate appearances in each situation is given in parentheses.

Barnhart Splits

Year vs. RHP as LHB vs. RHP as RHB vs. LHP as LHB vs. LHP as RHB
Year vs. RHP as LHB vs. RHP as RHB vs. LHP as LHB vs. LHP as RHB
2017 .769 (341) --- --- .668 (82)
2018 .684 (401) --- --- .750 (121)
2019 .760 (313) --- .000 (4) .426 (47)
2020 .774 (88) --- .287 (22) ---
2021 .687 (329) --- .670 (59) ---

If you look at the 2017 and 2018 seasons, it looked like Barnhart held his own against lefties as a right-handed hitter. But, in 2019, despite doing even better against lefties as a righty the year before, a tough extended stretch led him to believe that batting righty wasn’t really his thing anymore. And, by 2021, his numbers batting exclusively left-handed against all pitchers looked half-decent... but it didn’t really cause his numbers against righties to improve any. If anything, they looked worse than before.

Now, I’m certainly no expert in hitting. I knew my major-league dreams were not to be the first time I ever faced a curveball, trying out for a baseball team as a 14 year old. And I’m no expert in the psychology of being a professional athlete, but if you’ve convinced yourself that hitting a certain way isn’t going to work, then that’s probably going to be a self-fulfilling statement for a while.

But, Barnhart believes he can go back to switch-hitting, and I for one wish him all the best in his journey. In the final analysis, he’s not here for his bat.

Overall Value

Let’s look at Barnhart’s WAR values, from both Fangraphs (fWAR) and Baseball-Reference (bWAR), for the past three years.

Barnhart WAR

Year fWAR bWAR
Year fWAR bWAR
2019 0.6 0.5
2020 0.7 0.8
2021 1.2 0.2

Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I know there are differences in how the two WAR values are calculated, but those formulas are more closely-guarded than the Caramilk Secret. (Note: this may apply to Canadians only.) What I do know is that, whatever way you look at these numbers, they aren’t terrible and they aren’t spectacular, much like my no-knead bread that I bake every week. It’ll do fine.

Like a lot of you, I’m excited to finally get some stability behind the plate — and I’m sure the Tigers pitching staff feels the same way, especially after Jake Rogers was lost last July to a forearm strain that eventually resulted in Tommy John surgery.

It’s been years since the Tigers had a clear leader behind the plate, and hopefully Barnhart’s veteran savvy helps to guide the young pitchers who are trying to find their footing in the major leagues. His stats may not be flashy, either at the plate or behind it, but there’s definitely something to be said for consistency and veteran leadership, particularly when it comes at the catcher position.

The Tigers are big enough fans of Barnhart already that there are already rumors of extension talks. There’s nothing really to report on that just yet, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Tigers worked out an extension. In the meantime, much of Barnhart’s value may not show up in individual player statistics, but A.J. Hinch is clearly a big fan of his work behind the plate and that’s good enough for us, for now.