Last Friday’s game against the Texas Rangers did not start well for Curt Casali behind the plate. First, he had a passed ball that allowed runners on first and second to move into scoring position. Then, he missed a tag on Elvis Andrus trying to steal home. Andrus was initially ruled out, but the call was reversed on the review. Although the Reds would go on to lose the game 7-1, the precedence was set in that first inning and those defensive gaffes contributed to it.
During last Saturday’s game, with the Reds losing 4-2 to the Rangers in the bottom of the seventh, Tucker Barnhart pinch hit for Tanner Roark with a runner on first and no outs. After fouling off the first pitch, he swung and missed at the next two pitches. The Reds would end up going down in order after that strikeout, on their way to a 4-3 loss.
These two situations are not related in the slightest, but it does show what most Reds fans think they see when they watch the Reds catchers. One has an edge at the plate, while the other has an edge in the field. Lately, the question could be asked, however, if the two are closer in these respective categories than people realize, and if so, is it worth it to continue platooning them?
Barnhart has had a season to forget offensively through the first two months of 2019. He’s hitting .200/.298/.329 with five home runs, 18 RBI, 18 runs scored, and a .627 OPS in 155 at-bats. His wRC+ is a career low of 62. Casali, meanwhile, has hit .280/.345/.458 with four home runs, 18 RBI, 14 runs scored, and a .825 OPS in 107 at-bats. His wRC+ stands at 106.
In the last month, Barnhart hasn’t actually been dreadful. His OPS is at .733 with 12 hits in 45 at-bats. During that same time span, however, Casali has been much better, hitting .333/.405/.722 with four home runs and an OPS of 1.127 in 36 at-bats. Both players have cooled down in the last 14 days, but even then, Casali is still hitting far better than Barnhart. His OPS sits at 1.056, while Barnhart’s OPS has dropped off dramatically, to .570.
If you’re comparing just the offensive stats between the two catchers, Casali is the clear winner. But what about the other aspect of a catcher’s game?
With a 2017 Gold Glove on his shelf, Barnhart should be the clear winner in this area. But, it’s not as clear cut as most would think.
It’s no secret defense is hard to measure, especially catcher defense. Fangraphs divides it into five categories: stolen base prevention, regular fielding, blocking, framing, and game management. We’re going to focus on three of these categories for the purpose of this piece. DRS (defensive runs saved) measures regular fielding, and Casali has Barnhart beat thus far in 2019. His DRS is at 3, while Barnhart’s sits at 0. To put that number into perspective, during his Gold Glove season in 2017, it was 11.
Barnhart continues to be one of the best catchers at blocking not just on his own team, but in the entire league. According to Baseball Prospectus, he is third in MLB in blocking runs (2.8). In 2018, he was the best in the league at blocking runs (3.6). Casali, on the other hand, is 28th at 0.4 this season.
And then there’s pitch framing, the popular concept in analytics among catchers currently. The Reds haven’t had good pitch framers in recent history. Most of that could be attributed to the fact that they were behind other teams in analytics. In 2018, Barnhart was third worst in MLB at -11.5 in framing runs. This season, with a more analytically minded front office and managerial staff, Barnhart has moved to seventh in MLB (5.8). Casali, meanwhile, is 20th in the league in framing runs at 1.7. It’s not where the Reds would like to be in this area, but it’s definitely improving.
While Casali has 144 less innings than Barnhart behind the plate, he has shown to be adequate defensively. Barnhart is still better, but is sacrificing Casali’s offense to get Barnhart’s defense in the lineup worth it, especially when the team has struggled to manufacture runs?
To Platoon or Not?
Recently, manager David Bell started platooning the two catchers more than he did early in the season. In April, Barnhart started 20 games compared to Casali’s nine. But in the last month, Barnhart has started 12 games and Casali has started 10. Each player has started six games in the last 14 days. Yes, Barnhart has more at-bats than Casali, but that’s because he played much more than Casali in April.
Bell plays Barnhart more against right-handed pitchers, likely to get him playing time since his stats are terrible against left-handed pitchers. It makes sense that he doesn’t play Barnhart against left-handers, as Barnhart’s slash line is .167/.318/.222 with a .540 OPS. Even in only 18 at-bats, those numbers are rough. Against right-handed pitchers, Barnhart’s hitting .206/.297/.346 with a .642 OPS in 136 at-bats.
Maybe it’s because Bell wants to keep Barnhart loose to help try to get him into a rhythm, but other than that, it’s baffling as to why Casali isn’t getting more starts than Barnhart at this point. Casali’s stats are very good against right-handers (.346/.424/.471, 1.001 OPS) and a little below average against left-handers (.231/.281/.365, .646 OPS).
Bell is likely looking at Barnhart’s career stats against right-handers instead of just two and a half months of terrible hitting. In his career, Barnhart hits .255/.330/.381 with an OPS of .711 in 1,324 at-bats against right-handed pitchers. That’s more of the hitter that Barnhart is–he just hasn’t shown it yet this season. The combination of Barnhart’s defense and his career numbers against right-handed pitchers must be enough for Bell to keep playing Barnhart half the time, even when Casali is outplaying the fan favorite right now.