At the beginning of spring training, what did you think the Reds weakest position would be? It was catcher, wasn’t it? Well, even though the Reds are (mostly) platooning between Tucker Barnhart and Tyler Stephenson, the production at that position has exceeded everyone’s expectations a month and a half into the season.
Having been in the league since 2014, Tucker Barnhart has stepped into the veteran role. Defense is his strength, and he’s never had much of an offensive presence, especially in recent years. In 2019, Barnhart hit .231/.328/.380 with a .708 OPS in 364 plate appearances. He hit a career-high 11 home runs and drove in 40 runs. At the end of the 2019 season, he decided to give up switch-hitting in an effort to improve. However, it got even worse for him in 2020. He hit just .204/.291/.388 with an OPS of only .679 in 110 plate appearances.
But to his credit, Barnhart realized he needed to do something to get better and worked all off-season with a former coach to improve his swing. As a result of that work, Barnhart is having a much-improved season thus far. He’s batting .288/.360/.500 with three home runs and eight doubles in 89 plate appearances. His OPS of .860 is currently more than 100 points better than his 2019 OPS.
He’s also barreling the ball at a higher rate in 2021 (8.7%) than both last year and at any point in his career. In 2020, he had a Barrel% of 7.1%, but he also had a BABIP of .231. Like nearly every Reds player, his luck on balls in play was almost non-existent last season. This season, his .465 BABIP is quite the opposite. Is luck the reason for his success? Looking at his 38% strikeout rate (he has more strikeouts this season through 38 games than he did through 26 games in 2020), it might be fair to wonder. While the high strikeout rate is a little concerning, Barnhart is still hitting better than the average catcher at this point.
In 2020, a young rookie and the Reds’ 2015 first round draft selection, tasted the big leagues in a shortened season for the first time. He played so well, he got a chance to skip Triple-A development and make the big-league team out of spring training. Tyler Stephenson showed in his brief stint last year that he was ready for the show.
Thus far in 2021, Stephenson has hit .298/.344/.386 with one home run and six RBI in 61 plate appearances. In 2020, he got only 20 plate appearances with both Barnhart and Curt Casali on the roster, but managed to make the most of it, collecting five hits and driving in six runs and posting a 1.047 OPS. This included his first career walk-off home run in late September that helped the Reds on their journey to clinching a playoff spot.
What is impressive about Stephenson is his walk rate. He’s got just a 5.4 BB% through 22 games in 2021. He has been patient at the plate, and even though the walk rate was a little higher in 2020 at ten percent, the small sample sizes of 2020 are a factor here. In total, Stephenson was on base seven of the twenty times he was at the plate, including two walks. That’s a .400 on-base percentage.
Manager David Bell likes to play the match-ups and that’s what he’s doing at the moment with the two catchers. Barnhart, now strictly a left-handed hitter, has faced right-handed pitchers 78 times and has 20 hits, including two home runs and seven doubles. Stephenson, a right-handed hitter, currently faces right-handed pitchers more than lefties, which is to be expected as there are more right-handed pitchers than left-handed pitchers. But Stephenson still has more plate appearances against lefties than Barnhart and has four hits in 18 plate appearances against them.
Right now both players are playing at a level that is better than average. Barnhart has a 133 wRC+ and Stephenson has 121 wRC+. However, it will be interesting to see what happens going forward through the season if one catcher starts to get really hot at the plate over the other. Will the platoon still happen or will Bell start playing one guy more than the other? Time will tell, I guess.