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.

21 Responses

  1. Mark Moore

    I’m pretty happy with the catching mix so far. Watching Stephenson progress should be interesting.

  2. Klugo

    Absolutely. I wonder what we could get in a trade package that included some combination of Barnhart, Miley, Castillo, and Suarez at the trade deadline. Maybe two trades there.

    • Jim Walker

      I don’t see Barnhart being traded during this season if the Reds are anywhere near contention at the deadline because they don’t currently have a strong #3 type on ice at AAA to backup Stephenson’ and, Farmer is proving too valuable as a play anywhere and everywhere utility guy to be tied down to the backup catcher spot.

      TB is on team option at $7.5M for 2022 against a $500K buyout. My guess is that buyout is how he departs the Reds unless they were to buy him out then re-sign him for significantly less. However I suspect there are teams that would substantially outbid the Reds for Barnhart in the backup/ tandem catcher market.

      • Klugo

        I hear ya. I think they are all dispensable on one level or another and hold decent to very good value. Barnhart is probably the least dispensable because of the depth issue you mentioned. But if he keeps raking and someone wants him in a package with Miley or Castillo, I think you gotta listen and throw some requests out there. Krall needs to be forward-thinking, creative and a little daring. We got Lodolo and Greene in the wings and India twirling his thumbs. Or maybe Castillini will value playoff revenue, any playoff revenue, over future considerations. I dunno.

      • RojoBenjy

        The Barnhart situation is a prime example of when the Reds should sell high, as they should have in the past on Frazier, Cueto, Raisel Iglesias, and Suárez.

        I agree that if the Reds are contenders that Barney should stay the rest of the season—otherwise try to get something for him—he is not part of the future. And Mark Kolozsvary is turning some heads early in the minors, as well as Eric Yang.

        Barnhart this season reminds me of the career years that both Cozart and Scooter had—and thankfully in those two cases the Reds didn’t waste money keeping them, because they both proved to be one-offs.

        But ride this one-off while you can, Redlegs!

      • Jim Walker

        @Rojo> In agreement across the board.

  3. SultanofSwaff

    Pleasantly surprised by Barnhart’s hitting, although the BABIP suggests he’s due to regress. Unimpressed with his pitch calling. I’d like to see the playing time more evenly divided. Doing so could probably help Tucker sustain his production over the course of a long season as well.

    Tyler Stephenson is the next great hitting catcher.

    • Jim Walker

      Pretty much in agreement with you. It was a pleasant change Wednesday to see Gray not actually wasting pitches on 0-2 and 1-2 “waste” or set up pitch situations. He even got a called strike 3 on one of them.

      Barnhart seems to be old school in how he calls games. Sometimes it seems to me he gets more caught up in the process versus keeping focus on the desired result of the plate appearance. I like Chris Welch’s oft stated philosophy that every pitch needs to look like a strike coming out of the pitcher’s hand and to never give the batter a pitch off to regather himself.

      • RojoBenjy

        It was disappointing though that with Stevenson receiving, Sonny had four “wild pitches”

        That can’t happen, mr catcher.

        Otherwise I’ve been so happy with Tyler.

      • Jim Walker

        @Rojo, I thought the wild pitches were a 50/50 proposition. But all 4 of them were into the dirt before they reached the catcher which gets them scored as WP.

        2 of them TS clearly lifted his glove off the ground prematurely to open the 5 hole for a wicket job. The other 2 he looked to be squared up in front of; and, they just took wicked ricochets off his chest protector. I think his only other option on the latter 2 would have been to try to fall on/ smother them like a football player on a loose ball or a hockey goalie on a sliding puck.

      • Reaganspad

        And try to get an out in 3 pitches

      • Jim Walker

        Thanks for reminding me of that one

      • RojoBenjy

        Hi, Jim

        What you describe about catching defense is one of the intangibles. I cannot comment on it directly because I didn’t witness the plays. But you saying that half of them may have been reasonably blocked tells me that the 4 “record-breaking” wild pitches from Sonny are suspect. Two sounds more realistic. It’s neither here nor there as the results turned out

      • Tom Mitsoff

        Just my two cents — one of the reasons Barnhart wins Gold Gloves is that he stops the vast, vast majority of pitches in the dirt. I don’t think it is tracked anywhere, but I would guess that Reds pitchers are among the leaders in pitches in the dirt that get successfully blocked. In recent years, my eyes tell me that pitching with the intent of putting it in the dirt has become more and more of a strategy than it was in days gone by. If Stephenson can develop that skill of blocking pitches in the dirt as well as Barnhart, he’ll be an absolute star.

      • RojoBenjy


        That’s where I see being 6’4” as a disadvantage.

        I wonder what Salvador Perez’s stats are on that ?

      • Jim Walker

        Not disagreeing with you Tom; but, there is a ton or more of irony here given Gray supposedly prefers not working with Barnhart?? 😉

  4. RojoBenjy

    Nice review Ashley. A lot of pleasant surprises in there.

    Although my answer to your first sentence, “At the beginning of spring training, what did you think the Reds weakest position would be?”


    With a small ray of hope because Suárez was going to end up playing there and bring his bat along. The team could trade a few SS miscues for offensive production. Well

  5. docproc

    Also worth noting that Curt Casali is hitting .106 for SFG in limited action.
    I think some of our pitchers miss Curt behind the plate, but letting him go to give Stephenson more ABs seems to have paid off.

    • Jim Walker

      Lot less action for CC and not being slotted vs LH pitching since Buster is also a RH hitter.

      As far as working with pitchers and mentoring Stephenson, CC probably would have been the better choice, business ($$$) issues being neutral; but, with Stephenson being a RH hitter, CC would not have gotten all the rocking chair starts vs LH pitching

  6. Rednat

    another reason i like Stephenson is that he is a right handed batter and has good foot speed for a catcher so is at lower risk to hit into a double play. We have enough dp machines with Votto, Winker, Barnhart i think he is an ideal 8 hole hitter.

  7. Scott C

    Personally, coming into the season, I thought the SS was our weakest position and that was not believing that Suarez was going to be so bad at the plate. TB has always been a very good defensive catcher and I felt that hitting mostly against RH pitchers would help his offense some although I didn’t think it was going to be as good as it has been. I was pretty confident that TS would hot well and would improve defensively.