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Updating the Top 100: Tucker Barnhart

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Atlanta Braves v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Tucker Barnhart has four seasons with the Reds in which he has played in at least 81 games, and there’s a bit of an outlier problem in Barnhart’s career arc narrative. Namely, he has produced less than one WAR in each of the 2015, 2016, and 2018 seasons but put up 3.4 WAR in 2017. Not coincidentally, Barnhart signed a long-term deal with the Reds after the 2017 season, although the modest dollar amounts of said contract suggest that the team was not fully convinced that 2017 represented Barnhart’s true baseline value.

There are two primary drivers to Barnhart’s drop-off from 2017 to 2018 and I don’t know what to do with either one.

There was a mild decline in Barnhart’s hitting stats (95 OPS+ in 2017 to 87 OPS+ in 2018). That in itself is not especially interesting. That kind of mild year-over-year swing is well within the bounds of normal volatility. What’s curious is that the change in production is almost entirely a function of where Barnhart was placed in the batting order. Simply, Barnhart was a #8 hitter, almost exclusively, prior to the 2018 season. Since #8 hitters in the National League tend to receive a higher percentage of intentional walks, due to their typical placement in front of pitchers, it shouldn’t be surprising that Barnhart’s intentional walk totals went from 8 (2016) to 11 (2017) down to 2 in 2018, a season in which he basically split time across the #2, #6, and #7 slots in the lineup.

If in 2017, Barnhart had only received two intentional passes, his on-base percentage would have been 21 points lower and his OPS+ would have been 89, making his yearly offensive production trajectory really close to flat.

I guess that’s interesting. Maybe it means that we have his offensive talent level pretty well nailed, but maybe it also means we should be cautious about promoting discerning #8 hitters to other parts of the order. There might be less than meets the eye to that group. I bring it up only because I’m not sure I’ve seen stat profiles of hitters that adjust for the #8 slot phenomenon.

More important to Barnhart’s value is the matter of his throwing arm. In 2017, Barnhart threw out a league-leading 44% of runners attempting to steal a base, a stat that no doubt contributed to Barnhart winning a gold glove in 2017. In 2018, against roughly the same number of steal attempts, Barnhart’s success rate fell all the way to 24%. He went from being the best in the league at a particular skill to being below average in one single year.

How does that happen? To be sure, there’s plenty of influence on the caught stealing metric from the pitchers and the Reds experienced considerable turnover on their staff from 2017 to 2018. But the two most frequently used pitchers in 2017 (Adleman and Feldman), neither of whom were on the team in 2018, were decidedly average in their ability to keep runners from stealing. In other words, they were not what was inflating Barnhart’s success rates in 2017. Otherwise, no single pitcher had obviously outlandish numbers skewing Barnhart’s results, for good or ill.

What the hell, then? Candidly, it beats me. I suspect that this element of Barnhart’s game, obviously important, is neither as good as it looked in 2017 nor as bad as it did in 2018. Hooray for flat batting trajectories and dead cat bounces on defense?

Barnhart has appeared in 476 games over five seasons with the Reds and currently sports a .254/.328/.369 batting line (86 OPS+). He has 77 career doubles and 160 RBI over 1,503 at bats. He debuts at #205 on the Reds all-time player list.