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Cincinnati Reds 2019 Positional Recap - Catcher

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Yasmani Grandal’s not walking (back) through that door.

New York Mets v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Bryan Woolston/Getty Images

So, some things happened on the catcher free agency front that directly impacted the Reds last week. After weeks of speculation that the team would try very hard to bring back former draftee Yasmani Grandal, well, they did try, but ultimately they failed. Grandal signed a four year pact with the Chicago White Sox.

One year removed from trying to trade for the other best catcher in baseball, the Reds weren’t willing to pony up the needed capital to ink Grandal and, barring a different, smaller impact transaction, they seemed destined to roll into 2020 with familiar faces at the position.

What does that mean, exactly?

Reds C - Team

WAA (MLB Rank) wRC+ PA AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA BB/K
WAA (MLB Rank) wRC+ PA AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA BB/K
-0.2(12) 87 (17) 619 (24) 0.247 (11) 0.328 (7) 0.404 (18) 0.157 (17) 0.310 (12) 0.4 (7)

I honestly don’t know.

I mean, if you have the opportunity to acquire one of the best players at any given position, you do it. The Reds would be, without a doubt, a lot better if JT Realmuto or Yasmani Grandal were wearing a uniform with CINCINNATI scrawled across the front.

That being said, even with quite a few injuries at the position, the Reds were basically middle of the pack in 2019 at catcher. Their Wins Above Average of -0.2 looks bad in print, but it ranked 12th in the league. In fact, it tied with another team who currently employs The Best to Ever Do It, at least according to some other fans in the Midwest.

Still, these aren’t terrible numbers. No one is going to mistake Tucker Barnhart or Curt Casali as sluggers, even in this run environment, so the power numbers make sense. Otherwise, the on base numbers are pretty nice, and the walk ratio is nearly heroic, all things considered (we’ll get to that in a second).

They were worse at catcher in 2018, mostly because of Barnhart getting nearly all of the work and putting up what, at this point, looks like an outlier of a season, by far the worst of his career. His normally good defense even fell off the cliff in 2018, but those numbers rebounded this season.

Reds C - Players

Player PA AVG OBP SLG ISO BB/K wOBA wRC+ Framing (Fangraphs) DEF (All positions) Innings (Defense/Catcher)
Player PA AVG OBP SLG ISO BB/K wOBA wRC+ Framing (Fangraphs) DEF (All positions) Innings (Defense/Catcher)
Tucker Barnhart 335 0.245 0.341 0.403 0.159 0.5 0.315 90 4.1 8.6 773
Curt Casali 216 0.251 0.329 0.419 0.168 0.4 0.318 92 0.3 4.5 504.1
Kyle Farmer 32 0.258 0.281 0.258 0 0 0.24 41 -1 -1.7 81.2
Ryan Lavarnway 19 0.278 0.316 0.722 0.444 0.2 0.414 155 -0.3 0 41.2
Juan Graterol 17 0.176 0.176 0.176 0 0 0.153 -16 -0.2 0.2 37.1

We have to take a moment here to Remember A Guy.

Ryan Lavarnway, the Red, was incredible, especially in his first game. He showed up to Great American Ball Park on July 19th, caught nine innings, received five plate appearances, and donked career dinger eight and nine in the same game.

It was fun as hell.

Ryan Lavarnway is not a factor in the Reds catching situation going forward, and he was barely a factor in it in 2019. But damnit, he was fun while he was here.

It was the tale of two half seasons for Tucker Barnhart, the Reds starting catcher. He got off to a pretty bad start to the season, and his OPS dipped under .700 on April 27, where it wouldn’t rebound until after he was placed on the inactive list. From the beginning of the season until June 22, Barnhart slashed a measly .191/.290/.315 with only 10 extra base hits (five doubles, five home runs). It was unlucky to be sure (.241 BABIP), but he was floundering.

Barnhart went on the IL on June 28 for a 10 day stint, but everyone involved knew it was going to take longer than that. The injury itself was a moderate oblique and abdominal strain. Some of the struggles may have been in his head.

Tucker delved into this on Jim Day’s podcast. We give Jim a pretty hard time around these parts, but his podcast this last season has been fantastic. There are plenty of things there to go back and listen to. Barnhart, however, really got into what he was dealing with with Jim, and it may or may not be relevant when it comes to his play in 2019:

Barnhart: It was tough to go through an 0-4. I felt like if my first at bat resulted in something negative, or I didn’t get a hit, or whatever it may be, I felt like my day was over. It was wild to me. And mentally it was just a struggle. I found myself thinking about what I was going to do after baseball.
Day: Really?
Barnhart: And I don’t know why. I like to think that I’m in the middle and somewhat in the beginning of my career, really. I’ve got five years in the big leagues and I hope for quite a long time longer than that but, I dunno ... it was a struggle to find any positivity in the game of baseball for me and it scared me, really. It was something I’d never gone through. I’d never struggled like that. I think the layoff of being hurt; obviously I never want to be hurt, I hope to play the rest of my career healthy; but for me if there ever was a time that a little bit of layoff came, it was the best possible time for me. Because I was at very low point in my life, or my career, really. From the way I was thinking, I was thinking so negatively, really.

It goes on from there, and you should listen to it. But it’s vulnerable, and maybe explains a little bit of what we were seeing on the field.

Regardless, after his absence, Barnhart turned it up. Thanks to returning healthy and a swing change, Tucker batted .273/.367/.448 through 177 plate appearances from July 26 and the end of the season. He scrapped switch hitting later in the season, and had an obviously different approach and stance upon returning from the injury.

So, I guess the question becomes: which is the real Tucker Barnhart? We’re getting further and further away from the 3.3 bWAR campaign that earned him a contract extension. But, he made real adjustments last season and earned some success for it. It’ll be interesting to see how it translates into next season, as he appears to be the starter again (despite the team’s best efforts).

Elsewhere, Curt Casali had another solid season as the number two. He’s perfectly fine for the role that he plays, and was quite the pickup by the Reds (thanks, Rays!). Kyle Farmer exists as the emergency catcher. He played it more competently than I ever really expected him to, and he also had to do it a little more than I think anyone would’ve liked, with injuries to Barnhart and Casali.

Ryan Lavarnway and Juan Graterol are no longer with the team.

The Reds aren’t completely out of the catcher market after Yas signed with the White Sox. According to Mark Feinsand at MLB.com, the Reds have also checked in on free agent catcher Robinson Chirinos, fresh off a solid season with the runner up Houston Astros. The 35 year old right hander slashed .238/.347/.443 in 437 plate appearances with Houston, and is certainly the more affordable option at the position.

Still, I’m not sure Chirinos’s age and skill set really moves the needle that much for the Reds. However, it’s pretty obvious they’ve felt that they’ve needed an upgrade at the position for the past few offseasons. So, we’ll have to wait and see if they roll with what they have, or if they bring in someone like Chirinos.