The rumors persisted for much of the latter-half of winter, that the Cincinnati Reds - fresh off multiple major additions to their outfield and pitching staff - were in hot pursuit of star catcher J.T. Realmuto. The Miami Marlins are run as a combination ATM/vacuum, and Realmuto was the last star on their roster who had yet to be traded, and the Reds maintained contact with the fish until Realmuto was ultimately flipped to the Philadelphia Phillies for fireballing prospect Sixto Sanchez, among others.
Front and center in the rumored Reds offer was catcher Tucker Barnhart, who at 28 years old is still under team control for 3 more years at a modest total of $11 million, and who has an option for year 4 at only $7.5 million. From Reds country with a 2017 Gold Glove to his credit already, Tucker is a plenty fine big leaguer, of course, which had many folks wondering why the Reds were so enamored with trying to upgrade their catching situation by chasing Realmuto. Heck, even some of the advanced metrics seemed to endorse Tucker as a viable top-tier catcher, as Baseball Reference valued him at an impressive 3.4 bWAR in that 2017 season.
One thing stood out on Tucker’s ledger, though: pitch framing, or rather his lack of proficiency in that regard. Baseball Prospectus had already found a method of valuing that newfangled aspect of defensive catching, and their rankings of the top 117 catchers in all MLB during the 2018 season had Barnhart almost all the way at the bottom at #113. And while his 2016 and 2017 numbers were better - he ranked around 30th among all catchers, and near the bottom in most with enough chances to be considered ‘regulars’ - it’s clear that B-Pro was not exactly enamored with that part of the regular Cincinnati catcher’s game.
On Wednesday, FanGraphs added their own metric to grade catchers on their pitch framing, and it, too, is incredibly down on Tucker’s most recent forays into that art. Of the 38 catchers who logged at least 500 innings behind the plate in 2018, Tucker’s framing rated as the third worst. Of the 50 MLB catchers who have logged at least 1000 innings behind the plate since the start of the 2016 season, Tucker again ranked third worst, with only Salvador Perez and Robinson Chirinos below him.
As a result, it has effectively tanked how valuable Barnhart has been for the Reds in the eye of FanGraphs, as his entire career to date is now valued at a grand total of 1.5 fWAR. His low framing marks during the 2018 season helped render him only ‘worth’ -0.3 fWAR, which was the third lowest in all MLB of the 27 catchers who had at least 300 PA offensively.
In that light, it’s significantly more reasonable to see why the Reds might’ve been searching for an upgrade behind the plate, especially once an entirely new manager and pitching coach were brought on-board, ones who might well have pitch framing as a much higher emphasis than the previous regime.
Of course, there’s also a lot going on with these numbers that might not solely be on Tucker’s shoulders. We’ve witnessed some of the most putrid collective pitching, top to bottom, that an MLB franchise could possibly roll out over the last three years, with a revolving door of rookies and journeymen the ones throwing the pitches Tucker was tasked with framing. Precisely how much of his poor ratings can be attributed to his inability vs. the inability of pitchers to come anywhere close to hitting their spots is a very, very tight rope to walk, and it will certainly be interesting to see how 2019 plays out with the more established likes of Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, and Alex Wood logging some 500+ innings on the mound.
You also must wonder whether this was something Tucker, otherwise considered an excellent defensive catcher with his blocking and throwing skills, has ever really had as a primary focus. You’d think that if this came as a revelation to him, he’d be able to work to improve that skill, especially under the tutelage of pitching coaches who appear to be considering it a much larger area of need.
FanGraphs’ David Appelman gives a pretty detailed discourse on exactly how this metric has been integrated into recent years worth of data and valuations, and I highly suggest you give it a read if this is something that has piqued your interest to date. Of particular note to Reds fans of yore is how much more valuable it shows that former draftee Yasmani Grandal has been over the years, as he’s now up over 27 career fWAR by this updated valuation. Safe to say that if you’re a believer in pitch framing’s value, that puts a final kibosh on all the old Red Reporter debates over whether Grandal or Devin Mesoraco would turn out to have the better overall career...
What that means for the Reds catching situation going forward, I do not know. What I do know is that it’s a metric from a prolific source that suggests that the way in which the Reds have been going about their catching in recent years looks pretty bad, and highlights a very, very particular area in which it needs improving. Perhaps that can come from within with greater emphasis on the area, but perhaps it’s just a skill that’s either there or is not. And if it isn’t there, well, it’s apparently a damn valuable commodity that needs to be found somewhere else.