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Updating the Top 100: Tucker Barnhart

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MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Tucker Barnhart’s hitting stats, distilled and condensed into a single rate metric to allow the author to make a profound and brilliant point, have followed a smooth up and down glide path that gives credence to the idea of a rigid aging curve:

Barnhart OPS+ by age

Year Age OPS+
Year Age OPS+
2014 23 36
2015 24 79
2016 25 86
2017 26 95
2018 27 88
2019 28 81
2020 29 77

For all of those seasons except the first one, Barnhart appeared in at least half of his team’s games; From 2016 on, you would rightly consider Barnhart to be the “starter” at a position where that title means a bit less than elsewhere on the diamond.

Barnhart isn’t a great hitter, but you knew that already. His value is largely on the defensive side and this season his defensive value popped because he had a better than average caught stealing percentage. Which, at this point, seems to be determined by something akin to a random number generator.

I am interested in some interesting numbers that emerged in Barnhart’s 2020 hitting:

Barnhart rate stat trends

Year SO% GB/FB HR/FB
Year SO% GB/FB HR/FB
2015 16.4% 0.93 3.2%
2016 17.1% 0.97 4.7%
2017 16.1% 0.89 4.7%
2018 18.4% 0.85 5.7%
2019 22.8% 0.86 9.9%
2020 25.5% 0.49 13.5%

Small sample sizes for 2020 and all that but that, friends, is a profile of a guy transitioning to being a free swinger. Swinging from the heels. But did it work?

Yes and no.

Take all of this with a grain of salt. Barnhart hit all of 5 home runs in 2020 and did so in 110 plate appearances. Extrapolate the HR/PA to Barnhart’s 522 PA in 2018 and you get 24 HR. Which would more than double his prior career best in the category.

On the other hand, you’d be more than correct to point out that nearly doubling one’s home run rate in two years mmmmight just be related to the ultra-short season. Granted.

On the other other hand, you would also be correct in pointing to the very first table in the article, noting that sure Barnhart’s going yard more but his overall numbers are worse than ever.

We don’t really know if these trends are the result of specific coaching or a response trying to make up for some emerging deficiency (e.g., declining bat speed). This specific K/HR/FB trend is not uncommon for players nearing the end of their careers.

Two other notes of interest, presented without additional comment.

One, Reds catchers as a whole (Barnhart + Casali + Stephenson) ranked 3rd in the NL in 2020 in bWAR.

Two, Tucker Barnhart ranked 2nd on the 2020 Reds in non-pitcher bWAR.

Barnhart has one more year on his contract before the Reds can buy him out and make him a free agent. He has played for the Reds for 7 seasons, hitting .248/.326/.372 (85 OPS+), with 475 hits, 44 home runs, and 213 RBI in 2,100+ plate appearances. On the basis of his 2020 season, he rises from #179 to #159 on the all-time list and he debuts on the team list of best catchers, displacing Tommy Clarke.

Top 15 Catchers in Reds history

1 Johnny Bench
1 Johnny Bench
2 Ernie Lombardi
3 Bubbles Hargrave
4 Ed Bailey
5 Johnny Edwards
6 Ray Mueller
7 Ivey Wingo
8 Heinie Peitz
9 Jason LaRue
10 Eddie Taubensee
11 Larry McLean
12 Ryan Hanigan
13 Joe Oliver
14 Tucker Barnhart
15 Farmer Vaughn