HEIGHT: 5-10 WEIGHT: 185 B/T: B/R
The more I see Tucker Barnhart play, the more I like him. His approach, both at the plate and behind it, is simply stellar. He's a player whose game is predicated on baseball specific skills, rather than mind blowing tools. In many ways, skills create a prospect's floor, while tools determine his ceiling.
Whenever you hear about a prospect with sublime tools who struggles to convert those tools into production, it's the lack of baseball specific skills that are dragging him down. So, a lack of skills can derail even the most promising prospect, but, at the same time, an impressive set of skills won't create an impact player in the absence of quality tools.
This is an aggressive rating for Barnhart, but his skills are so impressive that I'm comfortable giving them more weight than his less robust tool box. His impressive floor makes him a very high-probability prospect. It's very difficult to imagine him not having an MLB career. At this point, it's much more about what that career will ultimately look like than whether he'll ever reach the majors.
In 2013, Barnhart had a return engagement with double-A Pensacola. He spent 41 games there in 2012, hitting a paltry .200/.262/.292 over 130 ABs. It went better the second time around, as he hit .260/.348/.348 with 45 walks and 57 strikeouts over 339 ABs. The problem with his slash line is clear; he simply doesn't produce much power. He posted 23 extra base hits, including 19 doubles, 1 triple, and 3 homeruns.
Obviously, that's concerning, but there is a silver lining. His left/right splits reveal him to be significantly better as a lefthanded hitter, which should improve his chances of having a productive MLB career. In 2013, he hit a robust .280/.380/.375/.754 as a lefthanded hitter against righthanded pitchers, but a far lesser .172/.194/.234/.428 as a righthanded hitter against lefthanded pitchers. And, that heavy platoon split has been an issue throughout his career and doesn't seem to be going away. However, given that the substantial majority of pitchers are righthanded, Barnhart will spend the majority of his career hitting from his stronger half. That will only help his career prospects.
The nature of the catching position naturally lends itself to the use of platoons, but even so there just aren't many catchers who hit from the left side. Barnhart could be just such a catcher, which would land him on the heavy side of the platoon. Still, without further offensive improvement, his bat will be fringy at best, better suited to backup catcher duties at worst.
However, Barnhart's ability to control the strikezone is as impressive as his lack of power is problematic. Just as there aren't many lefthanded hitting catchers, there aren't many catchers who employ the disciplined approach necessary to control the strikezone. Barnhart is one who does and that has real value.
So, in Barnhart, we are looking at a player who profiles out as defense-first catcher with good on-base skill and minimal power. The upper end of that profile finds players like Rays Ryan Hanigan and current Dodger catcher A.J. Ellis. The lower end of that profile, players who fit the pure defense-first, backup catcher profile, would include Jose Molina and Chris Stewart.
Here are the career minor league numbers for the upper tier, Tucker Barnhart's total stats as well as his numbers from the left-side only, and the lower tier:
R.Hanigan - .294/.382/.371/.753
A.J. Ellis - .279/.404/.378/.782
T.Barnhart - .262/.346/.363/.709
T.Barnhart (LH only) - .288/.379/.408/.787
J.Molina - .245/.314/.319/.633
C.Stewart - .256/.328/.360/.689
As it stands, Barnhart's career minor league numbers are better than the bottom tier, a bit short of the top tier. So, the MLB careers of those are tiers are probably the ceiling and floor for Barnhart. With a little offensive improvement or proper utilization by the organization (meaning largely from the left-side of the plate), Barnhart could reach the top tier, meaning he could handle the starting job at the MLB level. If his offense doesn't improve or he's used from the right-side too much, then he probably slides down to the bottom tier, filling the back-up catcher slot very ably for a number of years with his plus defensive skills.
So, Barnhart's ceiling would make him a valuable starting MLB catcher, while his floor would still make him a valued part-time contributor. Where he lands between those potential outcomes will be largely determined by his bat.
One of my favorite hitters to watch is Jason Kipnis, because he's so quiet in his pre-pitch stance. While that's certainly no determinant of success (as there are countless successful hitters who move all over the place before the pitch is delivered), it does give the hitter an air of calmness, tranquility, and control. It's as if the hitter *knows* that the pitcher has to come into the strikezone and he's willing to wait patiently until the pitcher does just that. No nerves. No jitters. Just certainty. Barnhart utilizes a similar approach.
The air of calmness and control over the zone is reinforced by good pitch recognition. Barnhart has a good eye and can dismiss out of hand those pitches that don't threaten the strikezone. He'll wait for something better. As a shorter hitter, he has a smaller zone and he protects it well, rarely helping the pitcher by expanding it, factors that explain his consistently strong walk and strikeout rates.
So, Barnhart excels in the first phase of hitting (i.e. everything up to, and including, the "go/no go" decision"), but just isn't as strong in the second phase. He works himself into good position by getting a pitch to hit, but he doesn't always have the ability to take advantage of that pitch. His main problem is that his swing just doesn't generate much power. Part of that is simply his size, as it's more difficult for a shorter hitter to generate leverage in the swing. Taller hitters typically have greater strength and longer levers, but there are some shorter hitters who generate leverage with good bat speed (i.e. Dustin Pedroia). Barnhart's swing simply isn't geared to power hitting. Barnhart's value is always going to be driven by batting average and on-base ability, which works just fine from a premier defensive position IF you can generate enough of each.
Here's a look at Barnhart in the 2013 Arizona Fall League courtesy of rkyosh007 on YouTube:
Barnhart utilizes a quiet pre-pitch stance; a small bat waggle the only nod to movement. He starts from a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance and takes a one piece stride to meet the pitch. He starts with a high back elbow and raises it up a bit higher when drawing his hands back to load up. That said, he still does a good job of burying his back elbow into his back hip, keeping his arms in close to the body to maximize rotational power generated by the hips. Drawing his back elbow in tight also gives him a shorter hand path to meet the pitch and ensures that he doesn't cast the bat head too early, instead keeping his swing fairly short and compact. Barnhart's rotational energy is also strong enough to drive him up on the toe of his back foot, which helps him generate what power he produces. He also maintains good balance and body control throughout the swing. Barnhart's swing mechanics are fundamentally sound and without obvious red flag.
While his swing doesn't generate significant power, it does create solid, consistent contact when paired with his good hand-eye coordination. He does a good job of getting the barrel of the bat on the ball, which plays well with his contact-oriented approach to hitting. He also understands who he is as a hitter, as evidenced by his two-strike approach, which includes choking up on the bat to increase his chances of putting the ball in play.
Overall, Barnhart's swing is fundamentally sound and he seems to get the most out of it, even if his hitting ceiling is ultimately limited by his physical stature and athletic tools. It's just a question of enough. Whether his hitting is enough, whether there's enough projection left in his hitting to make him a viable MLB hitter, whether he can improve enough to land a full-time catcher gig. Is it enough? Time will tell.
This is where Barnhart truly earns his living. I find it hard to believe that there is an appreciably better defensive catcher in the minors than Tucker Barnhart. I would imagine Austin Hedges is the one to whom talent evaluators would point, but if that's true, then pure arm strength would be the only area where I could imagine him grading out appreciably better than Barnhart, though Barnhart is certainly no slouch in that department.
Footwork is one of the most important aspects of baseball defense. The late, great Herb Brooks, the famous U.S. hockey coach, would tell his Miracle on Ice team that "The legs feed the wolf." It was his way of saying that they needed to be very physically fit in order to be competitive. In terms of baseball defense, it may well be that "the feet feed the wolf," especially for catchers and infielders.
Footwork puts baseball players in the position to make the play. For catchers, it puts them in position to block a ball in the dirt or to try to catch a runner stealing. It doesn't matter how good your technique is in blocking pitches if your footwork doesn't get you into position to use that technique. It doesn't matter how strong your arm is if your footwork doesn't get you into proper position to make the throw. Footwork feeds the wolf.
Footwork comes down to a combination of quickness, agility, and balance. Barnhart is very strong in all those areas, enabling him to move very well laterally and pop up into proper throwing position very quickly.
Here's a great look at his footwork, agility, and blocking technique courtesy of Chris Briones on YouTube:
And, here's a look at Barnhart's pop-and-throw during warmups, once again courtesy of Chris Briones on YouTube:
I just love watching Barnhart catch. He is so fundamentally sound and polished in all areas that the eye is naturally drawn to him, which isn't something that happens with catchers, as pitchers or hitters are usually where my focus falls.
If you focus on Barnhart, then his receiving skills really stand out. An impressive aspect of Barnhart's receiving is how early he sets the target for the pitcher. As of late, it seems like a lot of the top MLB catchers really set the target late. There is undoubtedly a need to avoid tipping location, but setting a good target for the pitcher to focus on during his delivery is also important. Barnhart sets his glove early and really gives the pitcher a good, steady target. It's another little nuance to his defensive game that, when added up, really drives his value.
Finally, Barnhart catches the ball with soft hands. He doesn't fight the pitch or stab at it, rather receives it softly with slight give. This receiving ability enables Barnhart to frame pitches very effectively. I wrote in last year's write-up how I thought the game was coming back around to defensive minded catchers because of the impact of pitch-framing. I still think that. That works in Barnhart's favor because he's very good at pitch framing.
Barnhart has the ability to make those subtle movements needed to steal a strike here or there, catching the pitch just off the corner and pulling it slightly back into the zone. I've also seen him reach all the way across the plate to catch a location mistake and hold the pitch in the zone long enough to get the called strike, which is impressive because umpires frequently give up on pitches that miss location by such a massive distance.
In an era that will value catcher defense much more highly, Barnhart is arriving right on time.
Barnhart is an impressive defensive catcher, but his on-base ability and lefthanded swing may be enough to make him a positive on the offensive side of the ledger, too. If not, then he'll be a very talented defensive minded backup catcher. Either way, he should both reach the majors and be an asset with value when he does.
Barnhart still has some development remaining on the offensive side and that may take some time. In fact, two of the MLB catchers who share his profile didn't reach the majors until reaching a more advanced age (R.Hanigan - 26; A.J. Ellis - 27), so Barnhart may have to travel a longer development path to reach the majors.
Still, a little bit of offensive development and proper utilization at the MLB level could make Tucker Barnhart a valuable player at the MLB level. For now, he checks in at #8 on the list.