We humans are wired to prefer the familiar. You can spot this bias in what we choose to eat, the music we listen to, where we live and work, in our hobbies. It’s a matter of comfort. Psychologists have proven we are more comfortable with familiar things.
Sports fans demonstrate this cognitive bias. It’s why we cheer for local sports teams or other ones to which we have connections. We identify with “our” players. We buy their t-shirts and jerseys. We often overvalue them. We resist changing them. In fact, your team’s business plan relies on all that.
But for that team to be successful on the field, its front office must be free of that same bias. Its decision-makers must not overvalue the familiar. Just the opposite, to win, the hometown team must be cold and calculating.
For almost two years now, the Reds front office has exhibited these traits.
It dispatched fan favorites Scooter Gennett, Billy Hamilton, Jose Iglesias and Derek Dietrich. The Reds organization was quite familiar with Jose Peraza but still didn’t tender him a contract this year. The risk-averse Reds of just a few years ago wouldn’t have signed free agents Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas and Shogo Akiyama. They wouldn’t have traded Taylor Trammell for Trevor Bauer, or signed Sonny Gray to a 3-year extension before he’d thrown a pitch in a Reds uniform.
And now, the dispassionate and clear-eyed nature of the Reds front office is about to be tested again.
The need for change
The 2020 Reds have played 19 games, that’s almost a third of this COVID-19 season. Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali have combined for 70 plate appearances. They have 10 hits and 4 walks to show. That’s a batting average of .143 and an on-base percentage of .200. Casali has two home runs. Barnhart’s homer last night was his first extra-base hit.
Combined, their run production is 50% below league average. Fifty percent.
Small sample? Sure.
So look at last year, a full season. The two combined for run production nearly 20% below MLB average.
David Bell uses a platoon system with his catchers. Barnhart, the weaker hitter of the two, will get about two-thirds of the plate appearances. Three years after his career season in 2017, Reds fans accept the notion that Barnhart’s offensive liability is compensated for by his outstanding defense. The facts show otherwise.
In 2019, 37 catchers caught at least 500 innings (Casali 504, Barnhart 773). In FanGraphs’ comprehensive defensive metric — accounting for pitch framing, suppressing stolen bases, blocking pitches and calling a game — Barnhart ranked #14 and Casali #21. Not terrible, but nowhere near elite, either. In 2020, 35 catchers have 70+ innings. The same metric shows Barnhart #27 and Casali #23.
The pitch framing metric in Baseball Savant ranks Barnhart and Casali as average in 2019. Barnhart was dead last in 2018. Pop Time measures the time from the moment a pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the moment the ball reaches the fielder’s receiving point on a stolen base attempt. In 2019, Barnhart and Casali were below average in Pop Time, Barnhart was well below average in 2018. (Casali didn’t qualify with enough innings in 2018.)
We’re familiar with Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali. We like them and have grown comfortable seeing them behind the plate. But the unsentimental truth: Barnhart and Casali produce far less than average at the plate and don’t rank much better behind it.
Tyler Stephenson’s scouting report
Five years ago, the Reds chose Tyler Stephenson in the first round of the 2015 draft out of Kennesaw Mountain High School in northwest Georgia. Widely regarded as the top catcher in the class, Stephenson had committed to Georgia Tech but found a $3.1 million bonus and the opportunity to join a major league organization too much to pass up.
Out of high school, Tyler Stephenson was known for strong hands, a powerful arm and agility. At the plate, he had discipline and the power potential made obvious by his 6’4″ frame. In his first two full years with the Reds, Stephenson’s physical development was slowed by a series of unrelated injuries that kept him sidelined. But the young catcher took advantage of Corky Miller’s mentorship and worked on the mental side of his game.
If you read up-to-date scouting reports on Stephenson, you’ll learn he sets a great target and still has those great hands and plus arm. Stephenson has improved his footwork, pitch framing, throwing mechanics and accuracy. At the plate, Stephenson has shortened his swing which has boosted his exit velocity. He’s now starting to show the raw power that matches the promise of his body.
The past two seasons, Stephenson has shown steady progress. In 2019, he played 89 games at AA-Chattanooga where he hit .285/.372/.410. He followed that up with an attention-grabbing 13-game stint in the Fall League where he put up .347/.418/.490. Stephenson has demonstrated a superb walk rate, averaging above 10% the past three years. His strikeout rate of 19% over that time is excellent. Stephenson’s run creation (wRC+) was 23% above his league averages.
What to expect
Stephenson should hold his own on both sides of the plate. He’s exhibited little right/left split in batting outcomes. In a couple minor league seasons he actually hit a little better against right-handed pitchers. So he could play every day. Stephenson may not hit for 25-homer power right away (although he might), but that potential lurks in his near future.
Here’s a sample. Stephenson debuted with the Reds on July 27 in the midst of the brief COVID-19 scare with Matt Davidson, Mike Moustakas and Nick Senzel. It came before Tucker Barnhart had returned from paternity leave. Stephenson pinch hit in the 7th inning and also batted in the 8th and 9th as the Reds mounted a comeback against the Cubs.
In Tyler Stephenson’s first major league at bat, on a 1-0 count against Duane Underwood, he launched a 94.3 mph fastball 415 feet to centerfield for a solo homer. The ball’s exit velocity was 100.4 mph.
Next inning, Stephenson worked a 3-1 count off Ryan Tepera and lined a 93-mph sinker into left field for a two-out single. The hit’s exit velocity was 98.9 mph. He came around to score on a Joey Votto hit.
In his third at bat, Stephenson worked a 9th-inning, bases loaded walk on a 3-2 count off Cubs closer Craig Kimbrell. Before you click “play” on this video, check out the game situation box at the bottom right.
That was a regular season, major league game against the first-place Chicago Cubs. Tyler Stephenson went 2-for-2 plus a walk in his three at bats.
Stephenson worked with the Reds pitchers in Goodyear in February and March and again at the training camp in July at GABP. Here’s what David Bell had to say in July when Stephenson was sent back to Prasco Park:
“He’s in a great position being a catcher and being a top prospect in our organization. We’re seeing why he can really hit. He’s improving defensively, and he’s getting closer and closer to being able to contribute at this level. But it’s a very demanding position. He hasn’t played above Double-A, but he’s coming on fast, and we believe in him. We’re going to develop him, and there’s definitely no limitations on when he can arrive. It can happen at any time, especially given what we’re dealing with this year. We’re supporting him every way we can, but he’s doing everything he can also to get here quick.” [John Fay]
If not now, when?
The Reds entered the 2020 season with high expectations. They are 8-11. It’s not time to panic. But urgency is called for. The front office can’t settle for the familiar. They can’t resist change until it’s too late. Bold steps, like Sparky moving Pete to third, can jump-start a season.
It’s time for the Reds to turn the regular catching duties over to Tyler Stephenson. In most circumstances, you wouldn’t throw a rookie catcher, one who hasn’t played at the AAA level, into a pennant drive, no matter how promising he is.
This isn’t most circumstances. The Reds have little to lose in making the change and much to gain. Given the way the current Reds catchers are performing, Stephenson offers nothing but upside. If the Reds offense was chugging along, it could carry a weak bat. But it isn’t.
The Reds front office was willing to make a big change at catcher not too long ago. In the 2019 offseason the Reds pursued a blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins for J.T. Realmuto, one of baseball’s best. Realmuto, then under team control for two more years, would have made a perfect bridge to Tyler Stephenson. The asking price was too high and the Reds didn’t land the Marlins catcher.
Meanwhile, the organization has performed its due diligence with Stephenson. You have to be patient with a catcher out of high school, even the top prospects. First-round pick Devin Mesoraco, who came straight from Punxsutawney High, debuted with the Reds at age 23. Another high school catcher out of Georgia, Matt Wieters, who became an MLB All-Star and Gold Glove winner, debuted for the Orioles at age 23.
Tyler Stephenson turns 24 on Sunday.
Dick Williams, Nick Krall and David Bell have passed this test before. Now they need to again.
[Featured image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/1287952175818301440/photo/2]