by Steffen Taudal

Should the Reds Pick up Tucker Barnhart’s 2022 Option?

A month ago, I wrote about the success of the Reds’ catchers at the plate this season. What I didn’t go into was what this success could mean for the Reds catcher situation in 2022.

The Reds and Tucker Barnhart reached an agreement in 2017 that ran through 2021 with a team option for 2022. It paid Barnhart about $3.5 million from 2018-2021, but the option year salary is a bump up to $7.5 million with a $500,000 buyout. Through the 2019 season, few people thought the option-year decision would be a hard one. Barnhart was great behind the plate, but a large liability in the batter’s box. Unless the Reds catching situation outside of Barnhart became a disaster, the case for picking up the 2022 option was weak. 

That calculation took an unexpected turn in 2020 when Barnhart gave up switch hitting. Prior to 2020, his run production had been 20% below league average. But once Barnhart focused on one swing, he improved to above-average against right-handed pitchers. 

That jump in his offense, plus a second Gold Glove for defense, strengthens the argument for the club picking up Tucker Barnhart’s $7.5 million salary in 2022. Let’s take a closer look at the decision. 

Tucker Barnhart in 2021

One crucial factor is whether Barnhart’s newfound offensive output will continue or whether it was a small-sample blip from a strange, shortened 2020 season.

2021 is already looking like a career year for Barnhart. Through 160 plate appearances, the 30-year old is setting career highs in pretty much every category and has a wRC+ of 114. This, combined with his stellar defense, has made him the Reds’ third most valuable player, according to Fangraphs, with 1.1 fWAR.

But Barnhart’s expected numbers — the ones that measure quality of contact — aren’t as great. Among catchers, Barnharts xwOBA (.302) ranks 20th out of 36, while his xSLG ranks 26th. One positive note, however, is his BB% moving from the 40th percentile a month ago, to now the 62nd percentile. This was one thing that I wanted to see from Barnhart, who has been above average in this category for most of his career.

Defensively, the two-time Gold Glove Award winner is still among the best catchers in baseball. Baseball Savant’s framing data ranks catchers on ability to turn pitches in the so-called Shadow Zone – the area along the edge of the strike zone, roughly one ball’s width inside and outside the zone – into called strikes.

In 2021, Barnhart has 3 Runs From Extra Strikes, which estimates how many runs a catcher has saved based on his ability to turn Shadow Zone pitches into strikes. Similarly, he has a 50.2% Strike Rate, which shows the percentage of Shadow Zone pitches converted to strikes by the catcher. Based on these numbers, Baseball Savant ranks Barnhart the 5th best framer out of 59 qualified catchers.

Furthermore, while game management is impossible to quantify, Barnhart was behind the plate when Wade Miley threw his no-hitter, so make of that what you will.

Salary Comparisons

Tucker Barnhart is putting up career numbers at the perfect time. If he keeps it up, Barnhart could be a valuable commodity in free agency. But the Reds have a chance to make that a moot point for the 2022 season by picking up his option. 

The $7.5 million salary would make Barnhart the eighth highest paid catcher in baseball, in terms of average annual value (AAV). But compared to other major league catcher contracts, that sounds reasonable.

The Kansas City Royals gave Salvador Perez $20.5 million a year for above average offense and shaky defense. Perez is the 59th ranked catch framer on the aforementioned leaderboard from Baseball Savant. The New York Mets are paying James McCann $10.5 million for close to replacement level play (0.1 fWAR).

Tyler Stephenson

Overall, Tyler Stephenson has been impressive in the early months of 2021. While the rookie slowed down somewhat with a rough May (65 wRC+), he is walking more (4.8 BB% in April vs. 13.3 in May/June) and striking out less (23.8 K% in April vs. 16.3 in May/June). Stephenson’s expected numbers are encouraging, as his xwOBA (.339) ranks 15th among catchers with at least 50 balls in play.

On defense, Stephenson has been okay. He ranks 41st on Baseball Savant’s catch framing leaderboard with a Runs From Extra Strikes of -1 and a Strike Rate of 48%.

In terms of money, with Stephenson being early in his career, he would still earn league minimum in 2022. About $7 million less than Barnhart. 

Conclusion

If the Reds feel that Tyler Stephenson is ready to become the team’s everyday catcher, there is no reason to make Barnhart the eighth highest paid catcher in baseball, for him to sit on the bench most of the year. On the other hand, finding a competent catcher willing to play a back-up role will be hard. Free agent options like Christian Vázquez and Mike Zunino will look for opportunities to start every day.

Before the Reds give the keys to the catching car to Stephenson, I’d love to see more prolonged production from him. His offensive promise is bright. But what if that potential dims a bit? The Reds could find themselves in a tough situation. 

For that reason, at least as things stand now, I believe that the Reds would do well to pick up Tucker Barnhart’s 2022 option. At the least, Barnhart brings great defense and leadership. If and when Stephenson has proven he is ready to take over full time, perhaps during the 2022 season, Barnhart could be traded or play out his contract and sign elsewhere in 2023.

[Featured Image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/1154435494698278912]

Steffen has been a huge Reds fan since watching his very first baseball game during the 2018 season. Despite the Reds finishing 5th in the NL Central for the fourth season in a row, he found himself drawn to the team's storied past and infinitely likable players such as Eugenio Suárez and Joey Votto. Since then, his love of baseball has led to a deep interest in the game's analytics and advanced statistics. Steffen is from Denmark and recently graduated from Aarhus University. You can follow him on twitter @TaudalSteffen

2 Comments

  • Brian Van Hook

    I think a factor is whether the NL regains the DH. The idea of an extra way to keep Tyler Stephenson’s bat in the lineup makes keeping Barnhart more feasible. Which begs the question, what do the Reds do if the CBA talks go so long into the off-season that they have to guess whether they have a DH.

    And there is that other concern: Whether ownership will still be in cost-cutting mode. If Archie Bradley was too expensive …. Anyway.

    • Steffen Taudal

      I don’t imagine the DH having much of an impact on this decision. Stephenson is a fine bat for a catcher, but with a number of good bats, bad gloves in Suárez, Winker, Castellanos, I imagine that the team would use the two catchers much like this year, even with the DH. Furthermore, I imagine the Reds want Stephenson to get as much experience behind the plate as possible.

      Instead, I believe you hit the nail on the head with your second comment. Just because it makes sense to pick up the option, the 2021 offseason proved that it doesn’t mean the Reds will do so. As I mentioned, if the Reds don’t pick it up because they are planning on playing Stephenson every day in 2022, I think that could potentially backfire, but I can see the logic in that. However, I want to see that money used elsewhere, then. No more of these transparent cost-cutting moves.