Shortly after meeting with the Chicago media for the first time, new Cubs catcher Tucker Barnhart joined Ian Happ and the gang on The Compound podcast to talk about a few things. I’d highly recommend listening to the whole conversation when you get a chance because Barnhart offered tremendous insight into how he goes about his business and what brought him to Chicago.
A few items stood out in particular, so I went back and transcribed them in order to do a little further breakdown. I had noted back in October that the Cubs would be a preferred destination for Barnhart because he lives in central Indiana and plans to stay there permanently. His oldest son is going to start kindergarten in the fall and he also has a 2-year-old, so staying close to home and being a dad was indeed a key factor.
The atmosphere of playing in Chicago was also huge and it’s something most opponents note when asked about it.
“I think it goes without saying, the environment at Wrigley Field is second to none,” Barnhart noted. “So you see that right off the top and…playing against you guys when I was with Cincinnati when y’all were making a run in the playoffs. I would mention it to Rizzo when I would get to first, like, ‘You guys look like you’re having a blast.’
“And it’s like, year after year after year, it didn’t matter who was on the team, what the lineup was, it just looked like you guys were having a good time and it looked like a bunch of dudes that loved playing with each other, that loved playing ball.”
An avid golfer and wine connoisseur who is also down for room beers during camp, Barnhart comes across as someone who’s going to have no trouble digging the vibe in the clubhouse. He’s already starting to work with Yan Gomes on their partnership with one another and the pitching staff, some of which we’ll get to in a bit, but the former Red has made some changes that should improve his offensive impact a bit as well.
When Happ broached the topic of switch-hitting, Barnhart announced that he is moving back away from that to focus on the left side. He did that in 2021, his final season in Cincinnati, but went back to switch-hitting with the Tigers in an attempt to get more at-bats. The results were underwhelming, to say the least, and Barnhart admitted that he got away from what works best for him.
It’s difficult for any switch-hitter to put in the necessary work to stay sharp at the plate, let alone when you’re a catcher who’s trying to learn a whole new system. So instead of letting pride dictate his future, Barnhart took advice from former catcher A.J. Hinch, who was his manager in Detroit.
“I’ve always been a better left-handed hitter even when I’m switch-hitting just because I’m naturally left-handed,” Barnhart said. “And the way A.J. explained it to me was the first time I’d heard it that way and it made a lot of sense to me. He said, ‘I don’t think someone’s going to sign you solely because you’re a switch-hitter and I think you’ll always be paired with a right-handed-hitting catcher.’
“And the way that I understood that, the badass lefties that you’re gonna face, it’s gonna be a predominantly right-handed-hitting lineup regardless of who the guy is and what position they play. So in those moments, the right-handed-hitting catcher is most likely going to play and I’m not going to play…because I switch-hit. And that was a lightbulb moment for me where it was like, ‘Left-handed is my natural side, I need to put my best foot forward by hitting on my natural side, knowing that it makes me feel certain things and keeps me crisper and cleaner throughout the year versus trying to maintain two swings.'”
What’s kind of ironic here is that my son is a switch-hitter and has been working with Barnhart’s dad for the last five years or so, specifically because I wanted someone who knew what it took to hit from both sides. Of course, it’s a little different when you’re talking about an eighth grader at corner infield spots and a longtime pro looking to hone his game in other areas.
Speaking of which, Barnhart really dug in on his role as a catcher and what it entails beyond the quantifiable results. This was the part I found most interesting and it was clear Dakota Mekkes was in agreement.
“Part of our job as catchers is to be part psychologist as well,” Barnhart said. “When I go to the mound, I’m… 99.9% sure that I’m gonna talk to Kyle Hendricks different than I’m gonna talk to Marcus Stroman. I’m gonna talk different to Marcus Stroman than I’m gonna talk to Justin Steele. I think as catchers you have to know that, and I think that stuff starts in just getting to know how a guy’s wired.
“What does he like to hear? Does he like patted on the back when things are starting to go a little sideways or does he want me to go out there and jump his ass and try to get him locked in? What gets a guy locked in? So I think it starts with those conversations in the lunch room, in the weight room, what have you.”
Most of it isn’t even conversations about baseball, it’s just a matter of getting to know your teammates and what makes them tick as individuals. By establishing that rapport and gaining a better understanding of one another, a catcher will earn the trust of his pitchers and can have them throwing with conviction in their stuff.
“I really like to talk through bullpens,” Barnhart explained. “I think it’s important from a catcher’s standpoint to understand what a guy’s working on with a certain pitch. Specifically, when he goes to his breaking ball…is he working on throwing strike breaking balls today? And if he throwing strike breaking balls, where do I need to set up and what does he like to see from a target standpoint? Or the opposite, is he working on punchout swing-and-miss breaking balls and where do I need to set up, what does he like to see?
“And then conversations along the lines of like, “Hey, man, game on the line, 3-2 count, bases loaded, doesn’t matter the hitter. What’s your best pitch, what are you going to?’ Because I think a lot of times, pitchers, if there’s some indecisiveness, sometimes they’ll lean toward the scouting report versus going with what they do the best.”
There’s so much data out there that it can be really easy to fall back on that and forget about some of the soft skills that remain important. Between Barnhart and Gomes, the Cubs are banking on the idea that their pitchers’ performance will improve as a result of game-calling and something as simple as trust. Will it work? I have no idea, but I like it in theory.
“If we go down with your changeup and it’s far and away your third-best pitch, but the guy doesn’t hit changeups, but you threw it dick-high down the middle, it’s hard to swallow that,” Barnhart said. “If Kyle Hendricks gets beat on a changeup, a guy hits a walk-off homer on a changeup that’s well executed, it is what it is.”
I’ve admitted all along that I’m biased when it comes to Barnhart playing for the Cubs, but I think agnostic fans — and maybe even some pessimists — are going to like what they hear in this interview. Jed Hoyer still has work to do when it comes to building a team that can really compete, but it’s hard to fault what he’s done so far when it comes to adding good dudes to the roster.