I’ve only waited in line for two autographs at Cubs Convention, the first of which was former outfielder George Altman several years ago. The second was new catcher Tucker Barnhart, who is from my current hometown and whose father has given my son hitting lessons since shortly after we moved here in early 2017. My son thought it would be cool to get Barnhart to sign the hat from his 7th grade baseball season, so that’s why I braved the frothing masses (the line was actually quite long).
Having that personal connection made it pretty cool for us to see Barnhart sign with the Cubs, though the online discourse revealed not everyone was quite as bullish on the pairing. What really matters is how people in the organization view Barnhart, and the response there has been nothing but glowing. Pitchers rave about his preparedness and willingness to get to know them, with Hayden Wesneski even talking about “poking the bear” as a young guy sort of messing with his more experienced batterymate.
The best anecdote so far came after the Cubs’ combined no-hitter against the Padres this past Friday, when Barnhart offered a twist on the typical lavish gifts for such an event. Rather than handing out expensive timepieces and bottles of champagne, he gifted Spider-Man and Mario Bros. watches with sparkling grape juice to the catchers and two coaches involved in the no-no.
“I like to have fun,” the two-time Gold Glove winner explained.
But just having fun isn’t enough to make someone a valuable member of the roster, nor is it necessarily about personal stats. Barnhart isn’t a guy who’s going to wow anyone with his offensive output even if he gets back to his prime production with the Reds, so his contributions are most likely going to be of the intrinsic variety. While run prevention has been the buzzword, there are a lot of things happening behind the curtain to keep opponents at bay.
“Part of our job as catchers is to be part psychologist as well,” Barnhart explained on The Compound podcast back in January. “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.”
Barnhart also shared a story about an interaction with former Reds pitcher Jared Lorenzen that opened his eyes to the mental side of the game, and he reiterated that revelation during a recent conversation with reporters at Cubs camp. In addition to understanding how different pitchers tick, Barnhart is big on calling games to a pitcher’s strengths rather than just leaning on what the scouting report says.
That goes a long way for someone like Jameson Taillon, who can operate more freely trusting that his catcher knows what’s best. Armed with a new sweeping slider, Taillon went three scoreless innings with four strikeouts and no walks in Saturday’s shutout against the Angels.
“A day like today, I landed some curveballs early and Tucker just kept going to it because I was landing it,” Taillon said after the win. “That just tells me he’s paying attention. It takes a lot off my plate when [Barnhart and Yan Gomes] are doing their homework. I don’t really love thinking out there. I just like making my pitches and kind of following them. So, they’re already earning that trust.”
There are some things, however, with which Barnhart probably shouldn’t be trusted. Though he’s listed at 5-foot-11, he admitted to 670 The Score’s Laurence Holmes and Leila Rahimi that he’s really just 5-foot-9 without his helmet and cleats on. If you’re into more salient topics, the discussion about adjusting to the new rules with the pitch clock and disengagements is very worthwhile. That’s just one more reason the Cubs opted to move in the direction they did behind the plate.
Without disparaging any former catchers, it’s pretty clear that the current situation was never just about saving money. I mean, yeah, there’s an undeniable financial aspect to all of this stuff, but that wasn’t the sole driving force. The only issue is that it’s much harder to weigh the value of vibes against wRC+ no matter how highly pitchers and the coaching staff speak of someone. Unless the Cubs are winning more often, that is.
We won’t know for sure whether and how much Barnhart can really contribute to his pitchers’ individual performances or that of the team as a whole until the season is underway, and even then the evidence of his impact may be nebulous. But as far as the early results go, it’s impossible to deny how good the Cubs’ arms have looked this spring.