CINCINNATI -- Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart tries hard not to play the "what if?" game, but he knows it’s almost unavoidable this offseason. Barnhart will be the first to admit he had a lousy first half of 2019 before an oblique injury and batting approach overhaul changed his trajectory.
“I’m going into the offseason excited but there will be a little, ‘Dang, I wish I had found this stuff a little earlier.’ I will come back next year and build on the second half of this year,” Barnhart said on Sept. 26.
Barnhart finished the season with a line of .231/.328/.380 but had a career high of 11 home runs with 40 RBIs in 114 games.
Here’s a look back at the 28-year-old Barnhart’s season:
What went right?
After he missed a month on the injured list with a strained right oblique, Barnhart returned July 26 feeling renewed mentally after realizing how much he missed baseball.
“Up until his injury, really, he struggled. That’s never fun to go through,” Reds manager David Bell said in August. “At the same time, I wonder if he looks back if he’ll be glad that it happened. You never, ever want to have an injury but that time away, he’ll look back and hopefully see it as a turning point in the season and maybe even his career. Everything he does -- catching, handling the pitching staff, he’s made improvements and got better from what he was, which is a really good catcher.”
Barnhart made a change to his hitting approach that allowed him to better read the ball and see it longer. That also enabled him to make his decisions a little later and be more selective with his swings.
In the second half, Barnhart batted .273 with an .815 OPS and six homers while cutting down on his strikeouts -- 33 in 177 plate appearances.
“For me, I would consider it a swing overhaul in the middle of the season,” Barnhart said. “When I came back from the IL, it’s been a tale of two seasons for me, really, going from the way I used to hit to the way I hit now.”
Under the guidance of new catching coach J.R. House, Barnhart made strides defensively as he improved with his pitch framing. He threw out 22.6 percent of attempted basestealers, which would have been good for sixth in the National League had he accumulated enough innings among qualified catchers.
What went wrong?
A switch-hitter, Barnhart struggled from both sides of the plate as he batted .191 before the All-Star break while striking out 50 times in 187 plate appearances. He lost his regular catcher status and began splitting more time with Curt Casali.
Barnhart really endured futility as a right-handed hitter, batting .133 with zero homers vs. lefty pitchers compared to .247 against righties. He dropped batting right-handed over the season’s final month and will spend the offseason contemplating making the change permanent.
“I’ve thought about it for a long time, and it’s not been just this year,” Barnhart said of going exclusively as a lefty hitter.
Although he throws right-handed, Barnhart’s natural swing is from the left side.
“I do feel confident that I would be a better hitter -- lefty on lefty than right on left -- but it remains to be seen,” Barnhart said.
On Aug. 4 vs. the Braves, and amid catching 20 innings in two games, Barnhart hit the game-winning three-run home run in the top of the 10th inning for a 6-4 victory that gave Cincinnati a split of a four-game series.
At the moment, the Reds are expected to return with the catching tandem of Barnhart and Casali. If Barnhart sticks to batting only left-handed, it could create a platoon situation for the pair.
In the previous offseason, Barnhart figured prominently in Reds trade rumors as they pursued acquiring J.T. Realmuto from the Marlins. He felt relief when Realmuto was dealt to the Phillies instead. A second uneasy offseason remains possible if offense-seeking Cincinnati pursues a middle-of-the-lineup catcher, namely the Brewers’ Yasmani Grandal if he hits the open market. Grandal, a former Reds first-round pick, has a 2020 mutual option. He is a switch-hitter and had a great bounce-back first season with Milwaukee.
Barnhart has $8.6 million of guaranteed money remaining on his four-year contract through 2022 with a $7.5 million club option for ’23. That still makes him a reasonably-priced catcher for what he provides -- especially if he can pick up where he left off hitting at the end of ’19. Not adding a catcher would allow the Reds to allocate their spending money to shore up at other spots offensively -- possibly second base and the outfield.