Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson logged only eight games with four starts in the big leagues as a rookie in 2020. But working with pitchers at the alternate site, going on road trips with the taxi squad and being on the expanded roster offered Stephenson -- who was ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Reds’ No. 4 prospect last year -- a unique opportunity to get acclimated.
The experience has proven valuable as Stephenson joins Tucker Barnhart as part of Cincinnati’s catching tandem in 2021.
“It helped me transition, dealing with some older guys with me being a younger guy catching,” Stephenson said on Friday from Spring Training in Goodyear, Ariz. “The greatest thing last year was being able to go on the road and be a part of that travel roster. I was on just about every trip, so every road trip I was sitting in on the meetings between Tucker and Curt [Casali] with all the pitchers and [pitching coach Derek Johnson], and I was experiencing the lifestyle of being on the road and being able to catch those guys since I was a bullpen catcher.”
When the Reds non-tendered the popular veteran Casali in December, Stephenson knew it was his chance to step up.
“I was excited, I obviously understand what that means for me,” Stephenson said. “As close as it is now, things are lining up. It’s exciting. I’m always focused, but it’s a little bit greater this year.”
When Barnhart was a young catcher breaking into the big leagues in 2014, he benefitted from the unselfish generosity of veterans like Devin Mesoraco to get him up to speed.
Barnhart, now 30, is a two-time National League Gold Glove winner, including in 2020, and looks forward to his being paired with the 24-year-old Stephenson.
“I think we form a really good tandem that’s dangerous for opposing teams and a group that’s really going to help out our pitching staff and help lead the entire ballclub,” said Barnhart, who also won a Gold Glove in ‘17. “He just continues to get better behind the plate. It’s beginning to look more and more natural for him, which is a great thing for us as a team, for him individually.”
The two catchers will create different types of targets for their pitchers, most noticeable because of their height difference. Barnhart is listed at 5-foot-11 while Stephenson is tall for a catcher at 6-foot-4. Both have taken to crouching with one knee on the ground behind the plate to help better frame pitches -- especially the ones lower in the strike zone.
“They both benefit from those types of stances and doing different things,” catching/third base coach J.R. House said. “It’s all about how their bodies move and what they're capable of as far as handling what pitches are coming to them. It's all about not being dominated by the ball. … That's what we're trying to avoid. We're trying to dominate the baseball overall and just give a nice presentation and hopefully get more balls called strikes.”
On Sept. 10 at a cold, blustery and generally miserable night at Wrigley Field, Stephenson drew his first starting assignment vs. the Cubs. Pitching was Sonny Gray, who spins a lot of curveballs. Although the Reds lost the game, Stephenson had a decent night and even threw out former Cincinnati speedster Billy Hamilton trying to steal second base.
House liked how Stephenson grinded his way through the game.
“I think he learned a lot from it, and I’m just proud of him for where he’s been,” House said. “He's done really well offensively and it's always been getting him up to par defensively and seeing him the last couple of years take those strides to earn it -- because he's had to earn it -- it hasn't been given to him.”
Barnhart did not make an error over his 36 games and 272 1/3 innings behind the plate last season. He led Major League catchers with nine defensive runs saved and was fourth in the NL with a 5.8 dWAR, according to Fangraphs.
At the plate, Barnhart ditched switch-hitting last year to bat lefty only. He struggled during the first month of the season but hit four home runs over his final 16 games. The offseason was spent at home in Indianapolis with a personal hitting coach, Benny Craig, to give him a fresh set of eyes on his swing.
“Just kind of molding me as a hitter, the good things that I’ve done the last couple of years to the hitter that I am or that I was in my best years in ’16 and ’17,” Barnhart said. “You’ll see a combination of both of those and I can’t wait to get going.”
Stephenson was 5-for-17 with a pair of homers in his eight games -- with long balls hit in his July 27 debut against the Cubs and a Sept. 14 walk-off drive vs. the Pirates.
Stephenson bats right-handed. That creates an easy way for manager David Bell to split his playing time with Barnhart, but it won’t always be a strict platoon.
“I’m real confident that it’s going to work itself out,” Bell said. “At that position, they’ll both play a lot. Typically, I don’t go into a situation where we try to match guys up with a starter or anything like that, mainly I think it’s really important that both catchers do everything they can to develop those relationships with all of our pitchers.”