When the offseason officially opens, the St. Louis front office will have no responsibility more important than filling the catcher position.
It’s an extraordinary opportunity. I’ve mentioned this before, but let’s be more specific. Since the start of the 2000 season, the Cardinals have had only two full-time starting catchers: Mike Matheny, then Yadier Molina. There were backups, of course. But the reserve catchers were deployed only on days of rest for the starter, or to handle an injury-related void behind the plate.
Since 2000, here are the top three St. Louis catchers in terms of most plate appearances: Molina 8,554, Matheny 2,168 and Tony Cruz 633. The Cardinals didn’t have to worry about this key position for a long time. With Matheny and Molina, they’ve been in good hands at catcher.
With Molina retiring, what’s next? Andrew Knizner has been a busier backup over the past two seasons. If the Cardinals consider Kiz to be the top guy for 2023, then I’ll just go ahead and say three things in case it happens: (1) they can’t be serious; (2) what a missed opportunity to upgrade with a new starter; (3) is ownership-management truly committed to winning?
I’ve already made a pitch for free-agent catcher Willson Congtreras and will leave it at that for now. Well, except for adding this: Over the past three seasons Contreras ranks 4th among MLB catchers in WAR – the stat that accounts for offense, defense and base running. And he’s fifth in WAR over the last two seasons.
For today, I want to take a quick look at a free-agent catcher that’s getting some local buzz from the public and the baseball media: Tucker Barnhart. He’s a switch-hitting veteran who turns 32 in January. He started out in Cincinnati in 2014, won the NL Gold Glove for catching defense in 2017, and was traded to Detroit in a salary dump by the Reds before the 2022 season.
I respect Barnhart. He’s a pro. He’s tough. Seems to be respected among his peers. Having said that, now I must say this: is Barnhart the best the Cardinals can do in their first search for a new starting coach since the end of the 1999 season? Really?
I don’t know what to say.
Last season Barnhart performed below the replacement level at minus 0.2. Offensively in 2022, Barnhart batted .221 with a .287 OBP and .267 slug for a .554 OPS. The numbers were similar to those put up by the drastically declining Molina, who had a .535 OPS in ‘2022.
Over the past two seasons, among the 26 MLB catchers with at least 600 plate appearances, Barnhart ranks 21st in WAR, 22nd in OPS, and 23rd in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+) at 28 percent below league average offensively. For reference, Molina was 29% below league average offensively over the same two seasons. As I said … very similar offensively.
Barnhart is a switch hitter but doesn’t do much when hitting from the right side. He’s better as a left-handed hitter but has been 27 percent below league average offensively as a LH bat since the start of the 2021 season.
So please tell me … how does this improve the St. Louis offense?
What is the fascination with Barnhart?
Yes, he did win the Gold Glove back in ‘17. But in more recent times, his defense isn’t anything special. In 2022 he ranked 45th among catchers with minus three pitch-framing runs, 37th in called-strike percentage and 43rd in pop time. When he won the Gold Glove in 2017, Barnhart had an excellent caught-stealing rate of 44 percent. Since then, in a full season, Barnhart hasn’t had a throw-out rate higher than 28 percent. In 2022 he finished 43rd among 50 MLB catchers in the FanGraphs defensive rating.
If the Cardinals want to pass on a rare chance to strengthen their catching and make it a position that impacts the game both offensively and defensively, they’ll need to look a helluva lot harder than this.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.