MILWAUKEE –– Since the start of the season, the Cincinnati Reds have had a straightforward rotation at catcher between veteran Tucker Barnhart and rookie Tyler Stephenson.
Barnhart has started 55 games at catcher, and Stephenson has started the other 32. Barnhart has typically started against right-handed pitchers, and Stephenson has started against left-handed pitchers or after Barnhart has started a couple games in a row.
According to Reds manager David Bell, it might have started out as a coincidence that Barnhart caught all of Wade Miley’s game. But entering Friday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Barnhart has become the first-choice catcher when Miley is on the mound.
“Wade has pitched really well, they have a nice rhythm going,” Bell said. “I prioritize that over anything. It’s easy to do when you’re deciding between Tucker and Tyler. They’re both great options.”
While Barnhart has caught all of Miley’s starts in 2021, Friday’s game was the first time that Barnhart started against an opposing left-handed pitcher with Miley on the mound.
By chance, Miley hadn’t faced off against a left-handed starting pitcher all season before Friday’s game. Since Barnhart has had a great season at the plate against right-handed pitchers and since Barnhart is a standout defender, Barnhart has caught all of Miley’s starts in 2021.
Miley’s relationship with Barnhart has become so strong that Barnhart started on Friday despite a left-handed opposing starter being on the mound. Against left-handed starters this year, Barnhart is 3-for-23 with one extra-base hit, but Barnhart has proven to be the ideal catcher for Miley.
“Somewhere along the line, it became obvious that they were working extremely well together,” Bell said. “Wade knows that Tyler can do the same thing when given the opportunity. But with the importance of our guy’s comfort level, I just prioritized that today.”
With every other starting pitcher, Barnhart and Stephenson have split starts pretty evenly. Luis Castillo has started with Barnhart as the catcher 10 times and with Stephenson nine times. Sonny Gray has had his 12 starts evenly split between Barnhart and Stephenson.
Tyler Mahle has started 10 games with Barnhart and eight with Stephenson, and Vladimir Gutierrez has been with Stephenson for five and Barnhart for three.
“Our catchers have done such a great job, we have such a great situation with both of them,” Bell said. “It’s made it nice. In years past, maybe in years past, you have to match a pitcher and a catcher up. We haven’t had to do that a lot because I trust them both and our pitchers trust them both.”
Miley is the only pitcher in that group who has exclusively thrown to one catcher. Working with Barnhart, Miley has had one of the best seasons of his career, and Barnhart caught Miley’s no-hitter in May. Entering Friday’s start, Miley has a 3.06 ERA, and he has been the Reds most consistent starting pitcher in 2021.
Barnhart and Stephenson have made an ideal platoon. The left-handed Barnhart is hitting .292 this season against right-handed pitchers. In limited at-bats against left-handed pitchers, Barnhart has struggled.
Stephenson has hit well against lefties and righties, but he’s one of the Reds best hitters against left-handed pitchers. Stephenson has a .299 batting average and a .902 OPS against left-handed pitchers, and he usually hits near the top of the order in those matchups.
Barnhart’s Gold Glove caliber defense at one of baseball’s most important positions has given him the edge in playing time, but the tandem with Stephenson has played a significant part in the Reds success this year.
In 2021, Reds catchers lead MLB in batting average and rank second in OPS among the 30 teams.
“It’s a good situation no matter what,” Bell said.