Tigers’ Tucker Barnhart says recommitting to switch-hitting is a priority, not a gag

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Tucker Barnhart had the media scurrying to his Baseball-Reference page Tuesday morning.

After taking a couple of rounds of early batting practice hitting left-handed, he hopped over to the other side of the plate and took a few more rounds hitting right-handed.

What’s going on here? Quick check, yep, he’s listed as a left-handed hitter. So he was just messing around?

“We don’t mess around in this camp,” manager AJ Hinch said with a wry grin.

“No, it’s a real thing,” Barnhart said after the workout. “To me, with where I’m starting, I’m a switch-hitter and I’m going to be a switch-hitter.”

Barnhart, the Tigers starting catcher acquired in a trade from the Reds in November, was a switch-hitter earlier in his career. He abandoned hitting right-handed after the 2019 season. He has 402 big-league plate appearances right-handed, posting a meek slash-line of .219/.297/.295 with an OPS of .591 and 94 strikeouts.

“It was a little bit of everything, that’s the best answer I can give,” Barnhart said of his decision to hit lefty fulltime. “There was a point where, to be quite frank, I got tired of getting my (butt) kicked. I had a lot on my plate from catching pitchers to game-planning to trying to maintain two swings.”

It got overwhelming. His batting average fell to a career-low in 2019 (.231). His defensive metrics suffered, going from Gold Glove-level 15 defensive runs saved and throwing out 44% of base stealers in 2017 to 5 defensive runs saved and a 23% caught-stealing rate in 2019.

No more switch-hitting.

“I completely divorced myself from it,” he said. “But that helped me feel about it (switch-hitting) the way I do now — reinvigorated, in a way. … But I did divorce myself from it and got completely away from it.”

Hitting left-handed against left-handed pitching turned out to be no fun for Barnhart, either. In 85 plate appearances, left vs. left, he slashed .192/.247/.295 with a .542 OPS and 26 strikeouts.

So, after last season, he went back to Indianapolis and consulted with his longtime hitting coach, Benny Craig.

“Benny is a guy I really trust,” Barnhart said. “And he said, ‘Hey man, have you thought about going back to (switch-hitting)?’”

He thought about it. Entering his ninth big-league season, at age 31, he knows what works and doesn’t work. He knows far better now how to balance and structure his time and his multi-layered workload. It’s the right time to re-incorporate the right-handed swing.

“I went into it not toying with the idea, but making it a priority,” he said. “I’ve developed a routine that I feel is going help me maintain my swing from both sides. At the end of the day, it’s something I’d done for a long time. It wasn’t that I was completely terrible as a right-handed hitter, and it wasn’t that I was lighting the world on fire, either.

“It’s one of those things where I’m committed now to being the best left-handed and right-handed hitter I can be. I’m excited about it.”

So, somewhat surprisingly, is Hinch. He was tipped off last fall that Barnhart was going back to switch-hitting. The owner of the facility Barnhart trains at in Indianapolis is owned by one of his former pitchers, Joe Thatcher.

“He put some stuff out on social media, too, so we knew he was doing it,” Hinch said. “And we talked about it right after the lockout. It’s something he’s going to continue to work on and see where it takes him. From a versatility standpoint, from a platoon advantage, it’s something we want to see if it works.”

Hinch joked that the decision to hit right-handed against lefties was cemented when he saw Gregory Soto throw a bullpen. Barnhart did not completely dispute that.

“Yeah, guys like Soto, Chappy (Aroldis Chapman), guys like the Jake Diekmans and Chris Sales of the world — guys who are extremely tough on lefties,” he said. “Not that they aren’t tough on right-handers, too, but it just makes it a little bit easier.”

The reality is, while having a switch-hitting catcher is a match-up bonus for a manager, the Tigers have a potent right-handed hitting catching option already. Eric Haase slugged .592 with an OPS of .907 against lefties last year, hitting 11 of his 22 home runs against them.

Still, you can’t hardly fault a guy for trying to put himself in position to get a few more at-bats.

“I love the creativity,” Hinch said.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky 

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