SARASOTA, Fla. — We could start with the wine and the food, and that would be grand, because the Detroit Tigers’ new catcher, Tucker Barnhart, enjoys both —and talking about both, especially with his new manager, AJ Hinch, who used to be a catcher and who loves talking wine and food, too.
But Tucker Barnhart isn’t a Tiger because of his palate. He’s a Tiger because of a mound visit during a game at Wrigley Field almost seven years ago.
Barnhart was catching for the Cincinnati Reds. His pitcher, Michael Lorenzen, was struggling. He trotted to the mound. He got into Lorenzen. Bluntly. Barnhart likes blunt. Lorenzen did not. Not in that moment, anyway.
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“I was standing in the middle of Wrigley Field and like, challenged him in a way that I would like to be coached. He looked at me and said, ‘Whose team are you on?’ At that moment, I realized that not everybody responds to coaching or to conversation the way I respond to conversation or criticism.”
Barnhart was trying to help. He thought some tough words would focus Lorenzen. It did the opposite.
“It was an example of realizing that everybody is wired a little differently,” Barnhart said. “A moment for me (to say), ‘You know what? I’ve got to take the time to get to know how to respond to certain things.’ It helped me out a lot.”
Lorenzen and Barnhart didn’t talk about the exchange for six years, until the final days of last season, when each knew they would be heading to different teams. That’s when the future Tiger sought out Lorenzen and thanked him.
If he hadn’t reacted negatively to Barnhart’s blunt and aggressive attempt to help him, Barnhart might never had questioned his approach to pitchers, and he had — until that point — treated them the same, as if they were him.
Barnhart is talking about sugarcoating, about receiving kudos and “pats on the back.” He is standing outside the visitors’ clubhouse at Ed Smith Stadium on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
“They are great, sure,” he is saying about compliments. But they also get in the way — for him. He wants to be told when he’s messing up. Wants to hear it clear and clean. And that’s just fine.
The Tigers traded for him, though, because he figured out after that day at Wrigley that everyone is “wired differently.” In fact, that’s primarily why Tigers general manager Al Avila wanted him last fall.
“He calls a good game,” Avila said in November after the trade, “but it’s not just the game-calling, it’s the relationship with the pitchers. He had that experience and reputation of being a good leader for his pitching staff. They trusted him. That made him a priority for us.”
Signing shortstop Javier Baez may have been Avila’s biggest splash this offseason. Trading for Barnhart may be his most important.
A great catcher doesn’t just block balls in the dirt and throw runners out, though Barnhart is elite at both, as a two-time Gold Glove winner. A great catcher doesn’t just frame balls to seduce umpires into calling strikes, though, again, Barnhart does this well, too.
A great catcher understands what a pitcher needs to throw at any given moment. More critically, a great catcher knows who the pitcher is.
His personality. His history. His family.
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“They’ve got to know that I’m fully invested and I’m fully prepared and have thought about every situation,” said Barnhart. “It helps those guys develop trust.”
This is particularly true when handling a young and talented staff, as Barnhart will be doing for the Tigers. It’s why Barnhart won’t be taking Tuesday off with the rest of the veterans on the roster — the Tigers don’t have a game.
Instead, he will be catching Casey Mize in a scrimmage on the back fields at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, home of the Yankees. Hinch asked him if he’d do it, even though it’s rare for a Gold Glover to trek to the back fields of another team’s complex on an off-day.
“At the end of the day, I want to be a good teammate,” said Barnhart.
Since Barnhart hasn’t caught Mize this spring yet, other than live batting practice in Lakeland, he knew he needed to be in Tampa on Tuesday. Mize has ace potential. He needs to learn his flow.
And while he has spent time at his locker stall asking the young pitcher what his out pitch is and what he likes to throw to regain his rhythm and what pitches he likes to throw in certain counts against certain kinds of hitters, that’s still just background. Nothing replicates facing hitters together.
“He understands where his strengths are and what he can do to help a (team),” said Hinch. “We all want to hit. He had a nice at-bat (Sunday) where he pulled the ball down the line. But, generally speaking, Tuck’s always gonna contribute more to the game behind the plate. The fact that he embraces that and still will always fight for his at-bats means a lot to me, means a lot to the pitching staff.”
Barnhart downplayed the rarity of Tuesday’s trip and task. Like he said, he wants to be a good teammate and he knows that, for the Tigers to have their best start, he has to know the pitchers.
Besides, he said, “this was the last chance to catch him because of the schedule.”
None of this surprises left-hander Tyler Alexander. He has a lot of friends in the majors who’ve pitched to Barnhart or have competed against him.
“They all said great things,” he said.
The same things. The kinds of things that Alexander — who pitched Sunday against Baltimore — is seeing now daily.
“Every day, I see him talking to somebody new and breaking things down,” said Alexander, who is the best bet to begin the season as the team’s fifth starter, though will likely end up as a long reliever.
Alexander hears Barnhart asking his fellow pitchers if they liked the way he called the game, or if they liked what he called for in a specific situation. They’ve had those conversations, too.
“I enjoy the thinking part of the game and the pitch calling,” Barnhart said. “It’s the most fun for me.”
“Getting to know the guys that I’m going to be catching is imperative for us as a team,” he said.
It’s helping. Ask Alexander.
On Sunday, he said, “I didn’t (shake) him off once.”
The kismet is similar to what Barnhart is developing with Hinch. It helps that Hinch was a catcher and sees baseball from a similar perspective. It also helps that he always wanted to play for a manager who’d been a catcher.
“There are so many intricacies,” he said, “so many nuances.”
Like when to visit the mound. Or what to say when you get there.
Most days, when Barnhart isn’t talking with pitchers or studying their tendencies — he has poured over metrics detailing who on the staff likes to throw what when and what those percentages are — he is talking to Hinch.
About baseball. About learning a new system and staff. About human nature. About food and wine.
There’s Gray Bros. Cafeteria in Mooresville, Indiana, which is not far from where Barnhart grew up outside Indianapolis. This isn’t surprising. The cafeteria not only makes its food from scratch — try the homemade chicken and noodles — but offers something for everyone.
Everyone has their own palate, no?
Barnhart knew this all his life but didn’t truly learn it until he tried to “coach” Lorenzen the way he had always wanted to be coached. Yes, blunt works for many, including, Alexander, who recently told Barnhart to be as hard on him as he wanted to.
But blunt doesn’t work for all. Great managers understand this. Great catchers do too.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.