DAYTON — When assessing Tucker Barnhart’s future worthiness, Dayton Dragons manager Delino DeShields implores the Cincinnati Reds — and other teams — not to assign too much weight to his height.
“Because this kid,” DeShields says without hesitation, “is going to be a good player.”
A 10th-round draft pick in 2009 out of Brownsburg High School in Brownsburg, Ind., Barnhart would not be the first 5-foot-8 catcher to make it, but once you get past Yogi Berra and a few others, they don’t exactly leap to mind.
On current major-league rosters there are none. Three — Ivan Rodriguez of the Washington Nationals, Humberto Quintero of the Houston Astros and Dionar Navarro of the Los Angeles Dodgers — are listed at 5-9. The major-league average is about 6-1.
“History doesn’t help me by any means, but you can’t really pay attention to that,” said Barnhart, who is living with a host family in Beavercreek during his first season here. “I’ve always been a smaller guy. It’s just something you have to battle through. It’s always just been about going out there on a daily basis and proving to people that I belong.
“I’ve heard it some places, but it’s never crossed my mind that I’m too small.”
Bigger catchers are better able to weather home-plate collisions, or so goes the theory. At rookie-level Billings (Mont.) last summer, Barnhart caught a forearm in the stomach and was sent flying before he had the ball.
Such events test a catcher’s toughness and willingness to put his body in harm’s way again.
“It didn’t feel too good,” Barnhart said. “I caught my breath and kept playing.”
‘A solid catcher’
Named Indiana’s Mr. Baseball as a high school senior, Barnhart had enough confidence to turn down a scholarship from Georgia Tech. He had been projected as a fifth-round pick, but the college option scared teams and he slipped to Round 10.
The Reds, though, got his attention with fourth-round money. Their offer had been in place on draft day but needed approval from the commissioner’s office because it was more than a typical 10th-rounder would have commanded.
There have been no regrets on either side.
“I think he’s a solid catcher,” minor league field coordinator Freddie Benavides said. “He’ll hit enough, but defense is what they look for first. He knows how to call a game, and he’s got a great head on his shoulders.”
A switch-hitter and former competitive tennis player, the 175-pound Barnhart recently clubbed his first professional home run at West Michigan.
“It was pretty cool,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. Went back-to-back with (third baseman) David Vidal.”
Going into a seven-game homestand starting tonight against Great Lakes, Barnhart is hitting .259 and throwing out about 40 percent of would-be base stealers, suggesting last season’s 50-percent cutdown rate at Billings was no fluke.
“As far as his development goes, he’s better off in pro ball, actually learning how to play, than he would be in college,” said DeShields, also Barnhart’s manager at Billings. “He’s improved a lot since the first time I saw him. He’s really worked hard.”
Barnhart doesn’t spend much time thinking of the future. He’s only 20. There’s no clock in his head that says he should be catching in Cincinnati by a certain date. He knows it could take years, especially with such prospects as Devin Mesoraco and Yasmani Grandal higher up in the pecking order and, frankly, thought to have more upside.
“You have to go out on a daily basis and compete and let your play dictate what happens,” Barnhart said. “You force your way in somewhere and they’re not going to be able to turn you down.”
He draws inspiration from a couple of close friends. One is Gordon Hayward, the former Butler University basketball star who just completed his first year with the NBA’s Utah Jazz after going No. 9 overall in the draft.
They grew up together in Brownsburg and were teammates in junior high — in tennis, which had been Hayward’s best sport until a high school growth spurt.
They saw each other in spring training when Hayward left tickets for Barnhart and a few teammates to a Jazz-Suns game in Phoenix. Recently, relations were strained. Seems Barnhart was using the Jazz in an NBA video game against Dragons relief pitcher Drew Hayes, and it didn’t go so well.
“He scored about 50 points, but he kept going out with an injury,” Barnhart said, feigning exasperation. “I called him later and told him he had durability issues. It was funny.”
Another famous friend from Brownsburg (population 21,285, just northwest of Indianapolis) is Drew Storen, a relief pitcher with the Nationals, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft out of Stanford University. Barnhart caught Storen — and his mid-90-mph fastball — for two years in high school.
Seeing his friends excel has been encouraging and motivating.
“Absolutely,” Barnhart said. “You want to try and — not compete with them, but you want to see everyone succeed.”
‘A tough out’
Barnhart, like many catchers, is a student of the game. Sometimes, by his own admission, he thinks too much, especially as a hitter.
“Lately I’ve kind of been putting too much pressure on myself,” he said. “I’m just trying to simplify things, remember the situations when I’ve felt the best and revert back to those things.”
It worked on the last homestand when he cleared his mind, swung at the first pitch and rifled a bases-loaded single to drive in two important runs.
That said, it’s the parts of his game other than hitting that have the decision-makers excited. Blocking pitches in the dirt has become a forte and, says Dragons pitching coach Tony Fossas, never one to lavish praise prematurely, “He does a great job calling a game.”
One scout recently referred to Barnhart as a “switch-hitting Ryan Hanigan.”
But he models his game after Carlos Ruiz of the Phillies, who is known for taking charge behind the plate and being a pest at the bottom of the order.
Ruiz is listed at 5-10 — hardly a giant, but universally respected.
“Barnie’s tough, and he’s a tough out,” DeShields said. “And if people evaluate him based on his size, they’re going to be missing on him.”
Tucker Barnhart’s 5 tips for young catchers
1. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too small for the position.
2. Take pride in defense, not just hitting.
3. Work on footwork, arm strength and receiving the ball.
4. Take pride in directing and knowing your pitchers.
5. There’s no drill better than catching an actual pitcher in the bullpen or a game.