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Examining new rule changes through eyes of Cubs catcher Tucker Barnhart

Ryan Avatar
January 27, 2023

With 62 days left before Opening Day, that means Major League Baseball players have just 62 days to work out the kinks and get used to the rule changes set to go into effect this season.

Those changes, which were voted in by MLB’s competition committee in September, include the pitch clock (along with restrictions on the number of times a pitcher can disengage with the rubber), bigger bases and shift restrictions. Like any other time in baseball history that new rules have been put into place, players will have to adjust. And one player who’s already looking forward to making those adjustments is new Cubs catcher Tucker Barnhart.

“I’m very anxious to get to spring training for a lot of reasons, and one of those reasons is the changing of the rules and how everybody adapts to that,” Barnhart said during a recent sit-down interview with the CHGO Cubs Podcast. “It’s going to be interesting, for sure.”

As a switch hitter who’ll likely spend a lot of time hitting lefty in his expected platoon with Yan Gomes, ending the shift may have a positive effect on his batting numbers. However, when he was hitting from the left side of the plate in 2022, he still had a BABIP of .288, and he pulled the ball just 36.6 percent of the time. So, shift restrictions might not have as profound an impact on his numbers as other left-handed hitters.

The restrictions on pitchers is where Barnhart believes the biggest impact on his game will come from.

Having gotten to catch his former Reds teammate (and a former Cubs starter) Wade Miley, Barnhart at least has experience catching for a pitcher who can simulate the speed of the pitch clock (per Statcast, among all pitchers who threw at least 100 pitches in 2022, Miley had the fastest pitch tempo both with bases empty and with runners on). However, it’s the pickoff rule limit that Barnhart isn’t too excited about.

Pitchers are limited to two disengagements (pickoffs or stepoffs) per plate appearance, though the limit does reset if a runner advances. They can still attempt a pickoff as a third disengagement, but if the attempt is unsuccessful, the runner automatically advances. That means if a pitcher has already disengaged twice, a runner may get more aggressive as the pitcher may be more reluctant to actually try to pick them off.

That would also affect a catcher’s ability to control the running game. It makes their lives tougher if a pitcher reaches that limit and the baserunners get more aggressive. Obviously, that’s a disadvantage catchers would rather not face.

“I don’t know the exact wording of the rule, but there are limits to how many times pitchers can pick off when guys are on base,” he said. “And being a catcher, that puts us kind of behind the eight ball when every baserunner knows that the guy has reached his pickoff limit or whatever that is. It’s going to be chaotic there for the start, at the beginning, in terms of that rule, but I’m anxious to see how they go and how they work.”

Barnhart doesn’t see bigger bases being too tough to adjust to. He believes a bigger base would have to be comically sized or be like a double base for players to really notice it — though he did say that’s purely an assumption without having yet seen them in action.

A more direct effect on Barnhart could be that this will likely negatively impact his ability to manage the running game. The size of the bases will increase from 15 inches square to 18 inches square, which will also decrease the distance between first and second and second and third by 4 1/2 inches and add more surface area for potential base stealers to aim for.

There are plenty of examples of runners getting thrown out by mere inches. With the gap being shortened, it could result in runners being more willing to try to swipe a base. Now, when the rules were initially announced, Baseball America did study Triple-A data from 2021 and didn’t find that idea to necessarily be true. However, this isn’t the minor leagues. Major leaguers are quicker, faster and more athletic. It’s certainly possible the minor league numbers won’t reflect the big league numbers.

And for a catcher like Barnhart, that possibility could leave him at another disadvantage.

He didn’t have a great showing in controlling the running game in 2022. His caught stealing percentage of 28 percent ranked 37th among catchers (per Baseball Reference). Neither his average pop time to second base (1.99 seconds) nor his pop time to third base (1.62 seconds) were even ranked in the top 35 (per Statcast). If runners feel incentivized to steal more bases, Barnhart will have his work cut out for him in adjusting.

“I think there’s just so many variables that go into throwing guys out,” he said. “It’s time to the plate, where the pitch is thrown, who the runner is, what kind of jump he gets. Now, you’re throwing another variable in the bases in, so obviously, I think it’s going to play a part.”

Barnhart isn’t a huge fan of all the rule changes. He thinks that MLB has to be careful not to do so much that it starts messing with the integrity of the game. Still, he understands why the rule changes have been made and why MLB thinks they can help the game. Now, it’s all about how the players adjust.

“It’s just the world we live in and world we play in, and we’ll have to adapt,” Barnhart said. “We’re pretty good at that I guess, but we’ll see.”

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