Struggling to Fill Buster Posey’s Shoes, Joey Bart Is Sent Down

Joey Bart
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Since the day he was selected with the second pick of the 2018 draft out of Georgia Tech, Joey Bart was considered the heir apparent to Buster Posey. His progress to the majors was closely tracked, and when Posey opted out of playing during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season for family reasons, Bart arrived in the majors ahead of schedule. When Posey retired suddenly last fall after a stellar age-34 season, all eyes turned to Bart as well. His major league career thus far hasn’t gone as hoped, however, and on Wednesday the Giants optioned the struggling backstop to Triple-A Sacramento.

With Posey putting together an All-Star season as he helped the Giants to a franchise record 107 wins, Bart was left with some oversized shoes to fill, but he began the season with great fanfare, homering on Opening Day off the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara. Alas, the 25-year-old backstop has hit a meager .156/.296/.300 with four homers in 108 plate appearances overall. He started 21 of the team’s first 34 games, capped by a ninth-inning homer off Albert Pujols (!) on May 15, but after that, he started just eight of 20 games, going 2-for-25 with 15 strikeouts.

Particularly with the team going 9–11 in that span, and 3–5 in the games Bart started, the Giants felt some adjustments were in order, and that they would best be made in the minors. Via The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said, “Our sense was it was weighing a little more on Joey. It’s one thing to be struggling and still feel like the team is firing on all cylinders. That allows you to be in a better mindset. But when it starts weighing a little more, an intervention makes sense.”

Via the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser, Zaidi said, “We still think Joey is an everyday catcher… In the broader scheme of things, we thought it made sense to get him a little bit of a reset. We’re very open to the notion that at-bats at Triple-A out of the spotlight can help get a guy on track.”

Via’s Maria Guardado, manager Gabe Kapler reiterated the team’s commitment to Bart but said, “The number one message is that he has some adjustments that he needs to make.” More:

Kapler said the Giants would like to see Bart even out his shoulders and hips, as well as have more of a gather on his front side to help him cut down on some of the swing-and-miss in his game and tap into more of his right-handed power. The first order of action, though, will be to give Bart a bit of a breather following one of the more challenging stretches of his young career.

As for that swing-and-miss, while Bart’s overall 81 wRC+ is nothing to write home about, it’s only three points below the major league average for all catchers. Of much greater concern is his 45.4% strikeout rate, the highest of any player with at least 100 PA:

Highest Strikeout Rates Among Batters
Player Team PA K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Joey Bart SFG 108 45.4% .156 .296 .300 81
Brett Phillips TBR 120 42.5% .178 .246 .327 71
Franmil Reyes CLE 145 39.3% .195 .255 .278 56
Joey Gallo NYY 160 38.1% .186 .288 .329 84
Mike Zunino TBR 120 37.5% .152 .200 .313 50
Eli White TEX 107 35.5% .196 .271 .278 64
Patrick Wisdom CHC 213 35.2% .222 .305 .476 115
Luke Voit SDP 154 33.8% .227 .325 .371 101
Chris Taylor LAD 203 33.5% .257 .335 .453 120
Chad Pinder OAK 154 33.1% .248 .281 .407 101
Minimum 100 plate appearances. All statistics through June 7.

In the 74 plate appearances in which he’s reached two strikes, Bart has hit just .060/.160/.104; that’s 4-for-67 with eight walks, a homer, and a 66.1% strikeout rate. That’s not much better than what major league pitchers hit with two strikes on them in 2019 (.076/.103/.093) while striking out 67.8% of the time.

Based on his 2020 stint with the team, the Giants expected Bart to have contact issues. Our prospect team of Eric Longenhagen and company has been vocal in its reservations about that particular aspect of Bart’s game as he’s developed. Here are some excerpts from the catcher’s annual appearances on our Top 100 Prospects lists:

  • 2019: Ranked #14, Hit tool 30 present/45 future. “[W]hile he is exceptional behind the plate, Bart doesn’t have the same ability to slow the game at it, however, with elevated strikeout rates in his draft year and just okay pitch selection. The bat speed is good and he doesn’t have trouble against velocity, and some scouts point to his solid pro debut as evidence that Bart was just frustrated by being pitched around and developed some bad habits in college… [M]ost assume that Bart will figure out a way to get to a 40 to 50 bat with above average game power and above average defense.”
  • 2020: Ranked #10, Hit 35/45. “He was swing-happy again in 2019…”
  • 2021: Ranked #55, Hit 30/40. “Whether he’ll get to his power in games is now in doubt since Bart struck out in [36.9%] of his big league plate appearances in 2020. He was both chasing and missing in the zone at higher rates than the big league average.”
  • 2022: Ranked #113, Hit 30/30. “Further hampering Bart are swing decisions that were among the worst in all of baseball during his 2020 big league debut and showed little progress back at Triple-A last year, as he whiffed at a nearly 30% clip and continues to be prone to wild chases… There’s a low average/high power catcher in here, but he’s masked by the disastrous approach that has the potential to be Bart’s undoing.”

Bart’s lack of refinement at the plate likely owes something to his lost developmental time. A fractured left hand cost him seven weeks in 2019; he played just 57 games at High-A San Jose and 22 at Double-A Richmond that year, then had his stint in the Arizona Fall League cut short by a broken right thumb. Like everyone else, he lost time due to the pandemic, and Posey’s decision to opt out just prior to the 2020 season caught the Giants understandably off-guard and threw Bart another curveball, so to speak. He spent the first four weeks of the season at the team’s alternate training site while Tyler Heineman and Chadwick Tromp shared the starting job in san Francisco.

On August 20, 2020, the Giants recalled Bart, and he started 27 of their final 34 games. He played like someone who had been rushed to the majors, hitting just .233/.288/.320 (69 wRC+) without homering in 111 PA, walking just three times (2.7%) and striking out 41 times (36.9%). On the defensive side, in 231.1 innings he threw out just 18% of stolen base attempts but on a more positive note was 0.5 runs above average in pitch framing. Via Baseball Prospectus’ more comprehensive defensive metrics, he was 2.6 runs above average overall, including 2.0 above in framing and 0.5 above in throwing despite the low CS rate.

With Posey back, and ably backed up by Curt Casali, the Giants kept Bart at Triple-A Sacramento for all of last season save for two one-game call-ups. He hit .294/.358/.472 for a 107 wRC+ in the high-offense Triple-A West League (ugh) but struck out in 29.4% of plate appearances, walking 7.5% of the time with the aforementioned issues with his approach.

On that subject, Bart’s overall chase rate of 33% is only in the 43rd percentile among players with at least 100 PA, which is to say that he’s doing it more than the average hitter but not ridiculously so, and his 13.9% walk rate is a major improvement upon his 2020 mark. He’s struggled with pitches in Statcast’s Shadow zone (-9 runs), but is a combined +7 runs in the Chase and Waste zones:

It’s Bart’s -3 runs in the Heart zone and his in-zone and overall contact rates (71.1% and 61.8%, respectively) that stand out. Those last two figures both rank as the fifth-lowest among the 292 players with at least 100 PA so far. His in-zone contact rates against four-seamers (68.9%), sinkers (66.7%), and changeups (57.1%) are notably worse than his overall rate, and likewise for his chase rates against curves (58.3%) and sliders (41.4%), though the sample sizes are pretty small.

Overall, Bart has struggled against every pitch type except sinkers, though his slugging percentages against breaking balls are propped up by his having hit three of his four homers against them:

Joey Bart vs. Pitch Types
Pitch % PA AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA SwStr%
4-Seam 29.9% 26 .200 .239 .250 .299 .311 .338 15.1%
Slider 23.2% 23 .158 .183 .474 .501 .343 .357 21.3%
Sinker 21.1% 20 .267 .258 .467 .436 .413 .394 14.3%
Changeup 10.1% 13 .083 .112 .083 .124 .122 .147 25.5%
Curveball 7.1% 12 .100 .088 .400 .115 .289 .187 18.2%
Cutter 5.8% 7 .143 .099 .143 .114 .127 .090 25.9%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

On the rare occasions Bart makes contact, he’s been especially pull-happy (56.1%). His 7.3% barrel rate is nothing special, but his 46.3% hard-hit rate is quite solid, though it matches his groundball rate, and it doesn’t help that he runs like you’d expect from a 6-foot-2, 238-pound catcher. His .181 xAVG and .298 xSLG don’t make the case that he’s been particularly unlucky; he’s really been that bad. On the defensive side, through 256.2 innings this year, Bart’s numbers have been similar to 2020, with a 15% caught stealing rate, 1.7 framing runs by our methodology, and 1.9 framing runs by that of BP, with 1.9 runs above average by their numbers overall as well.

So Bart has some serious work to do in order to fulfill his offensive potential. Via Longenhagen, he still grades out as having 60/60 raw power and 45/50 game power, but the latter is down from 50/60 last year, which is to say that expectations have been reduced.

Zaidi said he would be open to Bart taking a few days to get a mental break while working on his approach and his mechanics before reporting to Sacramento. While he’s gone, the 33-year-old Casali will do the bulk of the catching, with 31-year-old Austin Wynns, who was acquired from the Phillies on Wednesday in exchange for 26-year-old left-hander Michael Plassmeyer and cash considerations, serving as the backup. Casali is hitting .244/.318/.436 (114 wRC+) with four homers in 88 PA and owns a 93 wRC+ for his career. Generally a slightly-above-average defender by the numbers, he’s slipped a bit this year, with -1.6 framing runs by our metrics and -3.4 runs overall by those of Baseball Prospectus. Wynns owns just a .216/.255/.326 (55 wRC+) career line in 331 PA with the Orioles from 2018 to ’21, so he’s hardly a long-term solution. Wrote Slusser, “One American League scout described Wynns as a catch-and-throw guy who does a nice job running a game and handling a pitching staff — the bat is a little light.” Michael Papierski, a 26-year-old catcher who was acquired from the Astros for Mauricio Dubón on May 14, is the only other catcher on the team’s 40-man roster. He’s hit just .205/.296/.262 in 124 PA at Sacramento and Sugarland and has started three times for the Giants, going 0-for-9.

Assuming the Giants (30–25) stay in the hunt for a playoff spot, it figures that they could be in the market for another catcher at the trade deadline. The Cubs’ Willson Contreras, who can be a free agent after this season, is likely to be the top one available, at least in terms of impact bats; he’s hitting a robust .277/.403/.530 (162 wRC+) with 10 homers, but his -4.1 framing runs is tied for the major’s second-lowest mark and, as his career total of -40.6 framing runs attests, is not a fluke. The Tigers’ Tucker Barnhart, the Angels’ Kurt Suzuki, and the Red Sox’s Christian Vázquez are pending free agents as well — less impactful with the bat but perhaps a bit more reliable with the glove. The Athletics’ Sean Murphy, who will be arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, might be available as well given that team’s pathological need to tear things down.

Bart isn’t the first highly touted prospect to struggle, and it doesn’t sound as though the Giants are planning to give up on him. Still, his issues have thrown a hitch into their plans for 2022 — hardly the only one on a team that has hitters Brandon Belt and LaMonte Wade Jr., and starters Alex Cobb and Anthony DeSclafani on the IL — and they’ve been forced to adjust.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Bart really seems to be on the Mike Zunino track.

CC AFCmember
1 year ago
Reply to  tz

I agree that it looks like he could mimic zunino’s offense in terms of running hot and cold years based on when he runs into more or less dingers.

I suspect the Giants don’t like his defense nearly as much as the rays like zunino’s. I don’t think he’d be going down if they did. The framing is fine, so I expect he’s not overwhelming them with those less measurable qualities like staff management and game calling that keeps guys like Zunino and Martin Maldonado consistently employed in significant roles.

1 year ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Longerhagen’s report shows his fielding declining from 65/70 in 2021 to 55/55 in 2022 so it might not be just game calling. It might be a lack of development as was expected or even a view that he was previously overrated

1 year ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Letting basestealers go 17 for 20 also can’t help

1 year ago
Reply to  tz

Despite tremendous contact issues, Zunino is so good defensively (when you include framing) and so good at hitting the snot of the ball (when he does hit it), that he has never been sub-replacement per fWAR and actually has 3 seasons with at least 3.8 WAR.

At this point, having the equivalent of Zunino’s career would be a quite good outcome for Bart.

1 year ago
Reply to  BenZobrist4MVP

To be fair, some years Mike Zunino looks a whole lot like Jeff Mathis. If he hadn’t also sprinkled in years where he hits like Joey Gallo he’d be a backup no matter how good the defense is.

Last edited 1 year ago by sadtrombone
1 year ago
Reply to  tz

Zunino’s a weird player given how low his lows are, but he’s also had three 4 win seasons as well. Right now I feel pretty good about taking the under on 3 4 win seasons for Bart