Joey Bart had just finished his batting practice last Thursday before the San Francisco Giants game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Oracle Park when he agreed to speak for a few minutes.
It had been a fight for Bart, the second pick in the 2018 draft and heir apparent to seven-time all-star catcher Buster Posey, who retired in November. Bart stepped in Thursday after going 3-for-30 with 16 strikeouts in his last 10 games. He wouldn’t be in the lineup that night, either, as veteran Curt Casali, who watches about a third of San Francisco’s games, gets the nod.
Not much changed over the next few games, Bart hitting .158 and starting Tuesday with the Colorado Rockies. While Bart worried about his place on the team as he stood near the Giants dugout, he didn’t show it, telling The Bee, “You can’t really chase hits. It brings good bats together and good things happen.”
At the start of the season, the Georgia Tech product has yet to play a starring role for San Francisco, as they started Thursday with a .188 in 16 games and spent most of last season in Triple-A with the River Cats. But the 25-year-old received words of encouragement from teammates and Giants staff alike ahead of Thursday’s game.
Will Clark, the amazing former first baseman and current Giants front office special assistant, knows what it’s like to appear as a highly acclaimed prospect. Clark was drafted out of Mississippi state in 1985 second overall in a deep first round that included Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Larkin.
“It’s tough because everyone kind of baptizes you as the new guy on the block and you still have to get on the field and produce,” Clark said. “It’s not easy to play this game. Joey has done a great job on all levels. Now he plays in the premier league. He does a good job behind the plate. He wrestled a little offensively, but he’ll come around.”
Strike on your own
Clark was lucky enough to hit Nolan Ryan with a famous homer in his first career in 1986. Bart was hit by a pitch from Angels hurler Jose Suarez on his first try in August 2020, and it hasn’t gotten much better for him since the plate. As of Tuesday, he had achieved .211 with 75 OPS+ through 186 lifetime plate appearances and dropped nearly 40 percent of them.
Mark Reynolds owns the all-time strikeout record, who huffed 223 times in 662 plate appearances in 2009, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Bart’s 26 strikeouts in 59 PAs this season, starting Thursday, would get him up to speed for 292 K’s if he had the same number of trips to the plate as Reynolds.
Bart shone in Sacramento in 2021, hitting a .294 for the River Cats. Additionally, he remains a highly regarded prospect, starting 2022 at #31 on MLB.com, #53 on Baseball Prospectus, and #71 on Baseball America.
Still, Bart’s recent struggles at the plate are no secret.
“It’s been a season of ups and downs in the batter’s box,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler told The Bee during pregame media availability. “He’s had some big hits, but there’s also been a lot of swing and failure. That was part of his game and something we’re willing to pursue with him.”
Part of his willingness to be patient with Bart could stem from successes in other facets of his game. One positive seems to be how he gels with Giants pitchers, who entered the room on Thursday with a 3.33 ERA and 119 ERA+ on staff.
“Everyone in the room raves about throwing Joey,” said Craig Albernaz, the team’s bullpen coach. “They love how he receives, how he moves behind the plate, how he blocks, how he throws and of course the pre-game.”
Giants starter Alex Wood called Bart a good receiver, capable of setting a big goal and one he’s happy to throw at him.
“He’s a hardworking man,” Wood said. “I think he has good leadership qualities. It will be fun to see how he continues to grow for the rest of the year.”
A future top catcher?
Tyler Beede, a reliever and former first-round draft pick whom the Giants earmarked for action Thursday, expressed a more upbeat mood as he stood by his locker near packed bags.
“He’s going to be one of the best catchers in the league for a long time,” Beede said of Bart.
The question is if and when Bart can step up as a contact hitter, where Posey more or less excelled from the jump with his lifetime batting average of .302. However, Clark didn’t hesitate when asked if Bart was a natural, praising his strength and ability to hit both sides of the field.
“There’s a lot of guys in the major leagues that take a couple of years to figure that out,” Clark said. “But Joey is an athlete. He will do it.”
There’s also no pressure from teammates like infielder Wilmer Flores for Bart to replace eliminated regulars.
“Joey Bart isn’t trying to be Buster Posey,” Flores said. “He’s just trying to be who he is. Joey Bart, you can’t look at it like he’s a stand-in. He just has to be himself.”
Bart didn’t come into play Thursday as the Cardinals’ longtime backstop and potential Hall of Famer Yadier Molina hit an early homer to help St. Louis to a 7-1 win.
Casali, a 33-year-old journeyman who has never recorded more than 256 plate appearances in a season and signed as a free agent with the Giants in January 2021, is clearly not a long-term solution for Catcher. But he started 55 games at that position last year, with the Giants splitting a similar ratio of games between Casali and Bart this year.
“I think the luxury we have here is that all of our pitchers feel comfortable throwing to Joey and to Curt,” Albernaz said. “I think that’s what we want. Because in the end we try to maximize this squad.”
Bart didn’t complain on Thursday. When asked about his goals for the season, Bart replied that it was up to the Giants to get as many wins as possible.
“The only thing I care about is winning,” Bart said. “I will be ready to win every day.”
This story was originally published May 11, 2022 5:00 am.