If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m going to be leaning pretty heavily into both Tucker Barnhart and Jameson Taillon as case studies for the Cubs’ focus on chemistry and leadership this season. While soft skills are no substitute for actual production, I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that, like a pinch of salt or a dash of lemon, strong makeup can accentuate and elevate what might otherwise be a relatively bland profile.
That’s not just the glow of the CubsCon honeymoon, though I’d be lying if I said the positivity radiating throughout the Sheraton Grand last weekend had no affect on my assessment. After a slow start to the offseason, Jed Hoyer has gotten the payroll pretty close to the first CBT threshold and should pump it even higher with a bullpen addition or two.
All the while, there’s been a very clear focus on players who provide intrinsic value via strong character traits while also offering big rebound potential. Taillon and Dansby Swanson, who earned the two biggest contracts the Cubs handed out this winter, are obviously less about resurgence and more about consistent performance. That said, there’s a sense that both could yet improve on what have been very solid careers to this point.
Barnhart wasn’t among most Cubs fans’ preferred choices at catcher, but he’s quickly endeared himself to everyone who listened to his interviews since joining the team. It was evident over the course of the weekend that he was loving the CubsCon experience and the chance to be a part of a team he’s been familiar with since watching WGN as a kid.
“It just feels alive,” Barnhart told Ian Happ during a live recording of The Compound podcast. “And I don’t know to describe that other than, as a visitor, it feels like you’re playing the team but you’re playing something else also. And I think what Jamo said about late in the game, you feel like the Cubs would always come back and beat you, they would hold a lead.
“It’s just such a tough place to play as a visitor that, I’m sure I can speak for me and Jamo both, that I’m so excited to call it home and not having to play as a visitor.”
As you may have gathered, Taillon was up there with Barnhart for this particular segment. After opening with Yan Gomes — who once played with Eric Hosmer on a high school summer team and shared a story about fighting several guys at once — and Cody Bellinger, Happ welcomed the new batterymates to the stage to talk about their return to the division in which they both began their MLB careers.
Ed. note: Barnhart also knew Hosmer in their prep days and was recruited to play on a team based in South Florida, so it kinda wild that they’re all together again.
“The guys change that you face, but I think the philosophies of the organizations — unless there’s turnover in terms of the coaching staff, things like that — I think they remain very similar,” Barnhart said. “So you can kind of have an understanding of how they’re going to attack you as a player.
“And I think, organizationally, from a hitter’s standpoint as well, calling pitches — and I think Jamo can talk about it too — when you face the same lineups, the guys might change but the organizational philosophies tend to remain the same.”
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) January 14, 2023
Happ then noted that teams will often bring in very similar players to replace those they’ve lost for whatever reason. Case in point, and I want to make clear this is me and not Happ: After making the egregious error of non-tendering slugging lefty-batting left fielder Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs signed slugging lefty-batting left fielder Joc Pederson.
“I went from the NL Central to the AL East,” Taillon explained. “There’s 30 big league teams and every team plays a similar style of baseball, like whatever’s in at the moment is in. But I always felt like the NL Central was a little bit more hard-nosed, like pitching, defense, pitching inside, sinkers. Then I go to the AL East and it’s like home runs, walks, 3-2 breaking balls, guys are pitching maybe a little more scared, pitching away from the smaller ballparks.
“So, like you said, teams change but the philosophies stay the same. I feel like it’s a little bit different of a brand of baseball and I appreciate it.”
This is a very interesting topic that someone smarter and more qualified than me could probably run with for a whole separate piece. For now, I’ll stick with the idea that Taillon may very well be able to return to the days of being an ace-in-waiting for the Pirates. Some of that will depend on whether and how the Cubs work with him on a pitch mix that has de-emphasized the sinker in the wake of his second Tommy John surgery three years ago.
As indicated above, a big reason for getting away from the sinker is that “hitters were able to start scooping the bottom of the zone for power.” True though that may be, Taillon saw a steep increase in his home runs allowed over the last two years in New York despite throwing the sinker far less often. It could be that, contrary to what he has said, getting away from the pitch left him somewhat exposed.
My guess is that it’s a combination of both physical and philosophical tweaks, both of which are likely to shift at least slightly with his new team. For instance, the Cubs like throwing sinkers up in the zone and might be able to leverage that if it’s not too physically taxing. Though he didn’t talk about whether and how he’ll be altering his pitch mix, Taillon shared a funny anecdote that speaks to how the new guys are already getting on the same page.
“Last week, I was on vacation in Cabo,” Taillon explained. “I had just gotten engaged, I’m sitting there in bed one morning, and Tucker texted me. We don’t really know each other yet, we’d talked a little bit, and he sends me a screenshot.
“He’s looking at all my scouting information, he’s like, ‘Dude, I’m doing a deep dive on you right now. What do got on this, this, and that?’ Nothing better to do. I love that! I was like, ‘We’re not the same, dude, I’m going to the swim-up bar here in a minute to grab a margarita.'”
But wait, there’s more.
“He sends me a picture from the beach chair,” Barnhart responded. “I don’t know what he was drinking, but it’s him holding a drink and I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m not doing the right thing right now.”
I promise this is going somewhere.
“When I see a guy like that preparing like that in January,” Taillon said. “When we’re in the summer, it’s July and we’re playing the Cardinals, he’s putting a finger down and I’m just gonna probably trust him because I know he has that level of care for me and the pitching staff.
“That for me is a big first sign of building trust and that relationship.”
Taillon relayed this same story later in the day during the pitching panel and it ties back directly to what Barnhart shared during his first appearance on The Compound a week or so earlier. You can have all the data in the world telling you how to attack a certain batter, but at the end of the day, a pitcher needs to be able to execute with conviction. A big part of a catcher’s job is to earn his pitchers’ faith, not just in what he’s calling but in their own stuff.
“And then conversations along the lines of like, “Hey, man, game on the line, 3-2 count, bases loaded, doesn’t matter the hitter,” Barnhart said. “What’s your best pitch, what are you going to?’ Because I think a lot of times, pitchers, if there’s some indecisiveness, sometimes they’ll lean toward the scouting report versus going with what they do the best.”
Even as an avowed stats nerd, I maintain a deep appreciation for baseball’s romantic side. That’s why I love stuff like this with players getting their hands dirty in analytics while still being acutely aware of how emotions and nerves impact performance. I may not be able to sway you if you’ve climbed to the top of a hill built on the notion that the Cubs suck or don’t want to win, especially if you’re willing to die there, but I don’t know how anyone can listen to Happ’s latest pod and come away feeling anything less than good about these guys.
I know, I know, none of it matters if they can’t win ballgames. And hey, maybe the Cubs will come out flatter than an Old Style that’s been sitting too long in the summer sun. Even if 100 wins is a pipe dream, however, I can see this team being pretty damn fun to follow.