For the last six weeks, Joey Bart has been one of the best catchers in baseball.
Bart returned to the Giants from Triple-A on July 6, and has since posted a 144 wRC+. The list of catchers hitting better in that span: Adley Rutschman, Will Smith, Sean Murphy, JT Realmuto and Carson Kelly.
Currently riding a career-best seven-game hitting streak after his 3-for-4 night, Bart is performing like what the Giants envisioned when they selected him No. 2 overall in the 2018 draft. He had to come out of the mud to reach this high.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that he’s human,” ace Logan Webb told KNBR.
“He’s had more than half of a season, three-fourths of a season, of constant struggles and you would never know it in the clubhouse, in the dugout, behind the plate,” Monday’s starter Alex Cobb said. “He’s never carried anything behind the plate (and) that’s a sign of some extreme maturity and confidence that you don’t see with guys in their first full season. Everybody on the team knows the tools are there. To see him start clicking is just fun. It’s almost, like, well deserved. You battled through all this and now you need to go enjoy the positive results you’re getting.”
As undeniable as Bart’s talent has always been, this type of production was unimaginable in May. Those “constant struggles” involved Bart striking out in 45.3% of his plate appearances and collecting a .156 average. To start his first full season, he was overmatched.
So in early June, the Giants demoted him to Sacramento for a mental and physical reset. Before the first-half, the prodigal Bart had never gone through adversity on a baseball diamond like that. At every level, he’s always succeeded, if not dominated.
Bart spent a month with Sacramento getting his mind and swing right.
“It’s part of what’s going to make him great, in a way,” Webb said. “We’ve all had our share of struggles. Sometimes you need to struggle, you need to lose, you need to learn how to be professional. To know how to come back the next day after you get your ass kicked.”
Webb knows how rare it is for a young player to enter The Show and dominate right away. Dealing with failure is what separates players in a game full of it. Webb said he’s still learning how to prevent frustrations from lingering into the next day, but both he and Bart have had all the veteran guidance in the world — from Evan Longoria to The Brandons and Alexes — to harness that baseball emotional intelligence.
“It’s not the end of the world if you have a bad day,” Webb said. “Once you get over that and start getting some confidence — confidence is the main thing.
“Knowing that he’s going to show up the next day and be a badass. Me, having a bad start, knowing the next time it’s not going to happen. I’m not saying it’s never going to happen, you can go through multiple games where you kind of suck ass. But knowing the next time I’m out there, him knowing the next day he’s catching, it’s important to be there and be ready to go. I think he’s done a fantastic job of that.”
Webb met Bart when the Giants drafted him in 2018. They’re two of the most competitive players in SF’s clubhouse and have bonded over their shared hatred for losing.
Webb said ever since he’s known the catcher, he’s been impressed by his makeup. Bart’s poise is probably one reason — in addition to his raw talent — teams were so high on him coming out of Georgia Tech.
When asked about how he’s learned to cope with failure, Bart displayed the maturity his team raves about; Cobb called him “beyond his years.” How often does a 25-year-old ponder the transience of a baseball career?
“Just try not to think about it,” Bart said. “Try to enjoy this game. I only have a certain window — who knows how long that window might be? Take advantage of it. It’s just the way I’m going to come at it. I’m not going to leave myself with any regret when I’m done playing baseball. That’s kind of the way I attack every day.”
Even though the rookie catcher has carried himself with a cool composure all year, it’s not hard to imagine how he’d lose confidence at times.
Striking out in half your at-bats can wear on a player.
He got pinch-hit for in some big spots early in the season.
Even if Bart said all the right things, he was still replacing Buster Posey.
Being the highest draft pick since Will Clark comes with expectations.
“It’s a testament to his toughness,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “It’s very difficult to go through what he went through, at various points in the season. To have the pressure that he dealt with, along with trying to get very familiar with our pitching staff. To not carry any of that behind the plate, to make good throws, to make good blocks, he’s doing a great job framing. To do all those things well under the pressure of trying to perform at the plate — which was such a grind for him, such a struggle. I think what stands out to me most is how much respect he’s earned with his toughness.”
Webb and Bart, both 25 years old, project to star in a Giants uniform indefinitely. They could very well be twinning faces of the franchise. But neither thinks that way. They’re each laser-focused on doing their jobs every day.
For Bart, that job starts with committing to the preparation process.
“Nobody’s is better,” Kapler said of Bart’s preparation. “Nobody’s is more consistent. Nobody cares more. And I think it’s really fulfilling for everyone to see him have this success.”
Bart’s grind, both with the big-league club and the River Cats, has led to this resurgence. He’s hitting .333 since the All-Star break. Five of his nine homers have come in the second half. Defensive metrics aren’t kind to Bart, but Giants pitchers and coaches have universally raved about his game-calling and framing ability all season.
He hasn’t surged quietly, either. An impassioned dugout plea preceded his clutch home run off Josh Hader in San Francisco’s stunning ninth inning barrage. He stamped the Giants’ defensive play of the year with a slapping tag at home plate. Then Monday, he went 3-for-4 with a bunt single, 111.7-mph single to left and an opposite-field double off the bricks.
The strikeout rate has stabilized to league average, while the barrels have come in bunches. Bart isn’t being overly aggressive, and his propensity to use the entire field signals comfortability in the box.
Like his general outlook, Bart attributes his production at the plate with staying level.
“Just going up there with a clear head and enjoying the moment,” Bart said.
Recently, he’s been producing even on a sprained right ankle that he said is going to bother him for the rest of the season. Every crouch, pop-up to throw down, push off his back leg, pivot — the ankle’s going to be barking.
The injury sidelined him for four games, but hasn’t slowed Bart down. He’s 14 for his last 28, driving his average up to .233 and his OPS to .727 — a figure Kapler noticed on the center-field scoreboard Monday.
“We don’t go if Joey doesn’t go,” Cobb said.
Even if the postseason isn’t in the Giants’ immediate future, Bart’s continued ascension could be the most significant development for the franchise that’s aware just how far a generational catcher can take you.
“He’ll make his own way,” Longoria said of Bart. “I think he’ll put himself in a category of his own. I think we’re starting to see that. There’s a reason why they drafted him where they drafted him. I think he has a chance to be a really special player. And a very important player for this team, without a doubt. If we can have a guy catch 130-plus games a year and do what he does offensively, it’ll be a special piece to have.”