SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Joey Bart sat at his locker, belt buckle unlatched, chin up and seemingly without stress. Like most ballplayers who had just smoked a home run, smacked a double off the wall and picked a runner off second with a cross-diamond throw from behind the plate in a spring exhibition.
Only Bart, the former second overall pick and apparent heir to Buster Posey’s post, has plenty to worry about. He’s learning how to work with a slew of new pitchers, some of whom have added new pitches and some of whom want to try calling their own pitches via PitchCom. He’s feeling out the new rules, both as a hitter and a backstop. He’s adjusting to a faster game that demands even more out of catchers, the most demanding position in the game.
Above all, both his manager and president of baseball operations made it clear to the media that he has to earn a spot on the club’s roster.
But at least in this moment, after the Giants’ fourth Cactus League game, Bart is shrugging off the weight that might crash down on others in his position.
“I didn’t even really pay attention to it, to be honest with you, man,” Bart told KNBR.
“That stuff, I can’t control. It doesn’t change anything about what I’m doing or trying to accomplish. For me, it’s just getting to work. Whatever they put out there is what they put out there. I’m not going to lose sleep over it, I’m not going to worry about it. It’s not going to do me any good. They have their own freedom to say whatever they want to say, and that’s what they said. So for me, it’s keep moving, keep working and trust the process. Keep taking steps to get better.”
When spring training opened, the Giants announced that they would have an open competition at the catcher position. That Bart, who had struggled to find consistency in his first full season in 2022, was out of runway. He’d compete against Rule 5 acquisition Blake Sabol, who hasn’t caught a MLB game; former Gold Glove winner Roberto Pérez, a 34-year-old who’s dealt with injuries; and Austin Wynns, who cleared waivers and made his way back to the Giants, where a corner locker in the minor league clubhouse awaited him.
It seems likely that the Giants would have brought more talent into the room had they actually lost confidence in Bart. But publicly and privately, the team has insisted that it is, in fact, a four-way, legitimate competition.
Though manager Gabe Kapler pushes back on the idea, the competition has thus far brought the best out of each of them. In just over a week of Cactus League play, Sabol has hit two home runs. Wynns turned on one, too. Pérez has appeared in three games and drawn glowing reviews from pitchers who have thrown to him.
And the 26-year-old Bart, like he has in his previous springs, has looked like the player he was supposed to be coming out of Georgia Tech.
“One thing I’ll say about Joey is that he doesn’t back down from a challenge,” Kapler said. “One thing we can do is go back to the beginning of camp and know that the messaging that we gave him isn’t making him uncomfortable.”
For most of his life, Bart has been the biggest, strongest, most talented player on any diamond he steps on. As a junior at Buford High School (Ga.), he had a .556 on-base percentage and .859 slugging percentage. He led the team to a 34-2 record and a state championship the next year.
Yet this current competition for a roster spot isn’t the first time he’s had to fight for playing time.
As a freshman at Georgia Tech in 2016, Bart and senior Arden Pabst battled for the starting catcher role. Though he wasn’t nearly as heralded a prospect, Pabst — the incumbent — had more experience and knew the pitching staff better.
Pabst, not Bart, won the job.
“I’ve been competing,” Bart said. “I’ve had to earn everything I’ve ever gotten.”
Pabst remembers the situation not so much as a competition because of how talented Bart was. They ended up splitting time, with Bart appearing in 43 games compared to Pabsts’ 41. Bart hit .299 and was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American.
“It’s tough to perform, especially when the pressure’s on and you know your playing time’s a direct result of how you perform,” Pabst, now in the Braves organization, told KNBR. “But I know that he’ll settle in and, again, he’s always just kind of rose to the occasion — like he did as a freshman. So I’m sure he’ll do the same in this situation.”
But the dynamics of that 2016 positional battle and this one are different. Back then, Bart wasn’t yet the No. 2 overall pick. He wasn’t following Posey. There was less spotlight on the Georgia Tech program than there is on the Giants — the fifth most valuable MLB franchise. Less expectations.
Bart was a 19-year-old freshman then. Now he’s a 26-year-old in his physical prime and coming off a season in which he struggled so much, the team sent him down to Triple-A for a mental and physical reset. Overall, he hit .215 with 11 home runs and 25 RBI in 97 games last year. He struck out 112 times compared to 26 walks.
He’s gone through adversity already in the big leagues. In that respect, this spring is more of the same.
“I don’t want to make anything a distraction of what I’m trying to accomplish, what I’m trying to do,” Bart said. “That’s kind of the way that I’ve gone about it. I’m just going to come in, bust my ass and play hard and have a good time. Be a good teammate, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Time and thought goes into practically every action the Giants take, including the decision to publicize their internal decision that Bart wouldn’t be guaranteed a roster spot.
When catchers and pitchers reported to Scottsdale, Farhan Zaidi and Kapler informed Bart in his player plan meeting that his track record hasn’t been strong enough for the team to just pencil him in.
Then they told the media as much.
“For any prospects that come to the big leagues, the organization wants to give them a chance to perform and succeed, and at a certain point, a player just has less of that runway,” Kapler said on Feb. 15. “He’s just competing like others are in a major-league camp. And that’s where we are with Joey…He’s had some moments of performance at the major-league level, (but) I don’t think the body of his career has earned a surefire inside track to the No. 1 catching job. And the only way that happens is through earning it and making it abundantly clear that he should be our starting catcher.”
Why the Giants decided to make their evaluation public is elaborate. Asked specifically about the organizations’ intended goals of making the open competition clear, Kapler opened up on his coaching philosophy.
“To not surprise anybody,” Kapler said. “When I say surprise anybody, I mean internally. Most of our vantage points are our vantage points. By way of example, if a player comes to camp, and his perspective is ‘I’ve got the inside track for this job, it is my job to lose.’ And then they go out and perform pretty well, the expectation is: ‘this is my job to lose. Performed pretty well. I should be the X, Y and Z.’ So it’s a lot about expectation setting. The conversation happens on an individual basis, and then it happens openly. So we’re all on the same page and nobody gets blindsided.”
Suppose not every player responds well to that level of transparency. Kapler said that concern, in general, isn’t as relevant as the need to be truthful.
In Kapler’s experience, players respect honesty and directness, he said. One Giants coach recently joked with Kapler that there’s a small set of players that are always upset no matter what — “some players don’t like ice cream served cold” — but most appreciate being “shot straight,” Kapler said.
The club’s approach with Bart is consistent with that concept. Another possible factor is that catcher is such a front-facing position, and Bart’s such a recognizable player, that it would be strange not to acknowledge the reality. Withdrawing his job security could also, potentially, motivate him.
There’s also reason to believe Bart can handle the pressure; since he joined the club, players and coaches have universally raved about the catcher’s calm, even demeanor.
“I don’t know, man,” Bart said when asked about if he thinks the team is trying to motivate him. “I really don’t know. I haven’t really given it any thought. I didn’t read it, I’m not really into it. Whatever they said is what they said, and I guess it’s what they meant.”
Bart’s mindset might be his most MLB-ready tool. Even with the benefits transparency can produce, it’s being tested.
Players in clubhouses generally like spring training position battles — at least when it’s not their job in jeopardy. “It’s always good to have someone breathing down your neck,” one Giant said. Competing can bring the best out of players.
So far this spring, all four catchers have produced. Only two will likely break camp with the big league team.
Sabol came into camp a bit stiff in the crouch, but is improving quickly, Kapler said. He’s already a strong framer but could improve his game-calling and arm strength. The left-handed hitter converted from the outfield in the minors last year and has work to do to close the gap his inexperience creates.
Because the Giants acquired Sabol in the Rule 5 Draft, they’re incentivized to keep him on the 26-man roster. If they decide to remove him, he’d hit waivers or return to his former team.
Pérez, the most experienced of the bunch, is ramping up physically after playing just 65 games the past two seasons. Since he’s 34 years old with an injury history, the team doesn’t view him as an everyday option. But pitchers love working with him and the two-time Gold Glover hit 24 homers in 2019.
Wynns, whose locker is in the minor league clubhouse because of service time, is the most predictable option of the bunch. There’s value in knowing exactly what you’re going to get, and Wynns provides that reliability. He decided to return to San Francisco this winter despite having other opportunities, he said, and he became a go-to option for multiple Giants starters late last year because of his personality and game-calling instincts.
Bart, meanwhile, likely represents the highest upside — for both the short and long-term.
To reach his potential, Bart needs to make contact more consistently. Last year, Bart’s strikeout rate was 38.5%, ranking fifth among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. The problem wasn’t chasing (his 33.5% rate of swinging on pitches outside the strike zone is just a tick above league average), but rather connecting on pitches over the plate.
To fix that, Bart said he’s condensed his load a bit and is trying to simplify his swing. He’s also working on better identifying fastballs so that he can pick out pitches to drive more frequently.
Defensively, Bart registered -6 defensive runs saved above average last year. Some pitchers were more comfortable working with Wynns. But Bart also threw out 72.7% of runners, fifth in the National League.
Bart’s strong throwing arm — “he’s got a cannon,” Pabst said — should help him separate on back-pick plays, which are becoming an emphasis because of the new limit on pitcher pickoff moves.
The Giants aren’t evaluating Bart, or any of the catchers, solely based on their Cactus League numbers. The sample size is going to be simply too small. In Bart’s case, they’re going to look at factors like how he handles the staff and if his plate approach has noticeably improved. Bart has always crushed spring training pitching, so doing more of the same might not mean much.
Even if the competition is technically open, the Giants should want Bart to demonstrate the necessary improvements and make the decision for them with his play.
“He’s going up to the plate with a pretty good plan,” Kapler said after Bart’s home run, double and back-pick performance.
“He’s already made some adjustments that I’m sure he feels good about, and we feel good about. And he’s been fantastic behind the plate — a real focused look from Joey so far. We just want him to keep it up.”