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Catcher of the Week: Michael Barrett

In this regular feature, we will help you acquaint yourself with some of the finest practitioners of the most thankless task in baseball to ever don the “tools of ignorance” for our beloved Chicago Baseball teams. This week, Michael Barrett.

Right, let me start by saying that when he played for the Cubs, I mostly liked Michael Barrett. I said out loud more than once that, of all the problems the 2004-2006 Cubs had, Barrett was way down the list. Indeed, if you look at the numbers, I was right: his three years with the Cubs returned nearly eight wins above replacement. Having been substandard both offensively and defensively during his six years with the Expos, he was, according to Fangraphs, significantly above average in both respects throughout his time at Wrigley. The numbers, though, don’t tell the whole story…

Barrett, then a shortstop, was drafted by the Expos (I miss the Expos) in 1995 as a late first-rounder. He played shortstop throughout much of his minor league career and even in his first full year in the big leagues in 1999, played as much infield (albeit mostly 3B) as he did Catcher. Whether it was down to personal affinity for the position, though, or organisational need (I’m guessing the latter because it can’t have been the former), he very quickly started to specialise as a backstop, and by the end of the 2000 season, had played more or less his last game without shinguards and a mask.

It tells you something about the ridiculous numbers that guys were putting up at the turn of the century that Barrett’s rookie season slash line (.293/.345/.436, OPS .781, 8 HR, 32 2B) was good only for a wRC+ of 96. If your brand-new, twenty-three year-old catcher put up those numbers in 2019 you’d be pretty happy with him, but in 1999 that was below average. Unusually, though – and unfortunately for Barrett – he didn’t progress from there, and indeed, his 2000 and 2001 seasons were a couple of absolute stinkers (OPS .565 and .655 respectively). If Montreal had just had “A. Guy” in there for those two years, they’d actually have been three wins better off. Woof. It’s no exaggeration to say that by the end of 2001, Mr. Barrett was getting close to the end of his career.

He turned things around sufficiently in 2002 (OPS .749 OPS+ 94) to merit a stay of execution but when he batted just .208/.290/.398 in 2003 and lost half the season to injury, the Expos were done with him and started shopping him around. Billy Beane wanted Damian Miller from the Cubs and so while Jim Hendry was still picking up his morning order from Dunkin’ Donuts, the A’s traded the very definition of a bag of balls – a high-A reliever with a 4.24 ERA – for Barrett, and then days later flipped him to the Cubs.

And here’s where it gets interesting. I have no idea why, but Michael Barrett got off on the wrong foot with the Cubs from the very, very start. By all accounts he was “shunned” by the pitching staff, and at the end of his very first Spring Training with the club, he had this to say:

”I thought it’d be a lot easier than it has been. Getting to know [new teammates] has been more of an experience than I thought. I’m not here trying to please anybody in the clubhouse. I’m going to earn their respect on the field more than I will in any conversation I have off the field.”

Now, obviously, we need to bear in mind that this was the 2004 Cubs, by some distance the least likable team in recent memory, and that the pitching staff included such notable dickheads as Kent F. Mercker, LaTroy Hawkins, Kyle “Captain Tightpants” Farnsworth and Ryan Dempster. It’s perhaps not surprising that Barrett struggled to play nice with those guys, but then I’d make the case that it was up to him, as their young catcher, to suck it up and do whatever was necessary to get those guys onside. Regardless of what a bunch of arseholes the rest of them were, the fact that Barrett was given the cold shoulder from day one says something about him.

“Fuck off, Mike”

Offensively, Barrett actually had a pretty decent year for the Cubs once they broke camp – he was good for an OPS of .826 and 16 Dongs. His defensive stats were below average but he wasn’t awful, either. On paper, despite Damian Miller having a predictably average Damien Miller season in Oakland, the Cubs appeared to have got the better of the deal with Oakland. However, then August rolled around.

On August 22nd before their game against the Astros, the Cubs were 66-56, good for second in the division behind the Deadbirds (who would, of course, go on to get swept in the World series, ha) and half a game back from the Giants for the Wild Card spot. The Astros, on the other hand, were at .500 and were going nowhere fast. Enter Michael Barrett.

In the third inning, after Mike Lamb had committed a two-out error to allow Sammy Sosa on base, Roy Oswalt gave up a three-run dinger to Aramis Ramirez. The famously ornery Oswalt then, having coughed up the lead in an inning he thought he’d put to bed, plunked Barrett. Barrett, not wanting to be seen to be out-meatballed by the opposition, walked towards the mound chuntering and, of course, the benches cleared.

Okay, now what? Well, the Cubs couldn’t possibly just let this slide, so (despite having already hit Jason Lane in the second inning) Kerry Wood hit Carlos Beltran in the bottom of the third and, eventually, Jeff Kent in the bottom of the fifth. This cleared the benches again, and got Wood ejected. So far, so good, nothing to see here, really… except that Barrett still couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and maybe not in the way you’d think.

After the game, Barrett was asked by the press what he thought of Wood’s ejection. Now, we all know how this goes, right? You’d take a leaf out of Crash Davis’ book and say something uncontroversial but generally in support of your guys. You’d probably deny that Kerry had any intent at all, and suggest that the umpire was oversensitive. After all, let’s not forget, the guy who got ejected, got ejected for revenging your pain. Not Michael. Oh no. Michael steps up to the microphone and says ”As frustrating as it was for us, it was probably the right thing to do.”

insert record scratch sound effect here

I’m not going to lie, this went down like a cup of cold sick in the Cubs’ clubhouse. The following day, when Barrett arrived at his locker, there was a clipping of his quote taped above his seat. According to the Sun-Times, “Barrett stared at the clipping with a perplexed look before tearing it down.” Perplexed? Really? Angry, sure. Embarrassed? Yeah, that I could see. But perplexed? I’m almost beginning to think that Mikey was about as sharp as a sackful of wet mice.

It was okay, though, because Barrett made up for it all a week later when the Cubs and Kerry Wood again faced Oswalt, this time at Wrigley. Getting his retaliation in first this time, Barrett caused yet another bench-clearing incident by slagging Oswalt off from behind the plate as Oswalt batted to lead off the second inning (Kerry having shat the bed in the first). He then called for Kent Mercker to hit Oswalt in the sixth, and the whole thing wound the Astros up so much that they… spent the following month inexorably reeling in the six-game lead that the Cubs (who by now were ahead of the Giants) had over them in the Wild Card race. Indeed, the Astros themselves openly acknowledged that Barrett’s words actions had spurred their season into life.

Hello? Helloooo? Anybody in?

It takes a special kind of person to piss off both your team-mates and the opposition. Nice one, Mike.

I think, by and large, though, that the rest of Barrett’s Cubs career passed off without further controversy. Wait, what’s that you say? That’s not what happened? Are you sure? Well, okay… hang on a minute, I’ll go and check and get back to you.

For comic effect, it would be nice if you’d stop reading right now… just for a couple of seconds. Thank you.

Well. There’s a thing. It turns out that although Barrett managed to keep things under wraps in 2005, he really had something of a career break-out, boneheadedness-wise, in 2006 and 2007. And there was me thinking he’d learned some lessons, eh? Tsk.

2006 was, as you may remember, not a good year. In what is something of a recurring theme, the 2006 Cubs were shitty from post to post and lost 96 games. A year, I think you’ll agree, which afforded Michael Barrett plenty of opportunity to make things yet worse – and those aren’t the kind of opportunities that our man lets slide by, let me tell you.

In May, he took exception to Dave Roberts stealing third (HOW VERY DARE YOU MY FRENT) and when Roberts subsequently scored, Barrett was sweatily and face-spatteringly up in his grill letting him know about it. The benches cleared (sigh), and the Padres were inspired to put up five runs in the inning to win the game, 10-5.

Then, barely a week later, a little-known incident that you probably haven’t heard of occurred during the second crosstown Cubs-Sox tilt of the year. Barrett, mindful of the Cubs’ heavy loss in the first game of the series, decided to take things into his own hands and fired up his team-mates by… yeah, you know what’s coming… punching AJ Pierzynski after he crossed the plate for the opening run.

Don’t get me wrong. By and large, I have nothing against AJ Pierzynski getting punched. God knows he probably deserved to get punched far more often than he actually did get punched, but quite why Barrett cold-cocked him on this occasion isn’t really clear. Sure, Pierzynski was a notorious arsehole, and yeah, he collided with Barrett and slapped the plate after he scored, but that’s hardly what you’d call aggravating. Barrett was ejected (natch) and guess who won the game? That’s right: the Sox, and what’s more, in a shut-out. Yeesh.

By this time, I think it would be fair to say that the rest of the roster had had enough. If you’re a great player, you can be a massive wanker and everybody smiles and puts up with it: see DiMaggio, Joe; Strawberry, Darrell; Clemens, Roger. If you’re a league-average starting catcher with some pop, a slightly dodgy glove and a head full of sawdust… not so much. By the middle of the 2007 season he’d had in-dugout bust-ups with both Carlos Zambrano and Rich Hill (I mean, how much of a dick do you have to be to push Rich Hill – a guy who looks like he’s still scared of his Mum – to snapping point?). The tête-à-tête with Big Z continued in the clubhouse afterwards and (not entirely surprisingly) ended up with Barrett sporting a freshly-busted lip and six stitches.

Big Z gives Mikey B a really good discussing to.

The writing was, by this stage, very much on the wall. Within a week of the falling-out with Hill, Barrett was traded to the Padres for Rob Bowen, a man who slugged under .100 for the Cubs. It didn’t matter – as an addition by subtraction, Michael Barrett was perhaps more successful for the Cubs than he ever had been in uniform as the Cubs went on to win the division.

Still, it wasn’t all bad. There was that time that he got hit in the groin and one of his testicles exploded and THAT, my friends, is always funny.

So, all in all, Barrett’s time with the Cubs was… I was going to say “disappointing”, but I don’t think anybody actually had any expectations to start with. Troubled? Ill-fated? The Cubs very clearly got his best years and if you don’t look past his bat (and to be honest, at the time, I didn’t), you’d think that those years were worth what they Cubs paid for them. Nonetheless, I wonder… if you went back to December 2003 and told Jim Hendry how it would all turn out, would he still have traded for Barrett? I have a sneaking suspicion that he might not.

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