ATLANTA — This would have been a trip home for Joey Bart. Growing up some 40 miles northeast of Truist Park, Bart developed into a top high school prospect, then at the downtown campus of Georgia Tech earned the pedigree that convinced the Giants to make him their highest draft pick since Will Clark.
Those inside the organization still view Bart as their catcher of the future. But there is a reason why he’s not with the team on this trip. His failures at the plate were simply piling up. Forty-five percent of his plate appearances were ending in strikeouts, the highest rate in the majors at the time of his demotion.
It wasn’t a sustainable situation for a team with playoff aspirations, nor for a young player who was being asked to make adjustments on the fly while also managing a major-league pitching staff.
“When you’re in the battle every single night, it’s hard to make those adjustments because you have to go perform,” said hitting coach Justin Viele, who spent the week before the Giants hit the road and Bart reported to Triple-A Sacramento implementing a development plan to get the once-promising backstop back on track.
“But we got Joey in a pretty good space where he didn’t have to go perform each night. He could actually work on some things that we wanted to work on.”
Bart took four days to clear his head, then spent three days working with Viele. Clark, who hangs around the team as a special assistant, also hoped to have a conversation with Bart, something manager Gabe Kapler encouraged.
In Viele’s estimation, mental and mechanical hurdles take equal blame for Bart’s strikeouts. The time off, the club hopes, will help him overcome the mental barriers, and there’s belief some mechanical tweaks can have downstream effects, too.
Viele saw flaws in Bart’s setup in the box, leading to an inefficient swing path. His stance was too wide, too upright. He was rocking back as he loaded up, resulting in his hands lifting up and his knees driving his swing, rather than his hips.
As a catcher, Bart is accustomed to squatting. Viele suggested he try something similar in the batter’s box.
“We want him to feel like he was bowing his knees out, like going down for a squat,” Viele said. “Getting some stability in his setup from there just creates the balance of the backside, where the knee stays over the foot. … We wanted to kill as much of the backshift as we can. … Main thing, it was his setup, getting a little bit stronger in his base and shedding some of the wasted movement.”
Many of these tweaks, Viele said, the coaching staff spotted during Bart’s stint with the club in 2020, when Buster Posey opted out of the pandemic-shortened season. Bart struck out at a 37% rate then and walked even less frequently than he was this year. But they felt it was important to give a young player the runway to do what was comfortable.
Part of that manifested in the toe-tap that Bart added, then removed, then added, then removed.
“There were some things that we saw even in 2020 where we were like, ‘yeah, we should probably make some adjustments here,’” Viele said. “But you want to give him a little bit of a runway to feel confident and comfortable with what he works on and what he wants to do. … When you have such a clear long view, like we do, for a player, we want him to create a routine, do the right drills, train the right way because we want him to do that for the next five, 10, 15 years, whatever. We want him to build that foundation.”
Bart was doing himself no favors, falling into two-strike counts in 75 of his 108 trips to the plate. In those at-bats, he recorded just four hits, an average of .060. Those struggles, Viele believes, can compound on each other.
“I guarantee if he was squaring early count pitches up more often instead of fouling them back, the mechanics would probably clean up,” Viele said. “I think guys get frustrated. Like, if you miss a pitch 0-0 and you’re 0-1, you’re kind of like, ‘OK, why’d I miss that?’ So then maybe you try to do more the next time and you swing and miss again or you foul it off, like, ‘do I have it in me to catch a ball a little bit more out in front? Like, why am I not squaring these up?’ And then that starts to spiral in your head.”
Bart has only one game under his belt since reporting to Sacramento, going 2-for-4 with a walk – and no strikeouts — in a 12-1 win on Sunday. There is no timeline for him to rejoin the Giants; the focus is back on developing the player, not getting contributions from him at the major-league level.
Viele, who handed Bart off to Triple-A hitting coach Damon Minor, watched the video. He texted Bart after the game Sunday and received reports from the River Cats’ staff. He already sees signs of improvement.
“It looked really good,” Viele said. “Like all hitters, it’s like a puzzle. … I felt like we had a good plan for Joe, and we sent him off, and he’s in good hands. Now we just keep the communication going.”
Contributed by local news sources