Last year, a key to the Royals improvement was the bounce back in the bullpen. After a disastrous campaign in 2018 (ranked 29th in reliever WAR) and a ho-hum one in 2019 (ranked 17th in reliever WAR), the Royals took a big step up in 2020, ranking 12th in reliever WAR and 8th in reliever ERA, according to Fangraphs. With Greg Holland, Josh Staumont, and Jesse Hahn back for 2021, it seems likely that the bullpen will continue to be a strength of the club in 2021, barring a meltdown or injury.
Much of the attention this off-season has mostly been on those three relievers and for good reason. Holland is a Royals hero of sorts, as he not only helped lead the club to a pennant in 2014, but he ended up taking over as closer in Kansas City after Trevor Rosenthal was traded to San Diego at the deadline last July. Staumont impressed not only Royals fans, but baseball fans all over, mostly thanks to his 100-plus MPH fastball and back-breaking 82 MPH curve ball combo, as evidenced below:
Lastly, after missing nearly two seasons of play due to injury, Hahn not only made his triumphant return, but showed that he could be a valuable asset to the Royals bullpen in 2021, especially with a curve ball that seemed to be un-hittable at points down the stretch last season:
That being said, while this trio has been garnering most of the bullpen attention this off-season, one Royals reliever has mostly gone unnoticed this Winter, even though he has accumulated the most WAR of any Royals reliever who has pitched 20 or more innings the past two seasons, according to Fangraphs.
That reliever is none other than Scott Barlow.
Over the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Barlow leads all Royals relievers with a fWAR of 1.5, which is 0.7 points higher than Jake Diekman (who has the second-place mark in terms of fWAR) and 0.8 points higher than Holland and Ian Kennedy (who both are tied for third in fWAR). While his 4.22 ERA over the two-year span does leave a little to be desired, his 3.42 FIP and 3.87 xFIP demonstrate that Barlow has been a better pitcher than his ERA indicates. Furthermore, he has demonstrated a strong ability to strike batters out in relief, especially in the late innings, as his 11.75 K/9 and 30.1 K percentage are the third-highest of any Royal reliever over the past two seasons, according to Fangraphs.
Thus, Royals fans have to ask themselves this: are Royals fans overlooking Barlow in the bullpen, and if so, what can be expected from him in 2021?
The Royals signed Barlow prior to the start of the 2018 season after he was released by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the off-season prior. At the time, it seemed like a minor move, as Barlow had not pitched at the Major League level while in the Dodgers organization, and he had also struggled as a starter in 2017 with Oklahoma City in Triple-A. That being said, Barlow converted quickly to the bullpen in the Royals organization, and ended up debuting in 2018, posting a 3.60 ERA and 0.2 fWAR in 15 innings of work.
Barlow got off to an uneven start at the start of 2019, but he recovered to put up a 4.22 ERA and 1.1 WAR in 61 appearances and 71.1 innings of work. Barlow, in his first full season in the Majors, showed a tremendous ability to miss bats, as he posted a K rate of 29.7 percent. However, he struggled with control at times, as he posted an 11.9 walk rate, which was nearly triple the rate from his 2018 sample. Furthermore, his K/BB ratio regressed from 5.00 to 2.49 from 2018 to 2019, a concerning dip.
However, Barlow cleaned up his control in 2020. In 32 appearances and 30 innings of work as the Royals primary eighth-inning setup man, Barlow not only improved his strikeout rate to 31.2 percent, but he lowered his walk rate to 7.2 percent and increased his K/BB ratio to 4.33. In addition, the third-year Royals reliever also increased his groundball rate from 40 percent to 47.3 percent, and his GB/FB ratio from 1.09 to 1.40. In many ways, his 2020 metrics showed EXACTLY what one would want from an 8th inning setup man: whiffs and groundballs to get batters out.
So why wasn’t Barlow’s ERA better in 2020?
Unfortunately, he struggled when it came to giving up the long ball.
After decreasing his HR/FB rate from 11.8 to 9.4 percent from 2018 to 2019, respectively, Barlow saw his rate spike back up to 16 percent. What’s interesting about his home runs allowed metrics is that home runs were the only hits to really hurt him in 2020. He ranked in the 77th percentile when it came to exit velocity on batted balls, and the average launch angle of balls hit decreased from 14.5 in 2019 to 7.2 in 2020, according to Baseball Savant. While he did rank in the 24th percentile when it came to hard hit rate and 36th percentile in barrel rate, the exit velocity and launch angle metrics could signal that Barlow was a tad unlucky in 2020, and could see improvement this season.
One of the big changes for Barlow last year was him dropping his changeup, and phasing out his sinker as well, as he threw the latter pitch only twice in 2020. Instead, Barlow focused primarily on his slider, fastball, and curve ball to find success on the mound.
His curve ball saw the biggest increase in usage, as he went from throwing it 13.3 percent in 2019 to 21.5 percent in 2020. Despite throwing it more, the pitch continued to be effective, as he generated more whiffs on the pitch in 2020 (43.3 percent in 2019 to 44.7 in 2020) and stayed around the same level in terms of put out percentage (32.1 put away percentage in 2019 and 29.4 put away percentage in 2020). Here is an example of Barlow utilizing the pitch for a strikeout against White Sox slugger Eloy Jimenez:
What will be interesting to pay attention to in 2021 will be how Barlow’s curve continues to develop, and if it will be an effective third pitch for him in the late innings. Another interesting tidbit about his curve ball is that it averaged a launch angle of -6 last season (a vast improvement from his 15 launch angle in 2019). Hence, not only was the pitch an effective swing and miss one for Barlow (as evidenced in the GIF below), but it was also effective in terms of generating ground balls, which is an important skill for late inning relievers, especially when they come in with runners on base. The negative launch angle of batted balls on Barlow’s curve ball last year demonstrated that he could come in with runners on and generate the groundballs necessary for either easy ground outs, or even double plays, to get out of late-inning jams. Barlow’s ability to command the pitch effectively last year generated easy ground outs such as the one below:
While the curve ball saw some gains in value from 2019 to 2020, the fastball proved to be a different story. The wOBA on the pitch rose from .339 to .430 and that exit velocity hitters had on the ball went up from 91.3 MPH to 97.5 MPH. Thus, with the increase of exit velocity on batted balls on the fastball, it is not surprising that hitters were more effective when it came to hitting the pitch for power, further evidenced by a .682 xSLG percentage in 2020 (comparatively, the xSLG on his fastball in 2019 was .408, nearly 280 points lower than last year). When Barlow was able to elevate the pitch in 2020, he did see some swings and misses. However, his pitcher hovered in the middle of the zone far too often last year, and hitters made him pay considerably, as evidenced in the wOBA chart below:
Thankfully, the fastball is not Barlow’s primary pitch, as Barlow has tended to throw his slider the most over the past two seasons (he’s thrown the slider 43.5 percent of the time and 41.8 percent of the time in 2019 and 2020, respectively). And while his slider continues to be an efficient, go-to pitch (.273 wOBA and 23.3 put away rate last year), some improvement on the fastball would help make his primary pitch even more effective. Barlow certainly showcases some velocity on the fastball (it averaged 94.9 MPH last year, which put him in the 78th percentile in fastball velocity). However, he just needs to locate it better in 2021, and putting it up in the zone more consistently (except in that upper right zone of course), where he found a lot of swings and misses a year ago, could help him be an even more effective setup man for the Royals in 2021.
Barlow continues to not be talked about among Royals fans when it comes to effective relievers returning to the bullpen in 2021. While Barlow may simply be a setup man long-term, he poses an impressive three-pitch arsenal that could become even stronger if he can harness his fastball command a little better in 2021. Furthermore, Barlow’s ability to generate groundballs consistently makes him a useful tool in the pen, especially in situations where he inherits runners on base and in scoring position. Of Royals relievers who pitched 10 or more innings in 2020, only Greg Holland (1.71) and Kyle Zimmer (1.70) posted higher groundball to flyball ratios than Barlow (1.40).
Of course, the homers will have to be neutralized for him to see gains in the Royals bullpen. Last year, Kennedy, Tyler Zuber, and surprisingly, Rosenthal, were the only Royals relievers who pitched 10 or more innings who posted higher HR/FB rates than Barlow. That being said, the high rate seemed tied to his fastball. Thus, if Barlow hones his command on his fastball next year, it would not be surprising to see that rate regress, especially considering how hard batters hit his fastball in 2020. Therefore, his fastball will be Barlow’s most important pitch for Royals fans to pay attention to in Spring Training as well as early in the season, for how it has developed could give an indicator in terms of whether Barlow has improved, stagnated, or perhaps even regressed as a reliever in 2021.
It’s easy to overlook Barlow in the Royals bullpen, especially in the wake of Holland’s return, as well as the breakout campaigns of Hahn, Zimmer, and Staumont. Yet, Barlow could be a key setup man for the Royals in 2021 who could be crucial to the Royals’ chances of competing in the Central division. If Barlow continues to improve and embrace his eighth-inning role, he could make this Royals bullpen even more effective next year, which consequently, could help the Royals make that jump in the Central standings as hoped for from Royals fans and management.
That being said, if he regresses, the Royals bullpen overall could take a step back…and that in turn could dampen the Royals’ hopes in the Central next season.