How Does the Gregory Soto Deal Affect Scott Barlow and the Royals Bullpen?

In a bit of stunning news on Saturday, the Detroit Tigers traded closer Gregory Soto, along with utility infielder Kody Clemens, to Philadelphia for outfielders Matt Vierling and Nick Maton, as well as catcher Donny Sands.

The move was mostly an unexpected one from both ends.

The Phillies were already pretty full in the bullpen, as they acquired Craig Kimbrel from the Dodgers this offseason to compete for the closer’s job with Sereanthony Dominguez. After acquiring Soto, the Phillies not only have Dominguez, Soto, and Kimbrel as options in the ninth but also Jose Alvarado, according to Roster Resource. Safe to say, the reigning NL Pennants winners could have one of the deepest bullpens in 2023, especially in the 8th and 9th innings.

As for Detroit, losing Soto this winter isn’t necessarily a surprise, though it probably confirms their position as a team who will be competing near the bottom of the AL Central in 2023.

Despite sensational stuff and velocity, Soto failed to fully take hold of the Tigers’ closer job the past couple of years. He partially shared the job with Michael Fulmer before Fulmer was eventually traded last season to the rival Twins (Fulmer is currently a free agent). He also struggled to produce consistently in 2022 after a solid 2021, especially on a Win-Probability end.

Two seasons ago, Soto led all Tigers relievers in WPA (win probability added), according to Fangraphs. That included 28 “shutdown” appearances and only nine “meltdown” appearances.

Last season though proved to be the opposite story for Soto (and honestly the whole Tigers bullpen).

His WPA was -0.79, which was the worst mark for Tigers relievers with 10 or more IP, according to Fangraphs. That was a 3.31-point difference in WPA from two seasons ago but in the wrong direction. In addition, Soto also had 16 “meltdowns”, nearly double the amount of meltdowns from 2021.

Therefore, it’s not like Soto was in-line necessarily to be Detroit’s long-term closer, especially under a new front office that is probably re-evaluating all of the key players from the previous regime.

That said, it does demonstrate that the reliever market could be interesting for the remainder of the offseason, as well as in the season leading up to the 2023 Trade Deadline.

And one cannot talk about possible reliever “trade candidates” without mentioning Scott Barlow and the Kansas City Royals.

What is Barlow’s Status in Kansas City Currently?

The Royals bullpen had a rough go in 2022, as they ranked 27th in the league in reliever ERA, and 23rd in reliever fWAR, according to Fangraphs. However, while the Royals’ bullpen as a collective was underwhelming, Barlow had another stellar campaign as the Royals’ closer.

Barlow collected 24 saves for the Royals in 69 appearances and 74.1 IP last season. He also posted a 2.18 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, a K/9 of 9.32, and a K/BB ratio of 3.50. Not only did Barlow accumulate an fWAR of 0.9, but he has accumulated an fWAR of 3.0 since 2021, which has made him the most valuable Royals reliever over the past two years, which Royals fans can see in the table below:

Over the past two seasons, Barlow has been two fWAR better than the second-best Royals reliever over that timespan (Josh Staumont). Thus, even though Barlow could command a pretty hefty return in a trade (he was widely rumored as a possible candidate at the deadline last year), it would be challenging for the Royals organization to trade a pitcher who has been so valuable to the organization.

That said, if the Soto trade is any baseline, it would be foolish for JJ Picollo to not entertain trade offers, especially when one compares Barlow’s 2022 numbers to Soto’s. Here’s a look at some of their metrics, via Fangraphs, and notice how Barlow’s numbers last year are a lot more impressive than those of the 27-year-old former Tigers closer.

Barlow should enter Spring Training and begin Opening Day as the established Royals closer, without a doubt. In fact, there could be an opportunity for Barlow this year to earn an All-Star roster spot in 2023, which has evaded him the past couple of years.

Of course, there are still concerns with Barlow, which is demonstrated not only in the data set above but even in some of his trends over the past couple of seasons.

As Royals fans can see from the Soto comparison table, Barlow’s HR/9 spiked from 0.48 in 2021 to 1.09 in 2022, which is a pretty considerable increase. He also saw a decline in K/9 from 2021 (11.02) to 2022 (9.32), and he also benefited from some stellar batted-ball luck, based on his .240 BABIP.

On the other hand, one thing Barlow has improved upon is limiting hard-hit contact, especially last season.

Since 2020, his hard-hit rate has gone from 40 percent (2020) to 36.2 percent (2021) to 29.8 percent (2022). His rolling chart of hard-hit rate data over his career, via Savant, also demonstrates that Barlow was consistently below the league average last year when it came to allowing hard-hit balls, and has made strides each and every year in this category as well.

A big reason for this decline could be credited to Barlow’s increased usage of his curveball and slider, which became his primary two pitches in 2022. Barlow threw his slider 44.6 percent of the time and his curve 31.1 percent, and both produced xBA numbers of .188 and .148, respectively, as well as whiff rates of 33.1 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

Here’s a look at his pitch usage chart over the course of his career, and notice how his four-seam fastball went from his most-used pitch in 2018 to his third-most-used pitch last season. That is pretty uncharacteristic for a pitcher who is getting a majority of save opportunities in a given season.

The decrease in the usage of the four-seamer though could be a red flag though and could prompt Picollo and the Royals front office to pursue and pull the trigger on a Barlow trade this season, even with Barlow having one more year of team control after 2023 (he’ll be a free agent after the 2024 season).

The main reason that Barlow has gotten away from the pitch is due to the decrease in velocity, which can be seen in the chart below, via Savant:

What is interesting to note is that Barlow’s decline in velocity could have been a lot worse, especially since his velocity on the four-seamer was ridiculously low in the first two months.

Here’s a look at Barlow’s month-by-month four-seam velocity chart from last year. Notice how his four-seam velocity didn’t spike to more career norms until July. And even when it did get back to that 95 MPH range, it started to regress after peaking during the mid-point of 2022.

Now, why is four-seam velocity important in Barlow’s case? If it is his No. 3 pitch, shouldn’t this only be a minor issue in 2022?

Well, that’s a “yes and no” situation, honestly.

On one hand, it’s good that Barlow knows his four-seamer isn’t what it once was, and he’s properly utilized the pitch on a less frequent basis over the course of his career. On the other end, Barlow is a pitcher who relies a lot on getting batters to chase to be effective. Last season, he generated a chase rate of 37.2 percent, which ranked him in the upper 97th percentile of the league, according to Baseball Savant.

However, his career chase rate is 33.5 percent, so it’s likely that some regression will be in store in 2023 in that category. That will be especially true as hitters will expect to see more breaking balls, and fewer four-seamers, which will prompt them to chase less in their at-bats.

That in turn puts more pressure on Barlow to be “efficient” with his four-seamer in order to keep hitters honest, especially if they are being more patient initially. Unfortunately, according to Savant, Barlow saw major upticks last year in wOBA on his four-seamer in different zones of the strike zone.

Here’s a look at both his four-seam wOBA zone charts from 2021 and 2022 (swipe right for 2022; swipe left for 2021).

Notice how hitters were more productive against his four-seamer when it was thrown in those upper areas of the strike zone and on the edges. That is not necessarily a good sign, since four-seam fastballs typically are successful when they are thrown in those areas.

When they aren’t, it’s typically because they don’t have enough velocity behind them, which was the case for Barlow in 2022.

In the clip compilation below, I found Barlow throwing the four-seamer in similar areas in 2021 and 2022. However, the one in 2021 clocks in at 96 MPH, and the one in 2022 clocks in at 93 MPH.

Safe to say, the results are quite different:

How Barlow’s fastball velocity fares, especially out of the gate in 2023, could be crucial for Barlow and his future in Kansas City.

Because if it continues to stagnate, or worse yet, decline, that could make him less effective as the Royals closer, and as a result, hurt his trade value as well.

When Should the Royals Deal Barlow?

Overall, it makes sense for the Royals to trade Barlow sooner rather than later. After all, he will be a free agent after 2024, and he’s 30 years old currently, not exactly an age where closers “get better” to put it bluntly.

On the other hand, Picollo and the Royals shouldn’t just trade Barlow at the first offer, especially without a “successor” in place.

There certainly is potential in the Royals bullpen, even amidst their inconsistency and struggles in 2022.

Dylan Coleman seems to be the most logical reliever to step into the role when Barlow leaves, as he posted a 2.78 ERA and 0.4 fWAR in 68 IP last season. Coleman still struggles with control (4.90 BB/9 last year), but he may have the most electric stuff of any pitcher in the Royals bullpen.

Taylor Clarke could also be an option in the ninth, even if a setup role may better suit him in 2023 for now. Clarke was much better after a rough first couple of months, as Clarke posted a 4.04 ERA in 49 IP. While the ERA isn’t anything impressive, his FIP is much better at 3.30, and his 0.7 fWAR was the second-best mark for Royals relievers with 10 or more IP in 2022 as well.

And lastly, the Royals have been developing Carlos Hernandez into a reliever after starting him in the rotation in 2022 (and having him end the year in the rotation in 2021). Hernandez didn’t have a good year in relief, as he posted a 5.47 ERA in 26.1 innings pitched out of the bullpen last season. However, his 4.40 FIP hints that he was much better than his ERA indicated, and his stuff (his four-seam fastball especially) played up a lot more out of the bullpen than in the rotation as well.

The Royals have some good options to step in whenever Barlow should depart, and who knows if someone else on the 40-man roster could emerge, with Alec Marsh and Jonathan Bowlan as candidates (though I imagine the Royals will continue to develop them as starters in Omaha initially in 2023). The cupboard isn’t totally bare, but Kansas City doesn’t have anyone quite just yet to fill in Barlow’s role right now, should he get traded tomorrow.

Picollo and the Royals have to differentiate “rebuilding” from simply “blowing it up”. The Royals are trying to build a competitive roster gradually through young players, both on the hitting and pitching end. In that process, veterans are still needed, especially ones who can help build up the young players and help them win, even if they may not be around for the long haul. Every rebuilding squad has those kinds of players, and Barlow certainly serves in that role on a pitching end right now, both on the field and in the clubhouse.

Does Picollo want to cash in on his value at his highest? Of course. But trading him away with no contingency in place is not the way to build confidence with this roster and fanbase, especially coming off a 65-win season. If the Royals want to extend some of their young stars soon, they need to show that they’re taking the right steps toward winning and improving in 2023. Getting rid of their best reliever before the start of the 2023 season doesn’t necessarily reflect that message and could hurt the desire for those young players to sign an extension anytime soon, if at all.

Barlow will eventually be traded away at some point, most likely by the Deadline in 2023.

However, the Royals staff needs to make sure they have someone in place to take over for Barlow first, whether it’s Coleman, Clarke, Hernandez, or whoever.

Because getting prospects and young talent is nice in the long term, especially as the Royals look to rebuild their system after so many graduations in 2022…

But it shouldn’t come at the cost of hurting the Royals in the win column (and confidence end), especially in a Central division that looks pretty weak going into 2023, as of January.

Photo Credit:  Ed Zurga/Getty Images


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