He spun a breaking ball towards the bottom left corner of the strike zone, wave, and a miss. The pitcher skipped off the mound and let out an emphatic “let’s go” to his own dugout. Walking briskly back the bench after striking out the side, those watching gazed on in amazement of a Royals reliever humiliate the heart of the order on a first-place team.
The man responsible goes by Scott Barlow, a Connecticut native, who was drafted in the sixth-round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Six years into his development, the Dodgers refused to make the effort of adding him to the 40-man roster or signing him back on a minor league deal. The 24-year old right-hander was coming off a year where he posted a 2.10 ERA with 124 strikeouts and 37 walks in 107 ⅓ innings down in Double-A before receiving the promotion to Triple-A where he was knocked around mercilessly. Surrendering 36 runs (26 earned) in 32 1⁄3 innings with 23 walks, the Dodgers felt the time had run out on Barlow’s shot to make a crack on the big league roster of a World Series contender.
Dropped into the pool of minor league free agency as the top prospect, Royals General Manager Dayton Moore popped in, outstretched with open arms for a second chance. Cashing him in on a split contract worth $650K in the Majors and $225K in the Minors, Kansas City brought him in immediately as the 39th man on the 40-man roster.
Not soon after, Barlow’s long-anticipated dream of a major league debut came on April 30th, while the Royals were at Fenway Park. Tossing three innings and allowing one earned run, it was evident he could hold his own, but not well enough to warrant a full-year stint on a 100+ loss team. Spending much of 2018 on the I-29 shuttle to and from Omaha, Barlow surmounted just 15 innings, finishing with a 3.60 ERA. Although not jaw-dropping on any stretch of margin, there was one eye-catching statistic - his 15 strikeouts to three walks resulted in a 9.0 strikeouts-per-nine and 5.0 strikeout-per-walk ratio.
Barlow earned himself a spot on the MLB club for the MLB-Japan All-star series in the offseason heading into 2019, where he played alongside generational talents like Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. and Nationals outfielder Juan Soto. He shined in the MLB’s first win of the series, tallying 4 1⁄3 innings and striking out four to claim the victory.
Showing the most promise as a young reliever out of what was sure to be a below-average bullpen, the club decided to let Barlow’s first opportunity of 2019 be in Kansas City. Utilized as a long-reliever or placed in positions of blowouts during the month of April, his outings at times occurred when the majority of the fanbase had flipped the channel or turned off the television for the night on the cusp of another Royals’ loss. Blowing late-inning leads, the Royals’ demise centered around a bullpen loaded up with journeymen relievers. But on April 17th, Barlow’s first true test came about the extra innings of an emotionally-charged Wednesday afternoon affair against the White Sox. Hours earlier, bat-flips, hit batters, and manager’s going toe-to-toe were the scenes at Guaranteed Rate Field. Called-on in the bottom of the 10th, Barlow was asked to hold a one-run lead and close it out, something that no Royals reliever this year had completed to date. Shutting Chicago down without much noise, the right-hander took a big step forward in sitting in manager Ned Yost’s “circle of trust”. From that day, Barlow has quietly morphed into one of the leagues most dominant relievers.
Ranking in the 96 percentile in K%, the 26-year old only ranks behind the elite company of Padres closer Kirby Yates and Brewers closer Josh Hader per Patrick Brennan of Royals Farm Report and Beyond the Box Score. His 13.7 SO/9 in 18.1 innings is the proof for his jaw-dropping strikeout performances. He also remains in the 85th percentile for expected slugging percentage and expected batting average.
Barlow’s slider, which he throws 43.6% of the time, has a 52.1 whiff-percentage and a .127 xBA. His curveball has yet to allow a single hit and has the lowest exit velocity of opposing hitters at 80.3 mph. For the first time in any of his appearances in 2019, Barlow touched 96 mph more than once in Friday’s win over the Phillies. He set a Royals record in facing six batters and recording each out by way of a strikeout, and his ERA has now dwindled below two at 1.96.
With these numbers, it’s no surprise the recent surge in performances by the Kansas City bullpen stems from Barlow’s production. A few weeks ago, I predicted Barlow to slide into the fifth spot of the starting rotation post-trade deadline in one of my articles. Now, it seems inevitable the position he fits in is as closer for a rebuilding bunch. Of course, pitchers can get on a roll when the confidence is high, but the trends point towards much more than just a good month for Scott Barlow.