In early April, the KC bullpen found themselves battling a massive dumpster fire, the likes of which we’d not seen since 2018. Pitch after pitch they hurled into the white hot blaze, but the flames kept licking at the Royals relievers. Despite the efforts of many, the squad only managed to fan the flames with the breeze of walked batsmen and passing dingers. Late into each game they toiled in vain as the flames consumed win after win. The blaze weakened the spirit of both players and fans as it raged on. We began to wonder if it would ever be extinguished.
Then, out of Omaha, a fireman appeared. His name was Scott Barlow and he was a strikeout machine. A month and a half after his callup, he had emerged as a stable arm in an unstable ‘pen, sporting a shiny ERA of 2.01 and the peripherals to back it up. Feeding opposing batters a healthy diet of wicked sliders and high heat, his K/9 of 13.7 put him in elite company as did his .185 batting average against. On May 10th against the Phillies, he struck out the side in two consecutive innings, becoming the first Royal to accomplish this feat. It looked like Kansas City had found the first member of its next great bullpen – and some much needed relief.
It was one fateful day in St. Louis that the great fireman stumbled, giving up four runs in an inning and two thirds. Since that game, he’s allowed 15 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings, ballooning his ERA to 5.51. Once the brave firefighter, Barlow now finds himself consumed by flames. Through sobs and tears, the children ask, “What happened, Scott? What happened…”
The dear children deserve some answers, and though I am merely a man with a laptop, I will do what I can to ease their worries. Let’s take a look and see if we can figure out what’s going on with Scott Barlow.
First, a bit about his arsenal. He has a curveball, which he occasionally throws, as well as a sinker an changeup that he rarely uses. Instead, he relies heavily on his four seam fastball and slider. This season, he’s ramped up slider usage to the point where he actually throws it more often than his fastball. It’s easy to understand why, because the slider is plain nasty. When it’s on, it has a ton of late horizontal and vertical movement. He gets a lot of whiffs on that pitch, as you can imagine, but he’s actually gotten more strikeouts on his fastball this year. It’s a relatively high-spin fastball that he uses up in the zone to generate swings and misses. He’ll also throw it inside to right-handed batters to set up his slider away. It’s a pretty effective one-two punch when he’s on his game and it results in a ton of strikeouts.
Here’s where his sliders and fastballs were located prior to his May 22 outing in St Louis. You can see that those sliders are sliding right off the table and the fastballs are out of the heart of the zone.
Here’s what they’ve looked like since May 22:
That’s not so good. His slider is catching more of the plate and the fastballs are going right down the pipe. Something clearly happened in or around St. Louis and he has not been the same since. So what’s causing this? We can start by looking at the movement he’s been getting on his slider. As you can see, it has not been breaking nearly as much in recent appearances.
That’s a pretty significant change for a pitcher that relies on his slider nearly half the time. If that pitch isn’t breaking, his whole plan of attack gets altered, which may explain all of the fastballs in the middle of the zone. That’s assuming, of course, that the slider doesn’t get crushed. Since St. Louis, the swing rate on his slider has doubled, but he’s only getting half the whiffs. In that time, opposing batters have raised their batting average on his slider nearly 150 points, from .176 to .318, and the ISO on the pitch has gone from .088 to .364. He’s giving up more contact and it’s resulting in a lot of big hits.
Along with the change in his slider’s movement, we can see that his release point for that pitch has changed fairly significantly as well. He’s releasing it higher and to the glove side compared to his pre-St. Louis outings. He’s still getting about the same amount of spin on the pitch, but with such a drastic difference in release point, it’s likely not as efficient.
As fun as charts are, we have video that we can consult as well. Here’s Barlow throwing his slider in two different games. The first is from his six strikeout outing against the Phillies.
The second is from last week’s series against Boston. You can see the difference in the pitch’s break and ultimate location.
You may see something in those that I don’t, but at full speed, there doesn’t appear to be a huge difference in his mechanics. Broken down by frame, however, it’s easier to see the difference in release point. Look at the angle of his shoulder and arm. The ball is being released much higher in the right image.
He seems to be rotating more against Boston (right image), which is causing him to come over the top with the pitch. That doesn’t appear to be good at all for his slider’s movement. J.D. Martinez had no trouble launching that pitch to the top of (but not quiiiite over) the wall.
I don’t know what happened in St. Louis. I suppose he could have sustained an injury, though he hasn’t experienced a dip in velocity (he’s actually dialed it up a couple of ticks since his callup). Perhaps he ate some bad pizza and has yet to recover. More likely, I think he’s just in need of a mechanical tweak. I don’t believe he’s broken completely and I’m very hopeful that he’ll return to form soon.
Regardless of the issue, the Royals need Barlow to find his groove again. He has the kind of stuff that could make him an elite, multi-inning reliever. That type of player is incredibly valuable, either as a trade chip or as a part of the next contending team. And in the short term, the bullpen could really use the boost. Here’s hoping that the fireman of old returns to Kansas City soon.