Relievers come from the darndest places. Many times they are failed starters, such as Wade Davis, who went from being a terrible part of the Royals rotation to one of the most dominant relievers in club history. But you can find them through all avenues - the Rule 5 draft (Joakim Soria), minor league trades (Jeff Montgomery), or as undrafted free agents (Dan Quisenberry).
Scott Barlow was signed as a minor league free agent after being blocked as a mediocre starting pitcher in the Dodgers organization for several years. After getting his feet wet with 15 innings in 2018, he became a part of the bullpen in 2019 and 2020. His ERA didn’t stand out - it was over four both seasons - but his FIP was much better each season, and he struck out over 11 hitters-per-nine innings.
Barlow put it all together in 2021. Manager Mike Matheny had to be flexible with bullpen roles with injuries and young starting pitcher workloads to worry about. And with the new prevailing attitude in baseball that you pitch your best reliever in the toughest spots, save situation be damned, Barlow became his trusted go-to guy. He made 36 “high leverage” appearances, 21st-most among relievers, and he had the 36th-highest Average Leverage Index.
The right-hander struck out 91 hitters in 74 1⁄3 innings, finishing eighth among relievers in fWAR. He was one of the hardest relievers to homer off of and he had the 17th-highest swinging-strike rate among relievers. Only six relievers in baseball had hitters make less contact.
He does it all with a fastball that is fairly pedestrian, sitting at 95 mph. But his slider has been fantastic.
There could be some reason for concern going forward. His walk rate remains higher than you’d like for a reliever put in a lot of jams. He did allow 52 percent of his inherited runners to score, higher than the league average of 36 percent. He gives up a lot of fly balls and may have been a bit lucky that more didn’t leave the ballpark last year.
But he’s put together a pretty good track record of success the Royals can rely on going forward. Barlow just turned 29 years old, and knowing that the shelf life for relievers can be short, it may have made sense to trade him for prospects while he still has a lot of value. But he’s under club control through 2024, and the Royals probably expect to be somewhat competitive over that time, and they need bullpen depth. Barlow was plucked from obscurity, and the Royals hope he can stay in the limelight for a bit longer.
What grade would you give Scott Barlow for his 2021 season?
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