Scott Barlow has not looked like a dominant closer so far in 2023. He has given up runs in only two of his six appearances, but both times it cost the Royals a game, and in the other four games only one was a clean inning. It is time to start looking at what is going on underneath the hood to see if this is just bad luck or something else.
You can see the velocity is down on the fastball, though he had a period like this last season too. His average fastball was 91.6 last game and he topped out at 92. To be fair he also only threw four fastballs. The dip in velocity last year was mid to late May and it wasn’t until late June that he really started popping up there on the radar gun before tapering off a bit again as the year wore on. His sinker and slider velocities are down a bit in the early going too, though his curve is sitting at what it was last season.
All of this is affecting his pitch quality. His Stuff+ and Location+ and Pitching+ metrics on his fastball, sinker and slider are all below average and lower than last season. Again, his curveball is still his best pitch and does not seem diminished at all so far. When your stuff is not as good and velocity is down, hitters can hit the ball a lot harder.
His barrel rate has jumped to 20%, more than double normal, though in a very small sample size, so take that with a grain of salt. His hard hit rate is the highest of his career too. All of this means that the wOBA he has surrendered of .288 is almost exactly the same as the .290 xwOBA. The only solace I can take from expectation at all is that xERA, FIP, and xFIP all think he should be better than the 6.35 ERA that he has so far, but none of them think his ERA should be good, just not quite so bad.
It is hard to look at Barlow right now and be anything but pessimistic. In fact, the only silver lining I can find is that Aroldis Chapman can step in if Barlow needs to be taken out of high leverage situations. He has a Stuff+ of 150, which is tied for second in MLB right now. I wish I had some good news, we all know the Royals need some, but Barlow is probably not it. If he is truly broken, the lamentation over failing to trade him when is value was high is going to be just another thing to add to the pile of grievances for Royals fans in a year that is starting to feel bleak. Hopefully they can right the ship soon, and hopefully Barlow can too, but nothing in the underlying stats says to be expecting that at the moment.