The emergence of a new and effective reliever for the KC Royals was a welcome addition to their bullpen in 2019. Here’s hoping we see more of him in 2020.
Welcome back to Kings of Kauffman’s 12 Days of KC Royals Christmas. Each day through December 25, our team of writers is taking turns sharing their wish list items for the Royals. Today, we wish for the continued success of reliever Scott Barlow.
Six seasons toiling in the Dodgers’ minor league system did little to suggest Scott Barlow was destined for the major leagues. Tendencies to give up too many runs and walk too many batters overshadowed commendable strikeout rates. He lost his second professional season to Tommy John surgery. A 2017 Triple A record of 1-3 with a 7.24 ERA and an unremarkable 29-30 career record didn’t offer much proof that the KC Royals made a good move when they signed him as a minor league free agent after the 2017 season.
Only Barlow’s strikeout rates in his first Royals’ organization season sparked much excitement. He fanned 15 in 15 innings with Kansas City (9.09 SO9); four in four innings at AA Northwest Arkansas (9.09 SO9); six in four innings at Arizona (Rookie, 13.5 SO9); and 50 in 45.2 innings at Triple A Omaha (9.9 SO9). Troublesome, however, were his 1.642 WHIP, 6.11 ERA (6.50 RA9) and 4.1 BB9 at Omaha, where he spent most of 2018.
Barlow broke spring camp with the Royals in 2019 but by mid-season, only his strikeout rate of almost 13 per nine innings suggested the campaign would be anything more than unremarkable. In 31 games, he was 2-3 with a 6.19 ERA and a 1.541 WHIP. What motivated the Royals to sign him became a valid question.
The answer to that question came after the All-Star Break. A new, effective Barlow emerged. Although his strikeout rate dipped a bit to a still-impressive 10.6, he went 1-0 with a stingy 2.12 ERA. He pitched 2.1 innings less than he had in the first half, but gave up 14 fewer hits; opponents batted .269 against him before the Break, but a measly .205 after it. He surrendered six home runs in the first half, none in the second.
Barlow was used primarily in low leverage situations before the Break, entering games in the 6th inning or earlier over 50% of the time. But the better he pitched, the more Manager Ned Yost used him in higher leverage spots. In 31 second half games, Yost brought him in before the 7th inning only five times. No longer did the club limit him to longer, lower leverage relief situations.
What triggered Barlow’s vindication (at least to this point) of the Royals’ decision to pursue and sign him? Good sliders are often better than decent fastballs; Barlow possesses both, and his 2019 switch to the slider as his primary pitch likely accounted for his improvement. He threw his slider almost 17% more in 2019 than in ’18; opponents hit almost 100 points lower (.222) against it as they had in ’18. His curve is also good when he throws it, as opponents hit .177 against it in ’19, but he used it less than 13% of the time).
Barlow is in a good place going into 2020. Last season’s performance gives him the probable inside edge for setting up closer Ian Kennedy and, perhaps, for assuming the closer’s role if Kennedy is moved before the mid-season trade deadline. Should new KC signee and former Cardinals’ closer Trevor Rosenthal resurrect his lock-down form, however, Barlow still stands to be the top set-up candidate.
Barlow pitched 61 times for the Royals in 2019. More of him, both in frequency and in quality, would prove correct the club’s decision to sign an otherwise unremarkable pitcher — and enhance KC’s chances of avoiding yet another 100-loss season.
Until the KC Royals signed him, Scott Barlow had yet to distinguish himself as a top pitcher. But in the second half of the 2019 season, he proved he can be an effective late-inning reliever. For their holiday season wish list, the club and fans should save a spot for hoping to see more of Barlow and the success he enjoyed in 2019.