An excellent performance in the second half of the 2019 season gave a relief pitcher with little major league experience an important bullpen role for the KC Royals. He may be even better in 2020.
Welcome back to the Kings of Kauffman 2020 KC Royals Preseason Player Previews. Our writers are analyzing 30 players; we’ll break down a player a day and how they performed last season, discuss their projections for 2020 and offer commentary about both. Up today is relief pitcher Scott Barlow.
The 2019 All-Star Break, the brief hiatus marking the traditional, though not mathematical, halfway point of the major league season began with the completion of games on July 7. For the KC Royals, the four days off offered a welcome respite from a season already lost. Their Break started on the heels of a 5-2 loss to Washington that kept them in last place in the American League Central, a hopeless 27 games out of first.
It had at that point been five days since the Royals dispatched Scott Barlow, who had appeared in only six big-league games before 2019, to Triple-A Omaha. Barlow, one of several pitchers stumbling their way through KC’s bleak campaign, deserved the demotion–in 30 first-half games, he walked almost one batter every 1½ innings, had a 1.541 WHIP, and was 2-3 with a 6.19 ERA. His banishment came three days after Barlow gave up a walk-off home run in Toronto that dropped the club into the AL Central cellar.
Fortunately, the season’s second half was kinder to both the Royals and Barlow. The team avoided a last place finish with a 29-42 record, a win-loss differential improvement of 18 games and Barlow, recalled on July 15, turned his fortunes completely around and established himself as a key KC bullpen component. He went 1-0 with a 2.12 ERA, held hitters to a .205 average–a drop of 64 points from the season’s first half–didn’t give up any home runs and surrendered 14 fewer hits in 2.1 fewer innings. His SO9 was 10.6, down from 12.9 in the first half, but still impressive.
Barlow finished the season 3-3 with a 4.22 ERA over 61 games and 70.1 innings pitched, 112 ERA+, 11.8 SO9, and 3.41 FIP, numbers better than some of his 2018 Omaha numbers (1-4, 6.11 ERA).
2020 Baseball-Reference & FanGraphs projections. Two baseball sources predict Barlow’s 2020 will be similar to his 2019. Baseball-Reference projects he’ll go 3-3 with a 4.35 ERA in 62.0 innings, post a 1.355 WHIP (he had a 1.436 in ’19) and strike out 10.2 batters per nine innings. FanGraphs predicts a 3-3 record in 65 innings, with a 4.14 ERA and 71 strikeouts (9.83 SO9).
How will Barlow actually perform? Barlow’s control needs work–it was inconsistent in eight minor league seasons and his first half and second half 2019 BB9’s of 4.238 and 5.294 are cause for some concern; the latter rate was the only significant mar on his otherwise excellent performance after being recalled from Omaha.
But Barlow proved after the All-Star Break that he can pitch, and pitch well; his second half stands in stark and impressive contrast to his first. And for the season, he struck out almost 12 batters per nine innings. That he relied more on his slider, an excellent complement to a decent fastball, clearly contributed to his second-half success.
If he can improve upon–or even duplicate–his second-half performance, and continue to mix his slider and fastball well, Barlow should be in prime position to set up Ian Kennedy in 2020. Manager Ned Yost used Barlow more and more frequently from the seventh inning on after the Royals summoned him back from Omaha, suggesting the club has renewed confidence in the 27-year old who it signed as a free agent in late 2017 after he spent seven seasons in the Dodger organization. His major league sample is small but promising.
Scott Barlow’s success after last season’s All-Star Break bodes well for 2020. Look for him to match, and probably exceed, that success this season.