With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at relief pitcher Joe Barlow.
One of the things that especially sucked, as a Ranger fan, in 2020 was the cancellation of the minor league season.
I mean, that’s something that sucks for all fans, but for Rangers fans, in particular, it was especially frustrating. In 2019, there were a multitude of arms that made strides in the minors. There were a lot of interesting players in the system who were worth following. Part of the fun of 2020 was going be seeing who built on that progress, who went from interesting to prospect, how the system improved.
Then COVID-19 wiped that out. Yes, there was the Alternate Training Site, and there were guys who made their major league debuts in the disaster that was the 2020 Rangers’ major league season, but that wasn’t the same as tracking the box scores and following promotions and everything that we actually normally get to do.
Joe Barlow was one of the arms that made a big jump in 2019. He was one of four righthanded relievers who scaled the organizational ladder in 2019 and made big leaps, along with Emmanuel Clase, Peter Fairbanks, and Demarcus Evans. He dominated at Down East, allowing just two runs in 23.2 innings over 17 games, striking out 44 of 93 batters. He did the same at Frisco, allowing two runs in 16 innings over 13 games, striking out 27 of 57 batters.
Then he hit a wall in Nashville (I almost typed Round Rock — its like I’ve forgotten about the Rangers’ brief stint in Tennessee). 17.1 IP over 19 games, 17 runs allowed, 22 Ks, 21 walks, 23 hits. That’s not ideal. Barlow had issued a fair number of walks in high-A and AA, but they blew up in AAA, and his year ended on a bit of a down note.
Barlow was exposed to the Rule 5 Draft after the 2019 season, and wasn’t selected. He was part of the contingent at the ATS in 2020, but the reviews indicated that, as at Nashville in 2020, the command wasn’t good enough to get advanced hitters out. While others got the chance to show their stuff in Arlington, Barlow toiled away at Frisco with the rest of the reserve group.
Exposed again and undrafted again after 2020, Barlow came to camp in 2021 as...not exactly an afterthought, but just an arm, someone who, yeah, could get a look, but wasn’t viewed as being seriously in the mix for a job in the Opening Day bullpen, who might not really be in the mix to be in the majors at all in 2021.
But Barlow hit the ground running once the AAA season started in early May. He had six scoreless, walkless outings to start the year, allowing just two hits while striking out ten. He had a blowup outing in Tacoma, allowing four runs in 1.2 while walking three, but settled back down after that. In his next ten outings, he went thirteen innings, allowed two runs on five hits and five walks, and struck out 18. The command issues that had held him back previously appeared to be tamed.
Barlow got his opportunity in late June, when the Rangers recalled him and Wes Benjamin to replace the optioned Demarcus Evans and the DFA’d Brett de Geus. He struck out two in a scoreless inning in his first major league appearance, didn’t pitch for a week-plus, allowed a run in his next outing, then ran off 14 straight scoreless outings from early July to mid-August. He allowed a pair of runs in a loss to Seattle (including a Zombie Runner that scored), had a scoreless outing, and then on September 1 was part of one of the worst innings of the year for the Rangers.
You may remember this game — the Rangers scored 5 runs in the second at home against the Rockies, didn’t score again, but took a 5-4 lead to the ninth. Barlow retired a batter then went walk-walk-double to give up the lead. Then the Rangers made four errors behind him over the next four batters — including two one one play — to turn it into a 9-5 clusterfuck of a loss.
Anyway. Barlow allowed one run the rest of the way, recording eight saves over that stretch over 12 games. For the season Barlow had a 1.55 ERA in the majors in 29 innings, striking out 17, walking 12 and allowing a pair of homers. Barlow had a very respectable 3.42 xERA and 3.45 FIP, so while the peripherals didn’t support a 1.55 ERA, it still supported a solid ERA.
Barlow was, per Statcast, primarily a four seam (45.1% of the time) and slider (40.7%) pitcher, but he also mixed in a curveball, and had seven pitches on the year recorded by Statcast as sinkers. Barlow’s four seamer isn’t, in term of raw spin numbers, a super-high spin rate pitch — Statcast has it in the middle of the pack as far as fastball spin rate goes — but he has an extremely high active spin rate, which means it plays up and has more movement than would be expected. The high active spin rate and good velocity — he averaged 94.5 mph on the four seamer in 2021 — makes it a very effective pitch, particularly combined with his slider, which is his swing-and-miss pitch.
Looking at the heat maps from Barlow’s pitches in 2021, he did a good job locating his pitches, working the four seamer up in the zone and the slider down and gloveside. He walked an above-average number of batters in 2021, but the walk rate wasn’t so high as to be particularly problematic.
Barlow turned 26 at the end of September, and he’s well positioned to be a meaningful part of the Rangers’ bullpen going forward, if he can stay healthy and maintain the improvement in his command that he exhibited in 2022. Those are both significant “if”s, of course, but overall, you have to feel good about where things stand with Joe Barlow right now.