Royals relief pitcher Scott Barlow started this season off as a relatively non-distinct starting pitcher/long relief option, and he’s morphed into an extraction specialist out of the bullpen.
Repeatedly, he’s been dropped into situations with miniscule margins for error and numerous potential pitfalls, and he’s pulled his club out of the quagmire miraculously unscathed.
“Obviously, it’s a high-leverage situation with bases loaded, but I think having confidence and knowing that you’re going to throw every pitch with 100 percent conviction — it’s almost a relaxing feeling,” Barlow explained with an air of confidence last weekend in Anaheim, Calif.. “As aggressive of an approach it is, it sort of brings a calmness.”
The keys to Barlow’s transformation include a better understanding of how to attack hitters, a fearless mentality shaped in part by a winter pitching in high-pressure environments and a pitching coach capable of reading Barlow’s mind simply by watching him throw.
Barlow, 26, entered this season with a grand total of six big-league appearances under his belt.
Wednesday night, the former Southern California high school standout came one strike against Yadier Molina away from completely shutting down the St. Louis Cardinals for two innings.
Instead, Molina got just enough of a low pitch out of the strike zone to bounce it through the infield for an RBI single to start what ended up being a four-run inning for the Cardinals at Barlow’s expense. In a few short months, Barlow made outings like that a shocking occurrence.
Barlow’s 38 strikeouts were tied for the third-most among all relievers in the majors going into Thursday’s off-day. His 14.25 strikeouts per nine innings ranked eighth in the majors.
His WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 1.13 ranks second among Royals relievers behind only left-handed veteran Jake Diekman.
Royals manager Ned Yost points to Barlow’s improved fastball, and mechanical adjustments made by pitching coach Cal Eldred in order to make the 94-95 mph fastball a more consistent weapon in Barlow’s arsenal as reasons for Barlow’s increased impact this season.
Stuff alone hasn’t turned Barlow into one of the top relievers in the American League through the first two months of the season. His mindset has played a big part.
“He’s not overwhelmed by any situation we put him in,” Yost said.
Barlow has pitched with more inherited runners on base (16) than any other reliever on the Royals pitching staff — 8 of his 17 appearances have come with runners on base — and he’s allowed the lowest percentage of inherited runners to score (19 percent).
Royals quality control/catching coach Pedro Grifol managed the Gigantes del Cibao club in the Dominican Winter League. Barlow was one of the starters in Grifol’s rotation this winter.
“He’s the same guy,” Grifol said of Barlow. “He pitched well in the winter. He was aggressive. He had a good breaking ball. I think that experience really helped him. Over there, the games are very meaningful — every single game — just like here. Here there are so many games that you kind of get into the routine.
“Over there, you play 50-something games and every game is like the seventh game of the World Series. I think that constant pressure has really prepared him for this. This is the ultimate pressure, absolutely, but I think that prepared him for that.”
What magic did winter ball unlock for Barlow?
Well, it wasn’t anything as hackneyed as putting it all together or a switch flipping. He didn’t discover a new pitch. He’s always thrown a slider and his curveball had been getting better in recent years.
Barlow, who joined the Royals organization as a minor-league free agent prior to the 2018 season, went into last winter with a larger focus on pitch sequencing and pitch combinations that worked off one another. Bullpen coach Vance Wilson and Eldred continue to reinforce that point daily.
However, Class AAA pitching coach Andy Hawkins served as the “biggest influence” in this regard. Barlow and Hawkins had numerous conversations last season about reading swings and analyzing information that hitters’ reactions provide in an at-bat.
The intention of attacking hitters and the plan of attack were only the first step.
The second step came when Barlow threw in front of Gigantes del Cibao pitching coach Franklin Bravo. Barlow and Bravo, a minor-league pitching coach in the Washington Nationals farm system, had no prior relationship.
Bravo’s main message to Barlow was to never throw a pitch without believing in it 100 percent, and there was no fooling him.
“During bullpens he would talk to me about that side of it, and I think that really resonated,” Barlow said. “We’d do bullpens, and he would know right away if I threw a pitch and it wasn’t with conviction. It was weird. He was like reading my mind.”
The words themselves didn’t stick with Barlow as much as did the different feel of a pitch coming out of his hand when he’d bought in entirely as opposed to having a hint of hesitancy. Bravo stood right behind the mound and called him out on it during bullpen sessions.
“As soon as it came out of my hand — even before the ball even left my hand — he would be like ‘Yup,’” Barlow said. “He just kind of knew. I think that made me think about it. Being relaxed was one big thing. If you tense up, it’s not going to come out as good.”
Barlow had been lectured on the importance of throwing with confidence and conviction before, but for whatever reason — whatever Jedi mind trick Bravo used to convey it to him — made the point sink in.
Barlow insists that making a bad pitch selection and delivering it with a sense of calm confidence works out a lot more often than you might think.
Barlow has been one of the hardest pitchers on the Royals roster for hitters to elevate the ball against. He’s posted a ground ball/fly ball ratio of 0.58.
He’s pitched the most innings (24) of any reliever on the Royals staff. Opponents put balls in play 49 percent of the time, which is second behind Diekman’s 48 percent.
Buying in has helped Barlow show out so far this season.