One ongoing perk the Tigers acquired by staggering to last place was first pick of any player who hits the waiver wire this upcoming season. They picked up reliever Johnny Barbato from the Pirates on Thursday. While he’s obviously somewhat flawed (or he wouldn’t be available on waivers) he also has a bit of intrigue that is worth exploration.
Barbato has a bit of the common “ROOGY” gene, but also has a nice raw sinker. He has yet to consistently show the command necessary to be a reliever at the major league level. He is still only 25 years old, though. Despite cups of coffee with both the Yankees in 2016 and the Pirates last season, he is not a lost cause just yet. But Barbato is at a point in his career where he really needs to put it together and convince a team to keep him for the long haul.
Barbato has been a pro for over seven years now. He was drafted by the Padres as a prep starter all the way back in 2010, but they quickly moved him to relief. Back in 2013, John Sickels of Minor League Ball was still looking at Barbato as a possible future closer thanks to a big fastball and solid curve to back it up. At the time, Sickels described Barbato’s Single-A work as, “1.84 ERA with 84 strikeouts and 52 hits in 73 innings in Low-A on basis of blistering fastball and good curve. Needs better command (31 walks) but definite closer possibilities.”
Don’t get your hopes up that the command issues that have always held him back are going to be magically banished by new Tigers pitching coach Chris Bosio. He’s improved over the years, but is still inconsistent. Let’s just look at the two things that make Barbato slightly more interesting than the island of Barbados, at least from a baseball perspective.
First, there are the career splits. Barbato only has 41 1⁄3 innings in the major leagues, so it’s a small sample, but he’s struggled to handle left-handed hitters. They have a wOBA of .429 with a 2.32 WHIP against him. Quite bad. On the other hand, right-handers have posted just a .233 wOBA and 0.83 WHIP. He can be quite effective if his exposure to powerful left-handed hitters is kept to a minimum. Going back through his minor league numbers you don’t find those glaring splits, but there’s an underlying issue there.
Barbato has a solid curve and a decent slider. He’s worked on a cut splitter, presumably to unsettle the left-handers, but it’s not a functioning part of his arsenal yet. What he does have is a pretty interesting sinker.
According to Statcast, Barbato threw both two-seam and four-seam fastballs during his short time in the major leagues. Brooks Baseball says he threw all four-seamers. Whatever the case, the movement makes it a sinker in our book. A fairly straight one. Such a pitch isn’t so notable until you know that the spin rate on the pitch averaged 1990 rpms. That is an extremely low spin rate. And an outlier like that is intriguing when you consider that he’s sitting around 94-95 miles per hour.
The rise of spin rate data has largely focused on high spin rate fastballs from players like Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer. It explains why they’re able to blow hitters away with the heater to a degree that other hard throwers can’t match. Curveballs are similarly easily to understand in terms of high rpm topspin. But what is still trickier to understand is how a very low spin rate can function just as effectively.
Basically, all hitting is relative. In the fraction of a second a hitter has to decide to swing, and to what point over the plate, his mind is making a prediction as to where the ball will be when it enters the zone. To do so, hitters develop an internal prediction model based on their experience of an average fastball. And they’ve seen thousands upon thousands of average fastballs over their careers. So anything that deviates strongly from the norm throws that prediction out of whack until they can adjust.
When a hitter sees a lot of normal, even good, fastballs and then faces Justin Verlander, the fastball never drops to the point they anticipate. Similarly, a very low spin sinker with good velo drops well below where they expect it. If Barbato threw 90, he’s not so interesting, but the combination of good velo and low spin, produces this.
It’s not how much movement there is, it’s how late the table falls out from under you when swinging at it. There’s a reason teams with smart pitch doctors were interested enough in Barbato to take a chance. If he threw 90-92, you wouldn’t get the same sharp dropping appearance. We’re only looking at one example here, and there are scant few pieces of Barbato video floating about, but it’s a pretty straight power sinker and the bottom definitely falls out of it late.
Barbato’s spin rate is one of the lowest in the game. And most of the guys down there with him don’t throw as hard. His spin rate is lower than Orioles closer Zach Britton, who throws one of nastiest power sinkers in the game today. Of course Britton throws even harder, with much better precision. But there’s a reason that New York and Pittsburgh were interested in Barbato in the first place. They just couldn’t fix his command on short notice. But the stuff is worth some patience.
Once you start to age out of being a prospect, teams won’t keep you on the roster too long without success. It’s often tough to tell a young pitcher that something major has to change if he’s to make it. Sometimes they have to hit rock bottom before they free themselves up to experiment. It can seem less risky to hope something subtle falls into place and the angels of command finally bestow their grace upon you.
That said, the Tigers have nothing to lose, and Barbato has a weird fastball and a pair of usable breaking balls. This is the kind of guy smart teams take a flier on. Hopefully Chris Bosio has an answer others couldn’t find, or Barbato finds it himself. Otherwise, his stay with the Tigers will likely be a short one.