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Tigers sign veteran reliever Jacob Barnes to a minor league deal

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Ok, we really like this as a thoughtful piece of depth-building.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, the Detroit Tigers announced that they had signed veteran right-handed reliever Jacob Barnes to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. This seems like a very good idea. The 31-year-old pitched for both the New York Mets and then the Toronto Blue Jays last season after a midseason trade. The results were rather erratic.

Erratic has been the name of the game for Barnes over the last few seasons. The big, hard-throwing right-hander broke into the league with the Brewers back in 2016, and was a strong contributor to their bullpen for several seasons. But since 2019, a season which from the beginning featured several nagging injuries with his hip and shoulder, his performance has seen a lot of wild swings as he battled his control and was victimized by the long ball. He should make a very interesting project for Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter, and with luck, Barnes could add another dimension to an already solid Tigers bullpen.

The six-foot two-inch, 231 pounder features a power fourseam fastball with good vertical movement. Typically Barnes sits 94-95 mph with the heater, but he can run it up to 98 mph when he wants it. He throws a very heavy volume of fastballs, using the fourseamer 59.1 percent of the time in 2021. An 89 mph cutter is his other primary pitch, used 38.1 percent of the time last season, with an occasional offspeed pitch mixed in to lefties as a change of pace.

The fastball has well above average vertical movement, and well below average horizontal movement. It’s a pretty straight, riding heater that generates a good amount of whiffs and weak contact in the air. A relatively low release point helps Barnes throw the heater to the top of the zone on a flat angle of attack, which adds to the deception and appearance of lift on the pitch, and draws a lot of whiffs and routine fly balls. The cutter has well above average horizontal movement and racks up a lot of whiffs, giving him a pair of pretty good weapons, though they don’t necessarily pair all that well together from a tunneling perspective.

The cutter generates a high volume of whiffs largely at the bottom of the zone and below, particularly to Barnes’ armside. However, both are fairly crushable hip-high, and don’t pair all that well together. Coming up with pitching plans that optimize his stuff while avoiding the middle of the zone from top to bottom will be a big part of Fetter’s task to improve Barnes results and avoid the home run trouble that tends to plague him.

Jacob Barnes 2018-2021

Season IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Season IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
2018 48.2 3.33 3.72 21.7 10.6 0.74 0.3
2019 32.2 7.44 6.06 20.0 13.8 1.93 -0.5
2020 18.0 5.50 2.25 30.8 5.1 0.50 0.4
2021 28.2 6.28 5.30 25.8 8.6 2.20 -0.3

If this sounds a fair bit like the profile of Joe Jiménez, well, you’re not wrong.

One element that will be interesting to watch, is whether the Tigers try to get Barnes to use his split-change more often. The organization has seemed to take a bit of a liking to splitters in recent years, with Casey Mize, and last year, Wily Peralta, being notable examples. As splitters go, Barnes’ version is a pretty straight dropping version that seemingly would pair very well with the fourseamer if he could find a consistent handle on the pitch. It’s a relatively new offering that he just started to put into play to any notable degree last season. He doesn’t always maintain his arm speed and stay on top of the pitch the way he needs to, but if he could find more consistency, he’d add a tricky wrinkle to his game for hitters to deal with.

Another interesting note about Barnes is that he gets a well above average amount of balls hit to center field. Comerica Park should be somewhat beneficial to him in terms of keeping some of those deeper fly balls in the park.

This is just a minor league deal, so there’s no real commitment involved here from the Tigers. Judge the results in that context. Barnes is as likely to wash out in the spring with ongoing control issues as he is to play a role next season. However, the Tigers top relievers are largely guys who move the ball side-to-side. Other than Jiménez, they don’t have a lot of vertically oriented relievers with good riding fastballs and velocity. If Barnes works out, he would bring a very different look to the table from most of the rest of the Tigers’ pen.

We’d very much like to see the Tigers pursue a legitimately good reliever to add to the bullpen, and hopefully they will still do so once the new CBA is agreed upon. But what the 2021 season showed us, is that quality depth pieces and projects can go a long way to shoring up a pitching staff through the long major league baseball calendar. Whether Fetter and assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves can tune Barnes up or not, this is the kind of thoughtful, depth addition that has been seriously lacking throughout most of Al Avila’s tenure as general manager. The impact of his new assistants and coaching staff continues to shine through.