While Ken Rosenthal says the Brewers continue to be one of the teams looking at relievers on the free agent market -- possibly to fill the spot opened up by the trade of Tyler Thornburg -- they still have some sleeper candidates already on the roster that could potentially take over Thornburg's role in the 9th inning.
We already took a look at Corey Knebel, but he's not the only guy who makes for an interesting option at the end of games. A more under-the-radar pick could be Jacob Barnes.
The former 14th-round pick spent much of his minor league career as a middling starting pitcher before a surprise performance for, well, Surprise in the 2015 Arizona Fall League as a reliever quickly turned his career around. Barnes struck out 17 batters in 11.2 innings that fall, and while he was a 25-year-old pitching against guys two or three years younger than him, the move to the pen did result in a bump in velo in not only his fastball, but also his slider.
Following the AFL showing, Barnes was able to do what many can't -- pitch effectively in Colorado Springs. In 17 appearances there, he struck out 23 in 22.1 innings, allowing just three runs and only one home run. That earned him a promotion to Milwaukee just one year after it was fair to question whether he'd ever make it out of Double-A.
In his first 27 big league appearances, Barnes struck out 26 in 26.2 innings, walked only 6 batters (one intentionally), and allowed just 8 runs for a 2.70 ERA. He missed all of August due to injury, but returned in September and allowed just one run in 11 appearances, holding opponents to a .206/.250/.235 line pitching mostly in the 7th and 8th innings. His final appearance of the year also netted him his first career save.
Like Knebel, Barnes has the big strikeout numbers you'd like to see out of a late-inning reliever. Excluding Neil Ramirez and his 1.2-inning Brewers career, Barnes carried the highest swinging strike rate on the team last year at 14.8% -- nearly 3% higher than the next highest (Thornburg at 12%). He was also proficient in getting opponents to chase outside of the zone, with his 33.6% out-of-zone swing percentage ranking behind only Jhan Marinez, Rob Scahill and Jeremy Jeffress (again, sorry to Ben Rowen for excluding his three innings in this discussion).
Much of that was due to a mid-90s fastball and his slider, which he’s throwing so hard it’s often classified as a cutter by pitch trackers. He even calls the pitch a cutter, but the breaking action is more slider-like than most cutters you’ll see. Whatever you want to call it, it worked. Look at him dispatch noted Brewer Killer David Freese with ease using it:
Here’s another one from his big league debut in Philadelphia, in all it’s looping glory.
Knebel may have notched slightly better strikeout rates than Barnes in 2016, but a big part of Barnes' appeal is he keeps guys off base while also posting high strikeout rates. As we mentioned in the Knebel piece, walks have been a problem for him. That's not the case for Barnes, whose BB% of 5.7% in his limited Milwaukee action was about half of Knebel's. Small sample size may account for a bit of Barnes' lower rate, but even his 8.3% BB% in Colorado Springs is much more palatable than Knebel's 11%.
Admittedly, it's hard to tell how much of Barnes' sudden improvement since switching to the bullpen full-time is real and how much was merely just having a really good year across multiple levels. At age 26, maybe he was just a late bloomer and this is the start of a long and successful career. It's also possible he's already at the peak of his ability and is in the middle of a brief but successful stretch.
Either way, if the Brewers want to see if they can create any more closers out of under-the-radar relievers, Barnes may be as good a pick as any.
Statistics courtesy Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs