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Jacob Barnes should be just fine

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The Brewers reliever has struggled recently, but his profile hasn’t changed.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been a fair amount of chatter among Brewers fans about Jacob Barnes in the last few days. After posting a 2.77 ERA (2.92 FIP) in the first two months of the season, Barnes has a 6.75 ERA (5.15 FIP) from June through July.

Those numbers are bad, and it makes sense that fans would get concerned, but there’s also a solid learning opportunity in it for all of us. Adam McCalvy tweeted this after yesterday’s game:

Some Brewers fans responded, as you can probably imagine, with snark. The top two replies imply that McCalvy thinks an 8 ERA since June 8 is “good” or “should be ignored.” If you’re wondering why angry Twitter users picked an arbitrary date like June 8, it’s because it shoehorns in Barnes’ worst appearance. Pretty typical Twitter stuff.

The thing is, the more I looked, the more it appeared that Barnes is largely the same pitcher who excelled in the early months of the season. It’s what I think McCalvy was getting at; results don’t tell you everything.

So let’s compare the Barnes from April/May and the Barnes of June/July. We’ll start with what was going right for Barnes in the early months. According to Brooks Baseball, nearly 53 percent of the tall righty’s pitches in April and May were sliders.

In those first two months, opposing batters hit just .177 (.273 BABIP) off of the pitch with a .235 slugging percentage. As you can probably imagine, Barnes’ slider command was pretty solid during that stretch:

As is typically the case, Barnes throws his slider down-and-in to opposite-handed batters, and down-and-away against same-handed batters. Both are in the lower right of the zone, hence those dark red spots.

Combine Barnes’ slider with a fastball that opponents slugged just .366 off of in April and May, and you’ve got a pretty dominant reliever. All told, Barnes struck out 26 batters (9 K/9) and walked 11 (3.81 BB/9) in 26 innings pitched.

So we know what was going right for Barnes early on. But what went wrong? Did his walk rate explode? No. Since June 1, Barnes has walked just eight batters, good for 3.6 BB per 9, lower than his April/May rate.

Did hitters stop whiffing on his pitches? No. In the first two months of the season, hitters whiffed on 15 percent of swings against Barnes’ fastball and 45 percent of swings against his slider. In the last two months, those numbers are up to 23 percent and 48 percent, respectively. As a result, his strikeout rates in June/July are up to 11.7 K per 9.

Mostly, Barnes has been tagged by home runs. After giving up just one dinger in his first 26 innings, Barnes has allowed five over his last 20 IP. Just 6.7% of opponent’s flyballs left the park prior to June 1, compared to 33% since. His opponent BABIP has also jumped from .254 in April/May to .347 in the last two months.

So Barnes must be letting up hard contact more often? No again. His April/May 32.4% hard hit rate is higher than in June and July (31.5%).

Much of Barnes’ recent troubles have come off of the slider, with opponents hitting .367 (.444 BABIP!) with a .700 SLG% since the start of June.

Maybe we’re finally getting somewhere! His slider command must have hit a wall? Nope:

His slider command over the last two months looks pretty good, much like that of April/May. At the same time, the slider’s recent futility must be getting to Barnes, or possibly Brewers pitching coach Derek Johnson.

As a result, Barnes has thrown his slider just 39% of the time since June 1, down 13% from the first two months. Additionally, Barnes threw three pitches yesterday that he hadn’t tossed all year: a mid-80s pitch that Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs called a curveball, and MLB Gameday called a cutter.

This is really the only thing that would worry me about Barnes going forward. If Barnes loses faith in his slider (which he calls a cutter), then more struggles could be on the way. Failure can beget failure.

This also raises interesting philosophical questions. Is a pitch “bad” if it gets hit for a home run? Is it “good” if it strikes a batter out? Not necessarily, but we still see that type of thinking pervade in sports.

All told, Barnes has a 4.50 ERA, with a 3.89 FIP, a strong 85 cFIP, and a sterling 2.95 DRA. If you believe the latter two statistics, then Barnes should be a valuable reliever for the rest of the year. And given the dreadfully unlucky results he’s gotten off of his slider in the recent months, I lean heavily toward optimism.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus