Jeremy Barfield pitched on the final day of May. He did so effectively, but only out of necessity. The 28-year-old outfielder’s current club, the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, had run out of available pitchers in the second game of a doubleheader. Moving from right field to the mound for innings 11, 12, and 13, Barfield allowed just two hits — one of them a home run — and logged three strikeouts.
It wasn’t his first time toeing the rubber. In 2014 — his seventh professional season — Barfield made 25 mostly reluctant relief appearances in the Oakland organization. The following year, he threw two innings for Colorado’s Triple-A affiliate.
Barfield doesn’t like pitching. What he likes is hitting, which he’s done with mixed results since the A’s took him in the eighth round of the 2008 draft out of San Jacinto Junior College. But while questions about his bat led to a temporary position switch a few years ago, the son of former All-Star outfielder Jesse Barfield is now on the upswing. Last year he logged a .916 OPS and swatted 27 home runs with the Sugarland Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League. Since signing a minor-league deal with the Red Sox few weeks ago, he’s slashed .318/.333/.636 and gone yard four times in 45 Double-A plate appearances.
Barfield talked about his journey, which includes a tenuous relationship with pitching, prior to a recent game.
Barfield on his self-identity and his temporary conversion: “I hit, man. That’s what I do. The A’s experimented with me on the mound, but that wasn’t my choice. The situation I was in… there was just no opportunity for me to get regular at-bats in Triple-A. I got buried on the depth chart and basically got forced into pitching. I didn’t want to do it. I still don’t want to. It’s something I’m capable of doing, but it’s not what I’m meant to do.
“In all honesty, it never even should have happened. The A’s had success with Sean Doolittle, but the thing is, he pitched in college. He’d already been successful as a pitcher. The only reason he got converted is that he had some injuries that kept him from swinging a bat; he’d been a -home-run guy in the minors. He had quick success and got to the big leagues as a pitcher, but he threw harder than I did. I was throwing 88-90. Nothing crazy.
“I wouldn’t say I failed at pitching. I went to the California League, which is the best hitter’s league in affiliated ball, and I was pitching out of the pen maybe once every six days. It was a tough situation that I made the best of. I mean, I didn’t really do too bad. I had a 4.6 ([RA], but I had a lot of strikeouts. There were some command issues, but that’s pretty much to be expected for somebody who’d never pitched before.
“I didn’t pitch in high school. I could hit homers, so it wasn’t even on my radar. Nope, I’m not a pitcher. I’m capable of pitching in an emergency, but hitting, and playing the outfield, is my calling. It’s what I love to do. I’d rather fail as a position player than succeed as a pitcher.”
On using the Atlantic League as a springboard: “I’m going to be a big leaguer sooner or later. It’s just a matter of an opportunity coming along. People see me pitch, but don’t forget, man, I can swing it. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve really honed my skills in the last couple of years, especially in the Atlantic League, getting everyday at-bats. People see that I’ve pitched, and this and that, but… I don’t want anybody to lose sight of the fact that I can swing the freaking bat. My confidence is high. If you lose confidence, man, you’re done in this game.
“The Atlantic League isn’t a hard road [to affiliated ball]. I played there a little bit in 2015, all of last year, and part of this year, and there are a lot of guys where it’s, ‘Why the heck is he here?’ Jerry Sands just got signed by the Giants. I mean, the guy was in the big leagues with the White Sox last year. It just happens that you end up there. Everybody’s situation is different, but there are guys in the Atlantic League who can play.
“You get out what you put in. You’re pretty self-reliant in indy ball, because there aren’t organizational policies. You can either be there just to exist, or you can try to get the heck out of there. I can’t speak for everyone, but most of the guys in the Atlantic League are playing to get another opportunity somewhere, whether it’s Mexico, Korea, Japan, Taiwan… it’s some highly competitive ball.
“I had teams from Mexico contact me a bunch — I was there for a little while in 2015 — but I told them no, it isn’t the route I want to go. Maybe down the road. I was playing to get a real opportunity in Korea or Japan. But what I really want is to be a big leaguer. I wouldn’t be playing this long, and going down this road, if it was just to play. And do you know what? If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I’ll know that I did everything I could to try to make it happen.”
On signing with the Red Sox: “It was very quick. I had no conversations with anybody prior to getting a call. I was taking a nap after golfing on an off day, and I got a call from Sugarland’s GM, saying the Red Sox had contacted him, and could he give them my number. He said, ‘I think they’re interested in you for Double-A, and I know you probably don’t want to go to Double-A again.’ I said, ‘That’s OK, I definitely want to know what they have to say.’ So I got on the horn and talked to them, and I was on a flight the first thing the next morning.
“The only way I was going to sign is if I was going to play. I’d made the mistake of signing with the Rockies. I was with them in 2015, in spring training, and got released because there was no room. Then they signed me back, but I didn’t get to play much. I essentially wasted 2015. The Red Sox made it very clear that wasn’t going to happen — they were going to give me a chance to play — and here I am.
“I love what I do. Baseball has always been priority No.1… or, I guess priority No. 2. Life is priority No. 1. Baseball is playing a game. But when I’m out there on the field, nothing else matters.
“Would I [pitch again if asked]? It depends on the situation. I really don’t want to, but if it’s an extreme situation… I don’t want anything I do to take away from what I do at the plate. I’m a team guy, but if going out there hinders me as a position player… in all honesty, even having a conversation about pitching right now is… I’m a hitter. I’m a damn good hitter. I want people to be afraid when I’m up at the plate. That’s why I don’t want to pitch.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.