The Sneakiest Reliever Upgrade on the Market This Summer

Pretty much every contender in baseball is looking for a reliever or two right now. The changing strategies relating to playoff baseball mean you can never have too many quality bullpen arms, and as the Cubs showed last year, you can’t necessarily count on guys who were good in the regular season being able to still go in the postseason. Even teams with strong current bullpens are kicking the tires on available arms because you can’t be certain that what you have now will still be ready to pitch at an elite level in a few months.

Which is why the price for relievers is always pretty high this time of year. And while there aren’t many Aroldis Chapmans or Andrew Millers available right now — Zach Britton would qualify if he were definitely healthy, but the Orioles sticking with Brad Brach as their closer right now is a pretty big red flag — we’re going to see a lot of bullpen arms traded over the next two weeks. The Nationals already paid a real price to add Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle to their beleaguered pen, and they probably aren’t done adding relievers.

With all this demand and a somewhat limited supply, it’s not easy to find a decent arm to help for the stretch run that doesn’t cost something a team really doesn’t want to give up. But I think there might be one reliever who could probably be had who might not cost a fortune and could really help a team this year and maybe in the future as well. If you’re bargain hunting for a reliever right now, I’ve got one name for you: Danny Barnes.

The Blue Jays have made it known that they’ll listen to offers on their non-core players. At 43-49, they’ve had a disappointing season, but they want to keep the gang mostly together for another run in 2018. The problem is their rental arms aren’t that appealing; Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano have been terrible this year, and Joe Smith hasn’t pitched in a month due to shoulder problems. So Barnes, the fringiest of fringe prospects heading into the season, might represent their best chance to provide a contender with an interesting arm for the stretch run without dismantling any of their core stars.

How fringey a prospect was Barnes? He was listed in the “others to consider” category on Eric Longenhagen’s pre-season top prospects list, but those guys are all ones who didn’t make the cut of at least a 40 FV ranking, which is a pretty low bar to clear. Barnes as a 35th round pick back in 2010, and thanks to a number of injuries, has been bouncing around the Blue Jays’ system ever since. He put up pretty good numbers throughout his minor league career, but since he’s been a bit older than most prospects and the stuff is fairly pedestrian, he’s never been considered a legit prospect.

Thanks to a bunch of injuries this year, though, the Jays have needed to use their pitching depth, and that meant Barnes got a few chances to show what he could do in April. And given the way he’s pitched, the team hasn’t been able to send him down since he got his last call-up on May 1st.

At first glance, his numbers aren’t eye-popping. His 7% walk rate is above-average but nothing spectacular. The 29% strikeout rate is good but nothing off the charts like some elite relievers put up, and his very low 28% GB% shows that he gets those strikeouts by pitching up in the zone, which can be a dangerous trade-off. His 4.23 xFIP is nothing to write home about, and profiles him as a sixth or seventh guy in a bullpen, not anyone you’d want to count on for high-leverage innings in October.

His current 2.38 ERA is based almost entirely on a .214 BABIP, which obviously isn’t going to continue forever. So, it’s pretty easy to see regression coming, and wonder why I’m writing a post about one of a hundred arms floating around the end of MLB rosters that can put up numbers like this. Well, this is why I’m writing about Danny Barnes.

2017 xwOBA Leaderboard
Pitcher xwOBA
Felipe Rivero 0.217
Danny Barnes 0.224
Andrew Miller 0.224
Max Scherzer 0.226
Anthony Swarzak 0.228
Chris Devenski 0.235
Raisel Iglesias 0.239
Alex Wood 0.241
Chris Sale 0.244
Corey Knebel 0.244
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 150 batters faced.

Thanks primarily to that .214 BABIP, Barnes has allowed a .225 wOBA so far this year. And based on MLB’s calculation of his expected wOBA, including exit velocity and launch angle of his batted balls, that’s exactly what he should have to this point.

As mentioned, Barnes is a flyball guy, which can lead to damaging contact, but so far, Barnes has almost entirely avoided hard-hit balls in the air. Among pitchers with at least 100 plays tracked by Statcast, he has the fifth-lowest percentage of balls in play at 95+ mph. But exit velocity isn’t really the story here. He’s 14th-lowest in average-EV on non-grounders, but he’s 10th in highest average launch angle on non-grounders; the only other guy in the top 15 on both of those lists is Kenley Jansen.

To illustrate what hitters are doing against Barnes, let’s look at the radial chart that Baseball Savant provides.

That chart shows 73 tracked non-grounders from Barnes this year, with 49 of them falling into the “hit under” category. Just two of those 49 popped up balls have gone for hits; this is where Barnes’ .214 BABIP is coming from. Infield flies are basically automatic outs, and Barnes already has generated eight of them this year, giving him one of the highest pop-up rates in all of baseball.

So while he’s not a true-talent .214 BABIP guy, the batted ball data does suggest that Barnes is perhaps doing something that allows him to get guys to swing under the ball, which is resulting in a lot of easy outs for his defenders. And so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s a fastball/change-up guy who primarily pitches by changing elevation of his two best pitches. While most relievers are throwing hard breaking balls to get swings and misses, Barnes is following a more basic up-and-down patter with two pitches that look similar enough to keep hitters guessing, and if they can’t determine whether it’s a fastball or a change-up quickly enough, figuring out where to swing isn’t so easy.

This pitch mix is also why Barnes is destroying left-handed batters this year, despite being a right-handed pitcher. In 52 plate appearances against Barnes in 2017, lefties have hit just .157/.173/.196 against him, with a 17/1 K/BB ratio. Barnes has the seventh-lowest wOBA allowed versus left-handed hitters this year, and the fifth-lowest FIP.

Of course, all of this is super small sample data. Barnes has thrown 55 innings as a big leaguer, and most of them in pretty low leverage situations. He’s not exactly a proven shut-down reliever at this point. But there are reasons to be interested. His minor league numbers were good enough to have KATOH call him a sleeper this spring. He’s showing the kind of pitch repertoire that lets pitchers be effective against hitters from both sides of the plate. He’s running a low contact rate and a high rate of infield flies. He’s always had good command, and throws plenty of strikes.

And, because he’s a rookie, he’s not a short-term acquisition. While you never want to really trust any reliever to maintain elite performances for a long time, there’s upside with Barnes beyond 2017 if any of this proves to be real. He won’t put in a dent in anyone’s budget for a few years at least, if he somehow turns into a legitimate relief ace, he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season.

So, yeah, Danny Barnes. Not a household name. Maybe not a guy you’ve ever heard of. But if I’m a contender looking to upgrade my bullpen this year, and I don’t want to pay the sticker-shock prices being hung on the name value arms, I’m calling the Jays about their 27-year-old rookie. He might not have the kind of stuff that suggests that you want him pitching high-leverage innings in October, but so far this year, he’s performing exactly like that kind of guy.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

Guess the question I would have would be why would the Jays move him if they are serious about contending this year and next? Pretty clear that Gibbons trusts him (he’s clearly 3rd in line from a trust perspective/usage), and he’s cheap and young on a Jays roster that needs both of those things. Not sure why the Jays would give him up unless they are getting quality back.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Fair enough, although I really only see this if the Jays decide to actually sell this year. Or unless you are getting a viable LF/2B option back in a package deal.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Danny Barnes has a pretty long track record of success in the minors though. Relievers are by no means a reliable investment, but it seems like there is plenty of value to be extracted here.

What do you think they could reasonably get back if they traded him today?

6 years ago
Reply to  jevant

If the Jays project Barnes (optimistically given reliever variability) for 1 WAR next year, they’d probably be willing to receive somewhere around 1 WAR next year from a projectable player that’s still in the minors. This could just be a service time shift, since the value from Barnes this year is wasted. Given that this is a reliever and variability etc., for a controllable player in a position of need you could see how this could get below 1 projected war if the player had been consistent and showed any upside potential. Even trading for a reliever that isn’t ready until next year extends the clock for the Jays control. These all sound like pretty cheap things to give up if you have a dire need for middle reliever.