In yet another season of disappointing Angels pitching, Jaime Barria has been one of the few bright spots. In his third MLB season, Barria has produced a 3.26 ERA in 30 1/3 innings. After making two “relief outings” to start the year (he pitched 9 1/3 innings in those outings), Barria has put together a strong four-game stretch as a starter. As a whole, Barria has a 3.26 ERA as well as a 3.26 FIP in his six games.
Barria isn’t new to having success as an MLB pitcher. In his 2018 rookie season, Barria ran a 3.41 ERA and 1.4 fWAR across 129 1/3 innings. As a former top prospect who debuted at the young age of 21, there was plenty of hope for Barria coming into the 2019 season. Barria, however, declined in a major way by posting a 6.42 ERA and 6.23 FIP in 82 2/3 innings last season. Barria, as well as Jose Suarez, was on the record as saying he didn’t mesh well with 2019 pitching coach Doug White. A major switch from a near-split on fastball/sinker usage in 2018 turned into strictly fastball usage in 2019. Barria ditched his sinker and bumped up his slider usage by more than 10 percent. Interestingly enough, his pitch usage hasn’t changed much this year other than a roughly 5 percent drop in change-up usage and a 5 percent increase in sinker usage.
Coming into 2020, on the heels of a dreadful 2019 season, Barria was rarely mentioned as a legit rotation option. Now, he’s performed in a decent enough sample to explore what has changed and how legit this performance is.
Barria has been an elite weak-contact producer
Barria’s still below average in terms of whiffs (24th percentile), fastball velocity (40th percentile), and spin rate. Barria is posting career-best marks in strikeouts and walks but it’s not a sizeable difference from last year. Where Barria has shown major growth, however, has been his ability to miss opposing hitter’s barrels.
What do these numbers mean? Statcast defines barrels as “balls hit 98+ mph between a 28-32-degree launch angle (aka most extra-base hits)”. xwOBA is short for Expected Weighted On-Base Average, which, per Statcast, is “formulated using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, Sprint Speed.” xwOBAcon is the same principle but only looks at balls in play and excludes walks, strikeouts, etc. An expected ERA is simply “translating xwOBA to an ERA scale”.
Essentially, Barria is elite when it comes to what hitters do when they put the ball in play. For years, following the findings of Voros McCracken’s DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Statistics) and the post-Moneyball revolution, there was a common theory in the Sabermetric field that pitchers didn’t control what happened when the ball was in play. This led to the onslaught of statistics such as FIP (Field Independent Pitching) and led to a heavy reliance on underlying numbers like strikeouts and walks.
While strikeouts and walks are still the best predictors for success, the emergence of Statcast has shown that pitchers can control what happens when balls are in play. We now have visible evidence with numbers like exit velocity, launch angle, etc that show that pitchers do have some control in terms of the quality of contact against them. In Barria’s case, he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball at inducing weak contact.
In terms of xwOBA and xERA, only Trevor Bauer edges Barria in those categories. Barria’s quality of contact success is also abundantly clear in other areas. He allowed his first barrelled baseball of the season in last Friday’s start and leads baseball in barrel percentage (1.2 percent), a stark drop from his 10.7 percent barrel rate last year. After allowing hard hits in 40 percent of batted balls last season, that number has dropped to roughly 30 percent this year. It’s really hard to overstate how impressive this is. Of the 86 batted balls against Barria, just one ball has been barreled.
But if Barria’s improvements in quality of contact aren’t tied to a change in pitch mix, what has ignited this improvement?
Barria’s superb command
Piggybacking off the same tweet I referenced earlier, you can see how Barria’s command has sparked his improvements.
Among starters, only Clayton Kershaw has thrown more first-pitch strikes than Barria. Among pitchers with at least 100 plate appearances against them, Barria is near the top at getting pitches in the zone (89th percentile). He excels at keeping pitches out of the middle of the zone and working on the edges (78th percentile). He’s even doing a strong job of getting hitters to chase (70th percentile) despite the lack of whiffs.
If you’re not going to strike hitters out, this is about the next best thing you can do. Getting ahead in the count, throwing strikes, and sitting on the edges of the zone are some pretty clear indicators of strong command. Barria has made up for the lack of whiffs with a superb ability to locate his pitches. Despite the subpar stuff and strikeout ability, Barria has dominated in his six appearances this year with elite command.
What to make of this?
I think the first thing to acknowledge with all of this is the very small sample we are dealing with. While Barria has excelled this year in his weak contact ability, he was only decent in his 2018 rookie season and dreadful last year. Given that his 2018-2019 sample was much larger (212 innings), it’s important to not take his current 2020 sample at full face value.
That being said, 30 1/3 innings of superb production is still noteworthy. It’s pretty hard to fake allowing a single barrel in 86 plate appearances. Most notably, a 2019 study from Sam Sharpe, a data scientist at MLB, showed that there is some predictive value in both xwOBAcon and barrels. In simpler terms, what Barria is doing right now may carry over to some extent heading into next year.
Is this performance real? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to gauge anything in this whacky 2020 season. The fact that Barria has both the strong ERA and strong-weak contact skills is very encouraging. The lack of whiffs, however, means there is less predictability in this carrying over into the future. But for Barria and the Angels, the 24-year-old has performed well enough to warrant a legitimate rotation shot for the 2021 season. For both parties, the hope is that this performance is legit and Barria performs again in a full 2021 season.