With a slider Tigers helped him reshape, RHP Barnes makes immediate impact

Detroit News

Detroit – When Jacob Barnes, a free agent this winter, was meeting with teams and looking for an opportunity to continue his nomadic baseball journey after the lockout, he essentially had one request.

He wasn’t demanding a big-league contract, he knew he’d have to parlay an minor-league deal into a big-league job. He didn’t demand an early-April opt-out in his deal. None of that.

What he wanted was a team with a progressive pitching department willing to help him reshape his slider. Simple request, but amazingly, most teams weren’t willing to commit to it.

Then he talked to the Tigers. With their brand-new development department and high-tech pitch lab and army of instructors and sports science specialists, the Tigers were not only willing to grant that request, they were fired up to get started.

“I knew right away I was in the right place,” Barnes said last month.

Flash ahead to Opening Day Friday. Barnes, initially optioned to Triple-A Toledo then brought back to big-league camp a few days later, was summoned to pitch the eighth inning in a close game against the middle of the White Sox batting order.

“This level is not going to spook him, the guy has a lot of (Major League) service time,” manager AJ Hinch said. “He’s got good stuff. Quite honestly, we made a mistake sending him out of camp when we did. That did not indicate our comfort with him, it’s just we didn’t have any more outings for him in camp.

“We may have undervalued him a little bit at that point.”

It was revealing Friday how Hinch used what is essentially a make-shift bullpen — put together hastily after late-camp injuries to Andrew Chafin and Jose Cisnero. Down 3-0 and having to pull starter Eduardo Rodriguez after four innings, Hinch used veteran long man Drew Hutchison for two innings.

Then in the seventh, after the Tigers cut the deficit to 3-1, he used Alex Lange, a leverage reliever usually used to protect leads.

“When a team starts to chip away at a lead, I think the team earns a chance to stay in the game. So you put in one of your better relievers and see if you can give yourself a better chance,” Hinch said. “Not to say other guys couldn’t do it. But there was a little message there, that hey, we’re still in this and we’re going to use our hot hand here.”

Hutchison and Lange kept the White Sox off the board and then Hinch, with Michael Fulmer and Joe Jimenez available, opted to go with the right-hander Barnes in the eighth to face the middle of the White Sox order — switch-hitter Yasmani Grandal, right-handed hitter Eloy Jimenez and switch-hitter Leury Garcia.

Barnes used his cutter to get the left-handed hitters to fly out and he broke out the slider to get a rollover grounder from Jimenez — though Statcast recorded the pitch as another cutter.

“I don’t even bother to tell them anymore,” Barnes said with a smile. “The cutter is always like 88 to 90 mph. Whenever you see it from 84 to 86, sometimes 87, it’s the slider.”

The other way you can tell is the slider has downward movement. The cutter moves sharply horizontally, cutting in on hitters. The fastball, which he was throwing firmly between 94-96 mph, stays on plane, usually up in the strike zone.

The Jimenez at-bat was a useful illustration of why Barnes was so adamant about reshaping his slider. Over the last few seasons, bouncing around on five different teams since 2018, his ERA and FIP (fielding independent pitching) numbers reflected a guy who’d been dealing with some bad luck.

His ERA was 6.58 while his FIP was 4.92. That didn’t jibe, especially when he had a 24% strikeout rate.

“I think what happened was, the slider and cutter became too similar,” he said. “I had to find a way to separate them and make them two distinctive pitches.”

Working with Tigers pitching coaches Chris Fetter and Juan Nieves, plus minor league pitching coordinator Gabe Ribas, he made that happen. Hopefully, some of the weak contact that was finding holes with the cutter continue to be ground ball outs with the slider.

“The FIP shows the contact,” Barnes said. “So if I can avoid that weak, put-it-in-play ball and maybe make it different off the cutter to where they aren’t able to flare it — now it’s a weak ground ball like yesterday with Jimenez. If that pitch is a cutter (because it’s up in the zone more), he probably flares it to left. It’s not hit hard but it’s in the air to left.

“That one (the slider), because it has more depth, he ends up rolling it over.”

And Barnes already knows, ground balls, with the way the Tigers shift (most outs in the shift in baseball last year), are his friend.

“It’s impressive,” Barnes said. “When they explained it to me this spring, I was like, ‘I like this. This actually plays for me.’”

Twitter@cmccosky

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