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Kyle Barraclough and the success of no balls in play

Kyle Barraclough does not allow batters to put the ball in play, and that is usually a path to success in the bigs.

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Yesterday the Miami Marlins placed A.J. Ramos on the disabled list with a right third digit fracture, leaving the team without its best reliever and closer. Combine that with the move of David Phelps to the rotation and this has left the club thinner than expected at the back of the bullpen. Still, it has Fernando Rodney, the closer acquired from the San Diego Padres who was lights out before arriving in Miami but has struggled since then. On Rodney’s side for assuming a closer role is the premise of “closer mentality” and the experience in the ninth inning, for what that is worth.

It is very easy to argue that the better option for the ninth may very well be 26-year-old righty Kyle Barraclough, a hard-thrower with a devastating wipeout slider and, well, sometimes that is all you need. Barraclough has been tremendously impressive this year, posting a 2.88 ERA and 2.27 FIP in 50 innings pitched, worth 1.3 wins according to FanGraphs. Technically, his work has been the best performance by a Marlins reliever this season, and that includes Ramos and the recently-shifted Phelps.

What is the key to Barraclough’s success? Well, as he himself notes in an interview with FanGraphs’s David Laurilla, he misses bats.

Barraclough on limiting damage and missing bats: “The walks matter — you obviously want to limit them as much as you can — but my ability to get out of jams with strikeouts is what helps me the most. If you walk a guy, but don’t give up a lot of hits… I mean, if you take your walk rate, K rate and hit rate, and two of them are good, that’s going to translate to better statistics, to fewer earned runs. You want your WHIP to be close to 1.00, or under 1.00, and if you walk a guy but don’t give up any hits, it’s going to be hard for them to score.

“I’m absolutely trying to miss bats. It’s somewhat dependent on the situation, but if I get to two strikes, I’m pitching for the strikeout. Obviously, you can’t strike someone out before you get to two strikes. Earlier in the counts, I’m looking to attack, to get ahead and make them miss. At the same time, if someone puts the ball in play, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I need my strikeouts.’ I’m happy to take a two-pitch fly out or ground out.”

So much is made of strikeouts as a hitter but regular fans seem to be accepting of a pitcher not getting strikeouts. However, the truth is that the most guaranteed way, and thus the way that most defines a pitcher’s skill, to get outs is the strikeout, and guys who get a lot of them are giving themselves more of a chance to be effective. Controlling the result of a ball in play is not something a pitcher can do well, but striking out hitters and avoiding walks is far more under their purview.

As it so turns out, Barraclough is big on avoiding balls in play, in large part because he accumulates strikeouts and walks at huge rates. From Laurilla’s interview:

Barraclough’s 14.75 strikeouts per nine innings is tops in the National League, and third highest in MLB behind Dellin Betances (15.86) and Andrew Miller (15.38). His 6.12 walks per nine innings is the most of any pitcher, in either league.

Striking out a ton of guys is going to cause you to succeed, but walking a lot of hitters is bad too. There is a careful balance to doing this, and of course it would probably be preferable for Barraclough or any player to just allow those walks to be balls in play which could turn into anything. But as far as relievers who get an extended chance to pitch in the majors, avoiding balls in play has generally led to success. I took a look at the relievers since 2014 who have pitched at least 100 innings. The list of guys on the low end of balls in play allowed is a who’s who of dominant pen aces.

Reliever, 2014-2016 K% BB% In-play% ERA FIP
Aroldis Chapman 44.3 10.5 44.1 1.83 1.52
Andrew Miller 42.5 6.6 49.1 1.88 1.85
Dellin Betances 40.7 9.0 49.3 1.66 1.87
Craig Kimbrel 38.0 10.2 51.0 2.36 2.33
Brad Boxberger 33.6 10.1 55.0 3.05 3.64
Kenley Jansen 38.4 5.3 55.7 2.21 1.85
A.J. Ramos 29.2 12.8 56.6 2.42 3.06
Cody Allen 33.3 9.2 57.1 2.52 2.65
Greg Holland 32.1 10.6 57.3 2.44 2.43
Wade Davis 32.9 8.7 57.6 1.09 1.92
Kyle Barraclough 35.9 16.7 46.8 2.78 2.65

Three pitchers who have reached at least 100 innings in the last thee years have an “in-play” rate (defined as any plate appearance that did not end in a strikeout, walk, or hit-by-pitch) of less than 50 percent. Those three pitchers were arguably the three best relievers in the game since that time period. The rest of the guys are closers or elite aces with the lone possible exception of Brad Boxberger.

To a degree, this is a selection bias. Relievers can walk a ton of batters and have half of their plate appearances end in balls in not in play, but those relievers who walk too many guys end up being selected out of the sample of players who reach 100 innings. An example of a bad reliever who still allowed few balls in play is Tommy Kahnle, who spent time with the Rockies and White Sox pitching to a 4.53 ERA and 4.54 FIP which were below average even in Coors Field. Kahnle walked a sample-high 14.6 percent of batters faced and struck out just 21.8 percent of them.

Of course, Barraclough is not that guy, and he is far more likely to be similar to fellow Marlins reliever Ramos than Kahnle. Like Ramos, he throws wilder and often out of the strike zone, with a career in-zone rate of 44 percent. He also is not the type of pitcher who picks at the strike zone, as both Ramos and Barraclough have low swing rates against. Batters have offered at Barraclough at a career 42 percent rate, while they swing at Ramos’s stuff at a 41 percent rate this season. The difference between the two is in terms of pure stuff. Ramos has a great changeup, one of the best bullpen changeups in baseball, but he has a rather unassuming fastball and serviceable slider. Barraclough, on the other hand, uses the same sort of “controlled wildness” approach but does so with a 96 mph fastball and one of the best wipeout sliders in the game. And that effective wildness extends itself to confusing hitters as to where to swing. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs put it best:

Consider that Barraclough has baseball’s third-highest strikeout rate, while also having baseball’s sixth-lowest first-pitch-strike rate. He hasn’t done a great job of getting ahead. But he has been able to claw back because hitters just aren’t particularly inclined to offer. One more granular stat I looked up: Barraclough has baseball’s second-lowest swing rate in non-two-strike counts. When batters haven’t had to be in swing mode, they’ve been content to let Barraclough do whatever. Sometimes, he puts the guy on base. More often, he’ll find a second strike, and then the slider is weaponized. It’s not the most elegant style of relieving, but it’s worked to date. The Marlins bullpen has needed someone somewhat reliable.

Barraclough not only has a low swing rate, but batters are more inclined to not swing at in-zone pitches rather than out-of-zone pitches. The league average pitcher gets swings on 30 percent of pitches out of the zone, like Barraclough. However, his 55 percent in-zone swing rate is eight percentage points below the league average. He is following in the footsteps of Ramos, who has a similar ratio leading to success this season.

Both guys can succeed this way, but doing so with high-level stuff is much easier than with Ramos’s assortment of tricks. Either way, Barraclough is adept at not getting balls put into play, and that generally has led to success in the big leagues.