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Kyle Barraclough’s impressive Marlins relief season

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If Kyle Barraclough finishes the season on the pace he has set, he will post the best strikeout season by any Marlins reliever.

Miami Marlins v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Kyle Barraclough has been quite a revelation for the Miami Marlins and their front office. Most guys who strike out and walk a lot of batters in the minors do not necessarily succeed in the big leagues. Barraclough looked like a marginal player whom the Marlins acquired in the deal that sent former closer Steve Cishek away. At the time, that move seemed like a concession that Cishek had failed so badly that the Marlins could not recoup his closer value. Now, as we near the end of 2016, it looks as though Barraclough has fully replaced Cishek and then some in the Marlins’ bullpen.

As we noted before, Barraclough’s success lies in one principle: avoiding balls in play. Barraclough strikes out a lot of guys, but he also walks plenty of them, and among the guys who tend to pitch longer in the league, avoiding balls in play is good because it usually means that you strike out more batters. There is a general upper limit to allowing walks, and guys who broach that limit never make it very far, particularly if they do not rack of up strikeouts. There is theoretically no limit in terms of getting strikeouts, as team will gladly take more K’s if you can provide them. So this naturally means that the pitchers who make it through a few seasons are usually the guys who get a lot more strikeouts in terms of avoiding balls in play rather than the high-walk variety.

However, Barraclough’s 2016 season approaches the upper limits of what we have recently seen among relievers. In the 3286 qualified relief seasons in the books since 1993, Barraclough’s current 38.5 percent strikeout rate is the 30th in that sample. That is the 99th-plus percentile in terms of strikeouts. At the same time, his 14.8 percent walk rate right now is tied for the 85th-highest in the same sample, putting it in the 97th percentile. When Barraclough avoids bats, he does so at historic rates.

This goes for historic rates for a Marlins player as well. When we look at the history of Marlins relievers, rarely has the team had a classic fireballing, heat-throwing closer who mows down hitters. It should not surprise you to hear that the Marlins’ four top strikeout seasons for relief pitchers occurred in the last three seasons, with Barraclough joined by David Phelps (31.5 percent as a reliever in 2016), A.J. Ramos (31.4 percent in 2015), and Steve Cishek (30.6 percent in 2014) making up the top four seasons. Beyond that, however, and you start running into pretty nondescript and surprising relief seasons like Kiko Calero’s 2009 campaign or Justin Miller’s 2007 season along with some of the best relief seasons in Marlins history. Of note, the only seasons in the top ten in strikeouts that do not include a good Marlins relief season include Mike Dunn in 2014 and 2015.

You would think that Barraclough’s walk rate is among the highest in Marlins history, and it is, but it does not top the list. A.J. Ramos’s 2014 season, in which he walked 15.9 percent of batters faced yet somehow escaped with a 2.11 ERA, was an impressive success story in and of itself. But Ramos’s spiritual predecessor, Renyel Pinto, a guy who also had a confusingly good changeup but was wild as wild could be, topped his walk rate with a 16.4 percent walk rate in 2009, complete with just a 21.1 percent strikeout rate to go with it. Somehow Pinto still got outs often enough to stay in a big-league bullpen for three years, including 2009, despite a confounding skillset.

While Ramos and Pinto walked a lot of guys and other Marlins starters competed in terms of strikeouts, Barraclough tops all Fish in terms of differential between strikeouts and walks, which is a good predictor of strong performance and future success. His 23.7 percent difference is the greatest in Marlins history, and when you look at this statistic, it tends to bring up the best Marlins relief seasons ever. Behind 2016 Barraclough is Cishek’s 2014 season, his career best, along with the 1993 campaign for the team’s inaugural closer Bryan Harvey, the 2014 season for Ramos, and Robb Nen’s 1996 season. By most measures, those four seasons are among the Marlins’ very best in team history.

Player. Season IP K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR(fWAR/bWAR)
Bryan Harvey, 1993 69 27.7 4.9 1.70 2.19 3.3
Robb Nen, 1996 83 28.2 6.4 1.95 2.06 2.8
Todd Jones, 2005 73 21.5 4.8 2.10 2.38 2.6
Armando Benitez, 2004 69 2/3 23.7 8.0 1.29 3.29 2.5
Steve Cishek, 2014 69 2/3 30.6 7.6 3.14 2.14 2.1
Kyle Barraclough, 2016 60 1/3 38.5 14.8 2.83 2.07 1.4

Barraclough likely is not going to catch these top five Marlins relief years, headlined by Harvey’s All-Star worthy 1993 performance that oddly led to his exit from baseball. Three of those five seasons had strikeout rates in the top ten, while the other two were odd aberrations in their own right. Todd Jones’s 2005 season was a career-changing campaign in which the former Detroit Tigers closer cut his typical walk rate in half, down to a career-low 4.8 percent at the time. He maintained the strikeouts until the following season, when he signed a lucrative deal to close for the Tigers again. Similarly, Armando Benitez’s comeback lasted one year as well, as he then signed with the San Francisco Giants and promptly lost all of his strikeout stuff, which was on the decline.

At the very least, the Marlins will not have to worry that Kyle Barraclough will lose his strikeout stuff any time soon. While (should-be) current closer A.J. Ramos is bearing down on 30 years of age and the team should be considering moving on from him, Barraclough is a more modest 26 years old right now and under team control for cheap prices for several more seasons. This year has been an excellent campaign that has opened some eyes. The likely only reason why Barraclough is not among the best campaigns in Marlins history is that he is not pitching in the highest-leverage situations like the closers did in working the ninth inning. I have a feeling that may not last for very long in Miami.