In 2013, the Angels signed a 16-year-old right-handed pitcher out of Panama named Jaime Barria for $60,000. Due to his age and only scattered success, Barria was a mostly unheralded prospect until 2016, when he posted a 3.85 earned run average in 25 starts with the Burlington Bees, the Angels Class-A affiliate.
Barria was never a prolific strikeout pitcher. Rather, much of his success came from simply throwing a lot of strikes. In that 2016 season, Barria walked just 4.2% of the batters he faced, and his walk rate had never reached 5.0% in any of his previous seasons.
The right-hander established himself as one of the best pitching prospects in the Angels’ system in 2017, when he pitched at three different levels. He began the year in High-A, and, after 11 starts, he was promoted to Double-A. He started 12 games there and moved up to Triple-A near the end of the season. All the while, his results remained steady.
His ERA at each level last year looked like this: 2.48, 3.21, 2.45, respectively. His strikeout rate: 22.2%, 18.1%, 22.0%. And his walk rate: 5.1%, 5.8%, 5.1%. That performance earned Barria his first trip to big-league Spring Training in 2018, and, after just one April appearance in Triple-A, the Angels called him up to make his major-league debut as a 21-year-old.
Since his debut on April 11, Barria has done nothing but impress. He has not given up more than two runs or five hits in a start. He has issued only seven walks and owns a 2.13 ERA in 25 1/3 frames across five starts in the majors. Barria features a four-pitch arsenal, but his early success stems from his ability to refine three. While he also mixes in a sinker once in a while, he throws his four-seam fastball, slider, and changeup most of the time.
He has thrown his four-seam fastball more than the others, doing so 39.7% of the time. He has held hitters to a .184 batting average and one extra-base hit against the pitch. Barria doesn’t have overpowering velocity, though. His fastball has averaged under 92 mph at a time when the average starting pitcher’s fastball velocity is over 93 mph. Instead, Barria has relied a little bit on movement and a lot on location.
In terms of movement, Barria’s fastball has about average horizontal movement and above average vertical movement. But Barria’s ability to locate has taken the pitch to the next level. The right-hander has demonstrated a clear plan of attack with his fastball, which is to get ahead in the count with it and, once ahead, elevate it. Here is the location of every first-pitch fastball that Barria has thrown this year:
Barria doesn’t seem to target one specific location with his first-pitch fastballs, but he’s consistently in and around the strike zone. Of the 43 times he has started a batter with a fastball, it has ended up in the strike zone or on the edges of the strike zone 35 times.
When he goes to his fastball on the first pitch, he just focuses on throwing it for a strike. When he’s ahead in the count, however, he refines his approach.
As seen in the heatmap above (The darker the color, the more pitches concentrated in that location), Barria pounds the upper part of the strike zone (and above it) when he gets ahead of batters. Only 18 pitchers have a higher average fastball height when ahead in the count, and all six of the strikeouts that Barria has generated from his fastball have been on elevated pitches. For instance, here he is punching out Adrian Beltre with a high fastball in his first start:
He did the same to Charlie Blackmon a couple of starts later. This one was a little bit higher.
And to Carlos Correa in his most recent start. This one was even higher.
It works against right-handed hitters. It works against left-handed hitters. It works against some of the game’s best hitters. And it works in the zone, on the edge of the zone, and above the zone. Barria’s fastball has movement, and he locates it extraordinarily well, yes, but you don’t see these sorts of hitters get overpowered by fastballs every day, especially not by a low-90s one. The main reason, other than movement and location, that hitters have had so much trouble with the pitch seems to be the fact that they also have to contend with Barria’s off-speed offerings.
Barria’s performance against righties and lefties has been relatively even, and that’s because he has an off-speed pitch designed to counteract each. Thrown 32.3% of the time, Barria’s slider, which averages 81.5 mph, is his second-most used pitch, just behind his four-seamer.
His slider has been his go-to pitch against righties; at about 46%, he actually throws his slider more often than his fastball when facing same-handed batters. He has limited his mistakes with the pitch and located it remarkably well, commanding the low and away corner, as seen below.
Right-handed batters have not stood a chance against the pitch. They have whiffed on 40% of their swings at it, and putting it play hasn’t helped much, either. Right-handers are hitting just .143 against Barria’s slider. Here he is getting a couple of the Rockies’ right-handed batters to swing and miss at his slider.
First, he got Daniel Castro to chase one out of the zone for strike three.
Then, he struck out Ian Desmond on one in the zone.
Lefties haven’t had any luck versus the slider either, and, against all hitters, Barria has surrendered just four hits on the pitch, none of which have gone for extra bases. Opponents are simply not making hard contact against the pitch; Barria’s 81.7 mph average exit velocity versus his slider is the 14th-best mark among 135 pitchers who throw one and have thrown at least 400 total pitches this season.
Despite dominating righties with his slider, Barria has actually been better against left-handed batters than right-handed ones. This is due to his fastball, which lefties have just one hit against, and his changeup, which plays the role against left-handed hitters that his slider plays against right-handed hitters.
Although it has also been effective against lefties, Barria drops his slider usage to about 22% when facing left-handed batters, opting to lean on his 83-mph changeup instead; about 27% of Barria’s pitches to left-handed batters are changeups. Just like with his slider, Barria has demonstrated exceptional command, painting the low and outside corner to lefties with ease, as shown below. It looks like a mirror image of the slider heatmap above.
As was the case with his fastball, the horizontal movement of Barria’s changeup is around average while the vertical movement is above average. With a batting average of .313, left-handed batters have had some success against the pitch, though they have benefited from an abnormally high batting average on balls in play of over .400. Still, they are whiffing on more than a third of their swings, and have struck out five times on the pitch. Here is Marwin Gonzalez flailing at it in Barria’s most recent start:
And again later in the game, on a pitch that ended up in the right-handed batter’s box:
Pitching to Contact
If you just looked at these GIFs, you might think that Barria turned into a strikeout pitcher once he got to the the majors. But while he does generate slightly more swinging strikes than the average pitcher, his strikeout rate of 19.4% is below average. As mentioned earlier, Barria found success in the minors by throwing a large amount of strikes, and he has continued doing that at the big-league level.
68% of Barria’s pitches have been strikes, and he has started 64% of the batters he has faced with a strike, an above-average rate. Barria does not have the typical swing-and-miss stuff that a dominant pitcher like, say, Chris Sale does, but he makes it work by staying around the zone and generating weak contact.
Among pitchers who have had at least 70 of their pitches put in play, Barria has the 46th-lowest average exit velocity and the 37th-lowest hard-contact rate, and his pitches have been barreled (Really squared up, more or less) at the 25th-lowest rate. Each of those numbers puts Barria in the 75th percentile or better, when it comes to inducing soft contact. He achieves this because of a few factors.
First, opposing batters swing at just over half of the pitches that Barria throws. This is an above-average rate, which makes sense because he is throwing a bunch of strikes. The intriguing part is that he is getting batters to chase an inordinate amount of pitches that are out of the strike zone. The league-average chase rate for a pitcher is 30%, meaning that hitters swing at less than a third of pitches that are not in the zone. Barria’s currently sits at 40%, the fourth-highest mark among 263 pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched.
Batters also swing at more of Barria’s pitches in the zone than the average pitcher, but the difference between Barria and the average pitcher in that area is only about 5%. This gets us to the reason that Barria has been so good at inducing weak contact.
While batters are chasing a ton of Barria’s pitches, they’re not missing them. Barria’s chase rate is 10% higher than average, and so is his out-of-zone contact rate. In other words, batters are often making weak contact because they are often making contact with pitches that would be called balls had they not swung at them. This is a testament to Barria’s control, as it means that even when Barria throws a pitch out of the zone, it doesn’t miss by much. If his pitches were regularly well out of the zone, batters would be neither swinging at them nor hitting them, and they’re doing both.
And while batters are swinging at a larger amount of pitches in the zone against Barria than the average pitcher, they are also putting fewer in play, perhaps because so few of Barria’s strikes are in the middle of the plate.
Thus, opposing batters are making more contact on undesirable pitches and less contact on desirable ones, resulting in low-quality contact much of the time.
Barria in the Future
An ability to pound the strike zone has been Barria’s most-refined talent throughout his professional career. In the majors, about a third of his pitches have come when he is ahead of the count, which puts him in the 93rd percentile. Furthermore, his 6.8% walk rate is considerably lower than the average pitcher. But he doesn’t just throw strikes.
As demonstrated above, Barria has pinpoint command with each of his most-used pitches, and he can place them in the most-difficult-to-hit locations at will. Barria lives on the corners of the strike zone and is therefore adept at generating soft contact, allowing him to succeed with below-average velocity.
Moving forward, Barria’s results will undoubtedly regress. A couple of the statistics that attempt to gauge a pitcher’s performance better than ERA by adjusting it for factors beyond earned runs, Fielding Independent Pitching and Deserved Run Average, differ wildly in their assessment of Barria’s performance thus far; Barria has a very good 3.23 FIP and a poor 4.95 DRA, both significantly higher than his sparkling 2.13 ERA.
He will probably settle somewhere in between those two numbers, which, while not flashy, would provide a great boost for the Angels’ future. That is also assuming that Barria is done improving and that this is the best he will ever be. For a 21-year-old who has already accomplished so much, that doesn’t seem all that likely.
Featured image via MLB.com.