Stingers: Barnes makes path to pros
MINNEAPOLIS—Every winter, when the snowbirds head south to warmer, sunnier climates, there is at least one native Floridian who foregoes a week at his St. Petersburg residence for the expansive white blankets that engulf west central Minnesota.
He can throw a baseball just about as hard as anyone this side of noted flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, hitting triple digits with his fastball while also being able to snap off a filthy slider, yet the biggest thrill he gets may just come from snowmobiling, curling or driving across a frozen lake.
That man is Jacob Barnes, the former Willmar Stingers pitcher who has gone on to become one of the top relief pitchers for the Milwaukee Brewers in his second major league second season.
One of three former Stingers players to have made an MLB appearance along with Pirates pitcher Steven Brault and Royals infielder Hunter Dozier, Barnes has been the most successful of the group at that level. The right-hander is the only former Stinger to currently be on his team's active roster, as he has been since Opening Day this season, and he leads all National League pitchers with 21 holds.
Willmar: A second home
Barnes' path to Milwaukee has taken him through many cities, but, of all those stops, Willmar is the one that still feels like a second home.
One of the primary reasons Barnes maintains ties with the city are his host parents from his time with the Stingers, Art and Annette Benson.
"They just opened up everything to me," Barnes said. "When you first get there, you're meeting random people. Nobody really knows anyone. How they take you in, how everyone is nice there and treats you like they're your own family, I loved that."
One of the original Stingers, Barnes was one of the top pitchers on Willmar's inaugural Northwoods League team in 2010. In 25 innings, Barnes pitched to the tune of a 2.88 ERA with 43 strikeouts and eight saves.
Off the field, Barnes would spend much of his downtime with Art, Annette and their four children. "He always had such a good personality," Art said. "He would come home from games and we would just talk baseball, strategy, why this and that happened. I learned a lot about the game and pitching from him."
Following his junior season at Florida Gulf Coast University in 2011, the Brewers selected Barnes in the 14th round of the MLB Draft. While working his way through Milwaukee's minor league system, he remained in close contact with the Stingers and the Bensons.
"I'll text with (Stingers co-owner Ryan) Voz a couple times a month and my host family a couple of times a week," Barnes said.
Barnes also began making annual trips to Willmar in the winter, in which he would once again stay with his host family.
"He had never seen snow until he came up here during one winter," Art said. "So we wanted to give him the full winter experience."
That they did.
For Barnes' first winter excursion to Willmar, the Bensons opted to take him out on a snowy drive. It was no leisurely trip through the neighborhoods to view Christmas decorations on people's front lawns around the city, however.
Instead, the kid who was born, raised and went to college in Florida was going to experience riding in a car out on the middle of a frozen lake.
How did it go, exactly?
"I survived," Barnes laughed. "Barely."
Barnes must have also enjoyed it at least slightly, as he still makes those week-long trip to Willmar each off-season. That plan is no different this year, he said.
A unique connection
While many former Northwoods League players remain in some form of communication with their host families, Barnes admits his connection to Willmar is a bit unique.
"I don't think most people's connection is quite as strong," Barnes said. "[The Bensons] have been really good at keeping in contact. I think they go above and beyond what most do. I know most players have a good experience with their host families.
"I just think I might see mine a little more. I come up for five, six days in the winter, or if the Stingers are having an event, I'll try to stop by. I think I'm probably a little more into it than most, but overall in that league, I've heard good stories."
Just as they did during spring training in Arizona, the Bensons and Voz were in attendance to see Barnes when the Brewers were in Minneapolis for a two-game set at Target Field earlier in the week.
"It just shows what kind of person he is, the character he has, that he will always take plenty of time and spend it with us," Art said. "This spring, there were a few times when he would spend hours with us just sitting around or going out to eat when he could have been with his teammates or people more his age."
A go-to reliever
With the Brewers, Barnes has become one of manager Craig Counsell's go-to arms in high-leverage situations. His 54 appearances are the sixth-most among National League pitchers and lead Milwaukee, which have been one of the bigger surprises in baseball this season, trailing the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs by 1-1/2 games in the NL Central.
"Why Jacob can be, and has been, a really good pitcher is he can get outs in the strike zone," Counsell said. "He doesn't have to go out of the strike zone to get outs, and that's what makes a good pitcher."
As a prospect in the Brewers system, Barnes' eventual success at the major league level was far from a guarantee. Once a starting pitcher coming off a couple of average seasons as a 24-year-old at Double-A, there was even no guarantee he would become more than a minor-league arm.
Art, however, saw something different in Barnes when he family visited in Spring Training following a 2014 campaign in which he posted a 4.26 ERA in 21 starts at Double-A Huntsville.
"The big difference was that he was getting progressively more confident, and all of a sudden he knew that he belonged in the majors," Art said. "You're playing with a bunch of talented guys that are all going for the same goal, but he wasn't intimidated."
The breakout for Barnes came soon thereafter, as a switch to the bullpen helped jumpstart his career. Adding a hard slider to his repertoire, Barnes earned a spot in the highly-regarded Arizona Fall League following his 2015 season at Double-A.
There, he dominated some of the top hitting prospects in the game. In 11-2/3 innings over eight games, Barnes did not allow a single run, striking out 17 and walking only three. Milwaukee valued him highly enough to protect him on their 40-man roster that offseason.
Finding himself on more prospect lists the following spring, Barnes opened the 2016 season in Triple-A Colorado Springs, where all he did was pitch to a 1.21 ERA in 17 games in one of the toughest pitching environments in the game.
That performance earned Barnes the call-up to the Brewers on June 3, and he threw a scoreless inning with two strikeouts in Philadelphia that same night.
Not only was it a dream come true for Barnes, who went on to post a 2.70 ERA with a 22-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26-2/3 innings that season with Milwaukee, but also for Art and Annette.
"We always told the kids that we hosted that if they ever made it to the majors, we would drop everything and go to their debut," Annette said. "So we dropped everything and flew to Philadelphia."
Said Barnes: "They were able to see the debut, which was really cool because it was a last-minute thing. I loved sharing that experience with them and my family."
Delivering on potential
Making his debut in a 6-3 loss to the Phillies, Barnes wowed the Milwaukee broadcasters in his debut with his electric slider and high-velocity fastball. Since then, Barnes has delivered on that potentially showed in a brief outing.
Through 80 career games, Barnes has been worth 1.7 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Prospectus, while showing even more flashes of future potential.
Barnes' fastball is thrown on average at 97.5 mph, which ranks seventh-fastest among NL relievers with at least 40 innings this season. His 91.5 mph slider, meanwhile, is the fastest of any reliever with at least 20 innings. Both of those numbers are an increase from last season, although Barnes did not set out to try to throw harder.
"Honestly I don't even know how it happened," Barnes said. "I didn't really try to throw harder this year. I'm just out there pitching.
"Sometimes last year, maybe, I would just try to throw it for a strike and hit 94 [mph].This year, I've been able to stay more consistent in throwing hard—regularly throwing 96, 97, 98 instead of one pitch 98 and then the next 94."
The most difficult adjustment to make as a second-year pitcher, Barnes said, was the chess match within an at-bat against big league hitters.
"Some guys will have a slider-type bat speed, so you have play off of your fastball," Barnes said. "There are some guys who will sit fastball, so you have to show them the slider. It all depends on who you're facing and the situation of the game. Later in games, guys get more aggressive. Pitch sequencing is important and you have to learn it."
Still a relatively young pitcher in terms of major league experience, the development process is still ongoing with Barnes, even if he is used as one of the Brewers' set-up men.
"You can't do everything at once," Counsell said. "You have to take improvements slowly and get better at one thing at a time, and I think that's what he's doing."
Still a Stinger favorite
Consistent development is nothing new to any major league player, and that is the case with Barnes, who went from a self-proclaimed "fastball-only thrower" to "more of a pitcher" in the present day.
"In college, I was just throwing fastballs," Barnes said. "It could kind of play at that level a bit more. Now, I'm able to mix it up a little bit more. Probably my ability to throw multiple pitches now would be the biggest difference from when I was in Willmar to now."
Now, Barnes is arguably the most well-known former Stingers player. Spend any time at Bill Taunton Stadium and you're bound to see a handful of his No. 26 Stingers jerseys in the crowd.
"Back when I was playing in Willmar, I never thought anything like that would be happening," Barnes said. "Voz showed me the jerseys that the Stingers were having there. It's pretty cool to look back and see the progress I've made and, obviously, the Stingers have made since their first year."
Soon enough, the summer's long days will pass, the leaves will fall to the ground and it won't just be Barnes jerseys spotted around Willmar, but, rather, the pitcher himself.
You might even see him driving out on a frozen lake or throwing a curling stone with the same control as his fastball. The velocity, though, probably won't quite be reaching triple digits.