There's something to be said for a pitcher who improves as a season progresses, especially when he begins the season on a tear and in a hitter's league. Take High-A Stockton Ports reliever Trey Barham, for instance. The last time the lefty walked a batter was on June 19. The last time he gave up an extra-base hit was on June 11. The last time he surrendered an earned run was on June 6 in Visalia. Since that forgettable outing, Barham's ERA has dropped to 1.59 while his prospects for a call-up to Double-A Midland have increased substantially.
Alongside Barham in the Stockton bullpen, closer Paul Smyth is also knocking on Midland's door. With 54 strikeouts, Smyth leads all Cal League pitchers who have not started a game. Both Barham and Smyth sport sub-2 ERAs while sitting in the top five in number of Cal League appearances (36 and 34, respectively).
And neither Barham nor Smyth enjoys his successes due to overpowering stuff. Neither pitcher is particularly intimidating — Barham doesn't have eyebrows because his teammates paid him "$200 to shave ‘em off" while Smyth earned the nickname "Honey Bear" for dressing in a bear costume last year during Kane County playoffs to "loosen everyone up" — but for each hurler walks and homers are few and far between, hitter-friendly parks or not.
Equally impressive to Barham's line (1.59 ERA/ 45.1 IP/ 36 H/ 8 ER/ 13 BB/ 35 SO/ .220 BAA) is the number of times opponents have gone yard: zero. Since he was drafted in the 25th round out of the Virginia Military Institute in '08, the southpaw has surrendered only two homers — one in '08 with Vancouver and one in '09 with Kane County. That's two homeruns in 141 total professional innings pitched, along with 41 walks, 112 strikeouts and an average groundout to flyout ratio of 2.36.
"I'm really working on staying closed," Barham says. "I had a big problem with flying open when I first got [to pro ball], but I worked with Lefty [Craig Lefferts] down in extended spring training early last year and we refined pitching straight down the mound. I used to leave a lot of balls up, arm-side, high, and so now I'm working on throwing fastballs down to my glove-side more."
Barham's slide piece also improved dramatically since turning pro. He adopted the slider accidentally his senior year in college — "I was throwing a bullpen and was really mad and threw one really hard and it just happened to break" — but it has since become his out-pitch.
"Now I can go to it in any count: 3-2, 0-0, 0-2," he says.
As for his future with the Athletics, Barham could continue moving through the system as a setup guy, or even be developed into the LOOGY role that Ricardo Rincon, Alan Embree and now Jerry Blevins have held. Both options seem fitting to Barham.
"I like pitching and I like being in as many games as possible, so in the bullpen I can throw every other day," Barham says. "Emotionally, you always come into a game in a situation where it's important, where there are runners on, where it's a tight situation and there's always adrenaline involved."
When Barham exits the eighth inning unscathed — which he has done for over a month now — he hands the ball to Smyth, and the scoreless trend usually continues.
Smyth's line is eerily similar to Barham's (1.95 ERA/ 50.2 IP/ 31 H/ 11 ER/ 2 HR/ 13 BB/ 54 SO/ .172 BAA), and he also sports a favorable groundout to flyout ratio (1.57) to accompany his 13 saves.
"I know that if I've got the eighth, then Smyth has the ninth, and if I can keep it to where we have the lead, he'll keep the lead in tact through the game," Barham says. "It's nice having that guy behind you. If you push the door shut, he's going to slam it closed."
While Smyth, the 35th round draft pick out of Kansas in ‘09, doesn't fill the typical closer prototype — his cutter and two-seam top out at 90 MPH — he should be primed to fill a setup role in higher levels. He averages more than one strikeout per inning pitched, and with only two surrendered homers in the Cal League, he proves his command of the strike-zone.
"In this league there's a lot of emphasis on the hitters," Smyth says, "so the big focus we've had is to keep the ball down to hitters and stay aggressive in the zone, making sure we're challenging them and giving them tough pitches to hit."
Stockton pitching coach Don Schulze's formula works. Despite a last-place standing in the Cal League North (and the third-worst record in the entire Cal League) as of Friday, Ports' pitchers lead the league in strikeouts (696) and strikeouts per nine innings (8.2) decisively.
"It's great to know that you've got two guys that are going to give you a really good effort and a really good performance most every time they go out there," Stockton manager Steve Scarsone says.
"And to be able to use them either together or on different nights is always good. Barham and Smyth have been doing the right things and making the right pitches when they need them."
Barham and Smyth aren't the only Ports relievers enjoying success in the Cal League this summer. Masked by ugly ERAs, there are promising statistics that could point to major league success throughout the bullpen. Andrew Carignan (5th round/ ‘07) is averaging 1.3 strikeouts and less than a hit per inning. Opponents were only hitting .189 against Daniel Thomas (13th round/ ‘08) before he checked onto the DL also averaging 1.3 strikeouts and less than a hit per inning. Lance Sewell (7th round/'07) has struck-out 29 and walked 11 in 33.1 innings pitched, including tossing 3.1 perfect innings for the win Friday night against San Jose.
If the Ports' relief corps continues to dominate the Cal League, not only will Stockton work its way out of the cellar, but there should be some bags packing for Midland.
"As far as the bullpen goes, when the whole team's clicking it's a ‘you go, we go' type of thing," Smyth says.