One of the domino effects from dealing away six highly-regarded prospects to acquire Dan Haren this offseason is that it forced many Diamondbacks prospects to begin the 2008 season at a higher level than they were perhaps ready for. Many would have considered Tony Barnette such a prospect, as he began the year at Double-A despite never having tossed an inning with the Hi-A Visalia Oaks. Barnette skipped over that level of play entirely.
"It was a pleasant surprise, it really was," Barnette said genuinely. "It was something personally that I had set out to do. I did what I could in the offeason; I worked hard, and then I came to spring training with the mindset of, 'I'm here to make the Double-A squad. I'm here to show these guys that I belong there.' I didn't get the callup last year to Visalia, which I thought I might've, but it was completely out of my hands. All I could do was go out in spring training, do as good as I can, and just leave the rest up to the front office and all the coaches to make those decisions. I did my job, and they rewarded me with it."
Barnette's success at the Double-A level was far from immediate. In his first nine starts after bypassing the Visalia Oaks, Barnette went 2-5 with a 6.60 ERA. He found the quality of Southern League hitters to be jarringly higher than what he got used to facing in South Bend.
"The biggest differences that I've encountered is the amount of mistakes that they capitalize on," said Barnette of Double-A batters. "In the Midwest League, when I fell behind a batter, I was allowed to throw a fastball in there, where out here, you have to think a little bit. Think about who's hitting, where you're at in the lineup, who's on deck. Some guys have been to the major leagues. Some guys have had Triple-A time. Some guys have been around a lot longer and they're smarter, better hitters. You make that mistake in the zone when they're ahead and sitting on that fastball, they're going to hit it, and they're going to hit it hard."
Since those first nine starts, Barnette has been making fewer and fewer mistakes to these quality hitters. He has gone 6-2 with a 2.56 ERA in the 84.1 innings that he has thrown since May 17th. Learning how to approach advanced hitters was but one factor that precipitated Barnette's turnaround; he also made some changes to his pitching mechanics.
"[Pitching coach Jeff] Pico's been working with me ever since day one to lighten my mechanics, but they're still a work in progress," admitted Barnette. "They've come along pretty well. I've made a couple of significant changes to my delivery... I was collapsing on my back leg, dropping down, and taking my height away. They implemented a little body turn when I come up to my leg kick. It's helped me stay tall and use my height as a weapon, instead of eliminating that. It's helped with my downward plane and helped me get on top of pitches a lot easier."
"I've listened to Pico; I've listened to [Pitching Coordinator Mel] Stottlemyre, and took what they had to say in stride. So far, it has worked out for the best."
That is an understatement. Barnette is even tied for second in the Southern League with 111 punch outs, despite his rough start to the season.
"The whole thing with strikeouts comes with getting ahead in the count, pounding the strike zone, and keeping hitters honest," reminded Barnette. "I've never considered myself a strikeout pitcher, but this year... it's just fortunate that they've been missing it."
Ironically, one of Barnette's most notable performances this season came in a July 29th game in which he fanned only three batters in 7.1 innings, his lowest single game total since May 11. He did not allow a hit to any of the first 19 batters that he faced that night, flirting with the first no-hitter in BayBear history. When I asked him the following day about what had gone right to make that happen, Barnette downplayed his achievement.
A look at Barnette's delivery from last year
"The defense was in the right positions," he began. "The Tennessee [Smokies] team that we faced last night, they swing often and they swing early . They were putting the ball in play, making pretty good contact for the most part, but they hit a lot of balls right at guys. The defense was playing really well for me last night, right from the get-go; the second at-bat of the game, Chris Rahl comes up and makes a diving play out in centerfield. That was kind of the beginning point of the night for me, showing that the defense had my back."
The BayBears do generally put a good defense behind their pitchers, and they often provide them with adequate run support, as well. But for some reason, the club has struggled to win games consistently this season.
"We have had a bad year," put Barnette bluntly. "We're all working hard out here; there's nobody giving in. Everyone's trying to get better, and we're trying to finish this thing strong all the way to the end. The mood in the clubhouse has been the same all throughout year. Everyone's trying to keep their head over their shoulders and stay positive."
As disappointing as Mobile's team performance has been, Tony Barnette has a lot to be proud of in terms of individual achievement. While he came into spring training this year gunning for that double promotion to Double-A, he does not have as specific of a goal in mind for the near future.
"My goals are to stay in the starting rotation and keep moving up the ranks," he said. "The ultimate goal is to get to the big leagues and to get there as soon as possible. I know that we've got a good starting staff up there in Arizona at the big league level and a bunch of guys who are accomplished pitchers in the bullpen. The only thing I can do is keep working hard, keep trying to better myself and put myself in a good position to open up the front office's eyes more and more, and hopefully give myself more chances to get to that level as quick as I can."
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