The dream of playing in the major leagues had faded for Tony Barnette a few years ago while he was blossoming into a star reliever in Japan.
He wasn’t getting any younger, and big-league clubs weren’t blowing up his phone.
“After my fourth or fifth year, I was starting to be like, ‘Well, maybe the States isn’t in the cards,’ and I was OK with that,” Barnette said. “Then, last year happened.”
The Texas Rangers came calling in December after Barnette saved 41 games for the Yakult Swallows. He accepted their two-year, $3.5 million offer to come back home.
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The big-league dream will become reality at some point during the first week of April when the 2016 season begins. Barnette has already made the Rangers’ roster as part of one of the game’s deepest bullpens, so no one could blame him if he started to think ahead.
Barnette, though, won’t concede anything yet, perhaps out of fear that he might jinx a good thing, but he has already shown the Rangers in nearly three full weeks of camp that his stuff is going to play.
He’s confident that it will, too, even though he will be a rookie at 32.
0 Appearances in the major leagues for Tony Barnette, who will be a big-league rookie this year at age 32
“One thing Japan did teach me was don’t put the cart before the horse,” Barnette said. “At 32, I can only do what I can do. I’m not going to push myself to be somebody I’m not.
“I’m picking up on the different things about the United States that escaped me over the years by being in Japan. The Rangers signed me for who I was. Now’s not the time to reinvent the wheel. It’s take what I know, learn what I can here and hopefully put it all together and find some success.”
Barnette looked to have it together during his first two Cactus League games, a pair of quick, scoreless innings. He didn’t pitch Monday as the Rangers played San Francisco at Surprise Stadium, but will get another inning Tuesday against Oakland.
The Rangers have many reasons to believe Barnette will enjoy success this season.
He’s a former starter, so he knows how to manage a game and has five pitches he can throw in any count. He creates deception in his delivery, first coming set with the ball tucked into his glove at his right hip and then with a pause at the top of his leg lift.
There’s funk. That hesitation. Pitchers, we’re deceivers. There’s some deception there.
Pitching coach Doug Brocail on Tony Barnette’s delivery
Both scream Japan baseball, and, indeed, that’s where he found his delivery.
“That was my progression of tinkering and toying,” Barnette said.
He throws a four-seam fastball that can hit 94 mph along with a two-seamer, a cutter, a slider and a split-fingered fastball. Pitching coach Doug Brocail loves the cutter, calling it “unbelievable,” but catcher Robinson Chirinos said that the split is one of the “best I’ve caught.”
“His stuff is great, man,” said Chirinos, who has caught Barnette in bullpen sessions and live batting practice. “He has the pitches to get major league hitters out.”
But the fact is that Barnette has never faced a major league hitter. He topped out a Triple A while with the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2006 until they told him he wasn’t in their plans in 2009.
Barnette struggled in his first year in Japan, posting a 5.99 ERA and a .311 opponents average as a starter. He moved to the bullpen in 2011 and enjoyed quality to dominant seasons in four of the next five seasons.
His best season was 2015 when he posted a 1.29 ERA, held hitters to a .168 average, allowed only one homer and tied with two others for the Nippon Professional Baseball lead in saves.
Tony Barnette allowed runs in only seven of his 59 games last season for the Yakult Swallows in Japan and converted 41 of his 42 save opportunities during an All-Star season.
“In hindsight, I made the move to the bullpen way too late,” Barnette said. “I used to enjoy being a starter. I really did. But then going to Japan and learning the things I did there about baseball and myself, I think I realized the bullpen was the best place for me.
“Who knows what would have happened if I had stayed in the States? Maybe I would have struck lightning in the bottle one day and something would have clicked or maybe I would have been released. Looking back, you can’t guess what happened. I guess I took the right path for me.”
Despite no big-league experience and having to learn hitters and ballparks and reintroduce his fingers to the slicker major league ball, the Rangers aren’t considered about sticking Barnette in their bullpen.
Barnette doesn’t seem concerned, either. He’s just not going to look too far ahead.
“I’m old and new all at the same time,” he said. “I remember when I went over there as a young 26-year-old and had the world by the tail, I got ahead of myself. I can honestly say I was thinking of grander days. What Japan taught me to was to be present in the moment. Get this out, and make this pitch. That’s one of the things that has helped me along the way.”