For millions of kids growing up around the country, the answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” is “a baseball player!” Typically, the game will tell you when it is time to quit; for most, like me, the dream ends at a young age when one just can’t quite hack it in high school. For a few others, the journey continues on to college level ball, which buys a few more years until it typically ends with not getting selected in the annual MLB Draft.
But Luke Barker wasn’t ready to give up on the game when he didn’t get that phone call following the conclusion of his collegiate career at Chico State.
Barker put together a fine career at the Division II level, authoring a 2.91 ERA in 72 games and 257 innings as a reliever while notching 18 saves. As such, he was disappointed when he was passed over. “I always was hopeful to get a chance to be drafted out of college. I felt I had the numbers and the stuff to earn a chance at the professional level. There were some conversations with a couple of teams throughout my senior year in 2015 but it just didn’t work out for one reason or other. I was obviously disappointed at the time to not get the call, but unfortunately that’s just how it goes sometimes, especially at the D2 level.”
Barker’s playing days may have been over at Chico State, but he certainly wasn’t prepared to hang up his spikes. “I knew I wasn’t done with the game yet, so I just decided right after the draft to pursue any avenue I could to continue playing and prove I belonged.”
For Barker, the next step was a move across the country to Traverse City, Michigan. There he found work as a reliever for the Beach Bums of the independent Frontier League, a 12-team circuit in the middle of fly-over country. “Traverse City was an amazing experience. The town itself is beautiful and so is the ballpark. Everybody there from my host family to the coaches were awesome to be around and work with.”
A multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen, Barker thrived in his age-24 campaign for the Beach Bums in 2016. He appeared in 42 contests and logged 62.1 innings while yielding only a miniscule 1.44 ERA. He scattered 40 hits and issued a mere 10 walks for a 0.803 WHIP while at the same time striking out an average of 12.0 batters per nine innings. He even recorded seven saves, to boot. “The Frontier League is very similar to low level minor league ball as far as the ballparks and the travel and everything that goes into being on a pro team. The main difference I would say is that the talent level is just a little lower throughout the whole roster than you would find in Low-A or High-A. I loved it because it gave me an opportunity to keep grinding and to compete at the pro level.”
Barker’s phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook with offers after the Frontier League season ended. But he did manage to catch the eye of one major league franchise. “I got a call from my manager in Traverse City early in the offseason of 2016. He said you might get a call soon, the Brewers are interested in signing you. Next day I got the call, and that was that.”
Luke inked his deal in November 2016 and reported to Appleton, Wisconsin, to begin his affiliated baseball career with the Class-A Timber Rattlers the following spring. Barker features a three-pitch mix and has a sturdy build at 6’3” and 230 lbs, but he says that starting is something that the Brewers have never approached him about. And that’s a-okay with him, too.
“For my delivery and stuff, I’m over the top and I throw a four-seam fastball, split, and curveball. They have not approached me about starting. I enjoy being in the bullpen and being able to pitch in high leverage spots so that’s fine by me. As far as an ideal role, I’m just looking to do whatever job they need me to do, at whatever level. My mindset is to just make the next pitch the best I can and compete like crazy for every pitch I’m out there.”
Barker showed quite well during his first full season in the affiliated ranks, even earning a midseason promotion to Class-A Advanced Carolina. He found his way into 34 games and tossed 53.2 innings between the two stops, pitching to a 3.19 ERA with 48 strikeouts along with only 14 walks and four home runs allowed. But he was still tasked by coaches to continue improving at his craft.
“All of our pitching coaches and coordinators with the Brewers are fantastic. They do a great job of supplying us with the analytical information we need to perform at a high level. It helps me for sure to have the information behind what works against different hitters or what they’ve done to have a game plan each night. For me specifically since I’ve been with the Brewers, they’ve worked with me on using my splitter more and working up and down with my fastball to play off of that.”
Barker was assigned back to the Carolina League in 2018 to suit up for a full season with the Mudcats. Before long he had seized the role of closer, and by the end of the year, he was named as the top reliever on the circuit. “This season in Carolina was awesome. We had a great group of guys and a unbelievable coaching staff that put us in a position to win games consistently and I think that had a lot to do with the year I had.”
Barker pitched 46 times in 2018 and piled up an even 61.0 innings. He struck out 26% of the batters he faced – 63 men in total – while issuing only 16 free passes. Barker yielded a mere 47 hits all year, including just three balls that cleared the fence. The versatile hurler made 16 multi-inning appearances throughout the season and piled up a league-leading 20 saves after taking over as the closer. “It’s definitely a different animal closing out games, but I try not to change from situation to situation. The goal for me is to make good pitches, compete, and do whatever job I’m asked to do.” According to Deserved Run Average, Barker’s production in 2018 was 31% better than the league-average pitcher.
With his Arrieta-ish delivery, he probably stays as a reliever. Stuff-wise, he’s probably similar to Junior Guerra with the FB/split/breaking ball combo. So upside might be whatever Guerra’s upside in the pen is.
— Toby H (@YouKnowAndThat) September 13, 2018
Barker’s advanced age may cause some to write off his success with the Mudcats this season, but it isn’t something that bothers the soon-to-be 27 year old. “I don’t feel any extra pressure being older than some guys. My road has been a little different than a lot of the guys I play with, but at the end of of the day when you are on the mound the road that got you there goes away and you just have to compete. I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity the Brewers have given me and I’m very excited for the next step along the journey wherever it may be.”
For now, the next logical step looks like it should be an assignment to AA Biloxi in 2019. But Barker isn’t taking anything for granted. “I’ll be spending the offseason in Arizona preparing for next spring training. My goal is to work as hard as I can this fall and winter and come into spring ready to earn a job.”
That’ll be a little different from past offseasons, when Barker would normally head back to Chico to work as a strength and conditioning coach at his alma mater while also helping coach his old collegiate squad. Barker hopes to be able to make a career in the game, even if he’s not always on the field. “My plan when I finish my playing career is to work in baseball in some capacity, maybe as a college coach.” He also has a degree in exercise physiology to fall back on and has started coursework for a Master’s degree in biomechanics.
For now, though, the focus for Luke Barker remains on climbing the minor league ladder all the up to The Show. Perhaps one day he’ll be as famous in the Dairy State as another notable transplant from Chico, California.
“I have not met Aaron Rodgers yet, but I’ve always pulled for the Packers and for Aaron. Got to support Chico guys wherever they end up.”
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference