10 questions with former Rangers and Cubs pitcher Tony Barnette

ARLINGTON, TX - MAY 07: Tony Barnette #43 of the Texas Rangers throws against the Detroit Tigers in the sixth inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on May 7, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - MAY 07: Tony Barnette #43 of the Texas Rangers throws against the Detroit Tigers in the sixth inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on May 7, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

Former Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs pitcher Tony Barnette has one of the more interesting career paths in the sport. Drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2006, Barnette never made it to the major leagues with the club and ultimately ended up being released in 2010, latching on with a new team – the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese NPB League.

Barnette’s run in Japan was highly successful, highlighted by his performance in 2015 when the club won the Central League. Barnette was one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the NPB that year, tying for first in saves with 41, recording the lowest ERA in the league with a 1.29 and allowing just a single home run in 62+ innings.

At the conclusion of the NPB’s season in 2015, Tony Barnette landed his first big league deal back in the United States, signing a two-year contract with the Texas Rangers. Barnette finally made his major league debut at the age of 32-years old.

Tony Barnette’s Texas Rangers career also ended up as a success. The right-hander appeared in 125 games for the club across just three seasons, posting an ERA+ of 135 to go with a 3.53 ERA, 2.5 WAR, 3.64 FIP and a 1.25 WHIP.

A free agent at the conclusion of 2018, Tony Barnette found himself signing with the Chicago Cubs in the 2018-’19 offseason. Battling through various injuries, he only found himself in two contests for the Cubs, posting a 6.75 ERA in 1.1 innings before being sent down to the club’s triple-A affiliate in June, ultimately putting a wrap on his major league career; Barnette announced his retirement from the game in January of 2020.

Now that all is said and done and the book is closed on Tony Barnette’s career, he can look back on it all with fond memories and a sense of pride, as he was able to find success in both Japan and the United States pitching at the highest levels of competition.

I recently had the chance to chat with former Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs pitcher Tony Barnette. Let’s dive in.

Q1: You spent the first part of your career in the Diamondbacks organization, what was it like when you were released and then given the opportunity to play overseas? There must have been a ton of adjustments to make not only pitching-mechanics-wise, but also in your personal life. Can you describe that whole scenario?

My stay with the Diamondbacks was a quick tour through their minor league system. Between 2006 and 2009, I saw Missoula, South Bend, Mobile, and Reno. As a senior-sign, you are expected to move and I did. The Dan Haren trade opened a door for me as a minor league starter. I had some very good coaches and instructors in those years, Mel Stottlemyre Jr. and Jeff Pico. Those two, knowing it or not, had tremendous influence on me as a pitcher. The release came after the opportunity from the Yakult Swallows presented itself. The Diamondbacks, who were in the beginning stages of a ton of changes, took what Yakult offered and wished me well on my way out. All in all, they let me pursue opportunities elsewhere they themselves weren’t ready to offer and I’m grateful for that.

The entire process of adjusting to life on and off the field in Japan can become a lengthy conversation. As a pitcher, I made large changes to my mechanics and approach. Junji Ogawa, Daisuke Araki, and Tomohito Itoh were who believed in me after my early struggles. Itoh-san put so many hours into helping me develop. My cutter became my best pitch and he helped create it.
Off the field. My wife and I just made it up as we went. We watched, listened, and explored our way through the 6 seasons we spent there. I went to play ball, she just went and saw as much as she could. The families we shared time with away from the field were intricate in our experience. Not just baseball families, but friendships were made that will forever tie us to Tokyo.
Everyone has their own experience with the NPB. However similar, everyone’s experience is unique and, in my opinion, worth a listen.

Q2: This could easily be a pt. 2 to the first question, but what was it like when you began to receive interest from American teams? The Rangers signed you to a two-year deal in the 2015-16 offseason, what emotions were you feeling when you realized that you were going to get the chance to play back in the states?

Unfortunately, the attention began before the season was over. We were in the middle of a championship run and I was throwing the baseball the best I’d ever throw a baseball. I was aware of the prospect of the MLB. Fortunately, we were having so much fun as a team, our goal, although missed, was clear. After the season ended, free agency began and it was exciting. I was getting the chance the younger version of myself originally set out to do. I wasn’t your typical free agent, nor was I a typical ‘re-tread’ as they sometimes refer to guys that leave the MLB for NPB and come back. I never got the call into the minor league coaches office, I never received the early morning phone call to get on a plane in 2 hours. My next step came about 11:15 pm on a Wednesday after my family had gone to bed. I sat in my living room as my agent called me from a suite at the winter meetings telling me Texas had offered me 2 years and a step closer to The Show.   Now all I had to do was continue to play well.

Q3: Was the decision to retire an easy one for you? You had success in both Japan and the United States and ultimately retired at 36, are/were you at peace with your decision?

I can’t imagine retiring is an easy deal for any ballplayer. From my own experience, the decision itself was not a back and forth. It was an open discussion my wife and I have had for years. The emotions that came with the decision were unavoidable. The game was, to that point, my life’s work. It was what I knew and I had dedicated just about every moment of my life, up to that point, to baseball. My baseball life was wild. I have a trove of stories to tell and people I’ve met. From my first trip away for ball as a 15 year old, I knew I wanted to travel and play. I got to do that for a lot longer than many thought I would.

Q4: How involved are you now in MLB or just baseball in general?

I transitioned out of retirement quickly. Not long after, I was contacted again by the Yakult Swallows. Michael Okumura, International Director, reached out and offered to work with them again. Alongside my former teammate Aaron Guile, we scout and advise on potential players. It had been a long time since I watched a game from the other side of the net.

Q5: You appeared in 127 Major League Baseball games but never had a single at bat. Obviously, as a relief pitcher, those opportunities are few and far between. Were you one that was perfectly fine with staying far, far away from the batter’s box or were you one that was itching to get an opportunity to swing the bat?

I took my share of BP. As middle relief, you have to get your bunts and swings in. I was as ready as I would ever have been to get in the box. I like to think I would have taken a good swing at a pitch. A good buddy of mine and former lockermate, Austin Bibens-Dirkx, talks fondly of his foul tip against Max Scherzer. I would have liked to see what a Hall of Fame fastball looks like in a game setting for perspective. On the other hand, I think we should do away with pitchers hitting. The talent level of the athlete has only gotten faster and stronger. Put the bat in the hands of the guys who dedicate their life to the craft.  Now, if they are a two way guy, make a case for yourself. Thing is, a good hitter is a good hitter. A good hitting pitcher is not a good hitter. I don’t need to see if Jacob deGrom will have a higher batting average than his ERA.  No need to see who is the best bad hitter.

Q6: What is it like to see yourself in a video game? I know you have been in multiple installments of Out of the Park Baseball and most likely a few of the MLB The Show games.

Being in a video game is another childhood bucket list checkmark. The first game I was in was the Pro Yakyuu Spirits, I believe. It was a real kick playing my own character in a video game. Same goes for my first baseball card. I’ve always been a collector and it was fun to rip a pack and see myself on one of the cards.

Q7: In your opinion, who is the most exciting young player in today’s game? Can be either position player or pitcher or both.

Of the guys in the league that qualify as young? How can I pick just one? We all agree that Shohei Ohtani is the most exciting player in all of baseball at the moment. At 27, that’s old enough in the game to be considered not young. In the under 25 category? If I had a number one pick in a draft of today’s stars under 25, I’d take Juan Soto. He’s the best hitter in baseball.

Q8: You’ve been given the opportunity to make at least one change to today’s Major League Baseball. What are you changing about the game? Answer as if you’ve been given the final say.

(In addition to the universal DH) As the imaginary overlord of baseball for a moment while I type this, I declare, no player, not registered as a game-eligible pitcher before the game (maximum of 11, I made this number up but it seems good) shall be called to pitch in a game. Shall a team, have an injury, ejection, or any other reason for leaving a game, no player not registered as a game- registered pitcher may pitch. If the team cannot successfully field a proper team, including a registered pitcher, said team must forfeit. This ties into the idea of not making teams register starting pitchers on days they wouldn’t pitch. (NPB currently has a similar rule)

It’s a rough idea of how to expect more innings from starters, stop managers from using pitchers like sunflower seeds, all without putting a 3-batter minimum on relievers. Make the managers manage. Bullpen management shouldn’t be a coin toss. Blake Snell should never have come out of Game 6.

Q9: Who was your first strikeout victim in the states? Did you get to keep the ball?

My first strikeout was April 5th, 2016 vs. Luis Sardinas. I remember being so shaky in my debut. Single, line-drive out, then he swung and missed at a backup cutter that would have been a ball. It was not a cheerful memory of a debut as I picked up my first appearance and loss that night. I do have the ball with a few other important balls that I have managed to hold onto from games. It sits next to my first MLB win, save and the ball that broke the Yakult Swallows single season save record. That is my favorite ball. The record was held by my then-pitching coach, now manager of the Swallows, former White Sox pitcher, Shingo Takatsu.

Q10: You have been chosen as one of the writers that gets a Hall of Fame vote. Who, if anyone, are you voting for this season?

Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield, Bobby Abreu, Mark Buehrle, Curt Schilling, David Ortiz. Billy Wagner, Joe Nathan. For the year 2022, this is the hill I’m defending. My decisions are based on the importance to the game at the time they played and the good or bad that I believe they brought to the game at the time they played. Each individual deserves to be looked at independent of his peers. In my opinion, some of the players I left off have done more to harm the game than what their performances on the field could outweigh. I should put more time into studying more factors than I have for such a prestigious accolade, but I haven’t and I’m not going to today so this is where I will leave it.

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Thank you so much to former Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs pitcher Tony Barnette for taking the time to chat with me. It was a pleasure getting to pick your brain. Tony is part of the fifth installment of “10 Questions With” that I’ve started. With multiple former and current players in the queue, what kind of questions would you like to see asked to a current or former big leaguer?