Much like Barria, Angels reliever Keynan Middleton enjoyed a solid rookie season. In 2017, he made a name for himself, posting a 3.86 ERA, 1.337 WHIP, 4.38 FIP, and 9.7 K/9 over 58.1 innings pitched. What differentiates Middleton from Barria is that he never had a sophomore slump, instead, he has battled injuries ever since. Over the last three seasons, he has only pitched a total of 37.1 innings. In 2018, he dealt with right elbow inflammation which led to him undergoing Tommy John Surgery.
In 2020, Middleton was healthy but logged only 12 innings of work. His poor performance led to him spending a significant portion of the season at the Alternate Site. In his limited chances, he compiled a 5.25 ERA, 1.500 WHIP, 5.02 FIP, and 8.3 K/9, a far cry from his rookie campaign.
On the surface, the numbers don’t scream breakout potential. However, it is indeed just a small sample size, and looking deeper there is a reason for optimism. His primary pitch is his fastball, in which he throws 59% of the time. Coming off Tommy John Surgery in 2019, his fastball averaged only 94.1 mph, which is a significant drop off from the 96.9 mph in his rookie year. This season, he was able to build that strength back up and record an average velocity of 97.1 mph. Throwing harder than he did before TJ, even if it is only a 0.02 mph increase, is definitely promising. If he continues on that trajectory and continues to throw in the upper-90s, it would make his off-speed pitches all the more lethal, and he should be a force in the bullpen and may even see some 9th inning action in 2021.
With Cam Bedrosian electing free agency, Middleton is slated to begin the season in the big-league bullpen. Unlike Barria, Middleton will have his chance to prove himself from the get-go. If Middleton can dominate from the onset, like his stuff would suggest he can, he will have a breakout season and prove he’s capable of high-leverage situations.
A lot is at stake this season for Middleton. Not only does he have to impress the coaching staff to trust him more, but he also has to impress the Angels’ fanbase as well. On July 30th, after the Angels bullpen blew a 4-1 lead, giving up 8 runs, he made a series of tweets disrespecting Angels fans, inferring that they were trash-talking on Twitter. This caused major backlash, with some fans demanding they trade the fireballer. It remains to be seen whether or not Middleton will use this as motivation moving forward, but it could be a chip on his shoulder.
Middleton has the stuff to have a legitimate breakout. In a full season, with full health, and an opportunity to prove himself right away, I expect him to grab the chance and run with it. I don’t believe he will beat out Mike Mayers for the closing job, but he may force his way into a setup role, and show that he can be more than reliable in the future, winning back the hearts of many Angels fans.