Reliever had opportunity to reflect in years pitching overseas
By Ryan Posner
ARLINGTON -- Rangers right-hander Tony Barnette is a believer that people are a product of their environment. For the better part of the last six years, his environment was Tokyo, Japan, as a closer for the Yakult Swallows of Nippon Professional Baseball.
Barnette, a 32-year-old rookie this season, called his time in Japan a transformative process.
"Ages 26 to 32 -- that's pretty much half of my adult life in a foreign country," Barnette said. "If I'm not going to change in that situation, I don't know when I would. That's a lot of time, and a pretty important time, in anybody's development in life."
Barnette's transformation has led him into a dominant middle-relief role for the American League West champion Rangers, who open their best-of-five American League Division Series against Toronto on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CT on TBS in the United States and Sportsnet (English) and TVA (French) in Canada.
After a bit of a rocky start to the year, he ended with the eighth-best ERA (2.09) and fifth-most wins (seven) among AL relievers. Due to the language barrier Japan presents, Barnette had plenty of alone time to figure out the kind of person -- and baseball player -- he wanted to be.
"I spent a lot of time with headphones on," Barnette said. "You spend a lot of time by yourself with self-coaching, with no friends and nobody to talk to. It's one of those things you learn to deal with. You have a lot of time by yourself to reflect on your thoughts."
Before making the move overseas, Barnette spent four years in the D-backs' system after being selected by Arizona in the 10th round of the 2006 Draft. He's not yet sure if his time in Japan was more beneficial than continuing to play in the Minors.
"I don't know," Barnette said. "Maybe I'll figure that out when I'm done playing baseball."
Rangers manager Jeff Banister is a little more confident that Barnette's time in Japan was well spent.
"I think being in a different country, not able to speak the language, playing a different style of baseball and having to learn to pitch in a different type of way, I think that is truly significant," Banister said. "It's different than pitching in [Triple-A] Round Rock. It's different than pitching in [Double-A] Frisco."
Barnette factored in the importance of his environment when choosing to sign with the Rangers in December. They were up front in their expectations, and he liked what he saw, organization-wise.
He's pretty content with his decision.
"With how open-minded the guys in this clubhouse are, it was easy to be comfortable in my own shoes playing baseball," Barnette said. "Once the success started to build up, so did the confidence. And now here we sit, and I couldn't be happier."
Where Barnette sits in the Rangers' clubhouse is next to right-hander Matt Bush, closer Sam Dyson and left-hander Jake Diekman. That group has led a formidable bullpen that tied the Major League record with 41 relief wins this season.
All four are playing their first full season with the Rangers. At the beginning of the 2015 season, Diekman was with the Phillies, Dyson was with the Marlins, Bush was serving a prison sentence and Barnette was in Japan.
Barnette credits the collective travels of the group for creating an "even-keel" situation.
"When you surround yourself with people who are different than yourself, and you're willing to listen to what they have to say and what they have to offer, it makes everybody around you better," Barnette said. "With our group, from young to old, it doesn't matter. It's a great group of guys down there and a lot of fun to be around."
Barnette fits right into the Rangers' mold of accepting players who come from different backgrounds.
"You're talking about guys from all over," general manager Jon Daniels said. "Every which way you could acquire a player, you've got major contributors on this club."
Despite his contributions, Barnette is not ready to look back and fully bask in the success just yet.
"Obviously as a team we have a goal, and we're not there yet -- so reflection isn't on the docket," Barnette said. "With that being said, I can't avoid the fact that it's been a good year, personally."
Ryan Posner is a reporter for MLB.com based in Texas. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.