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2019 Independent Ball Player Of The Year: Keon Barnum

Keon Barnum

When Keon Barnum was in high school, he was the hitter pitchers feared. He had the lefthanded power to change a game with one swing.

But during his time in the White Sox organization, Barnum stopped being the hitter who pitchers had to worry about. Early in his career, he struck out like a power hitter but his near top-of-the-scale raw power rarely played in games. He didn’t reach double-digits in home runs in a season until his sixth season in pro ball. And while he did hit 18 home runs in 2017 and 16 at Double-A Birmingham in 2018, the improved power came with batting averages that hovered around .200.

So it wasn’t all that surprising that when Barnum reached minor league free agency after the 2018 season, no teams called.

While no affiliated teams signed him, Chicago Dogs manager Butch Hobson wanted Barnum. The American Association team got to watch him transform back into a middle-of-the-order masher.

After hitting 63 home runs in 606 minor league games, Barnum hit 31 homers in just 98 games in 2019. He broke the American Association’s single-season home run record while cutting his strikeout rate and raising his average to .311. For that, Barnum is the Baseball America Independent Leagues Player of the Year.

“A lot of guys go to their first year of independent ball and they relax,” Hobson said. “In my evaluation of him, he relaxed enough to be able to accept, ‘This is the kind of hitter I need to become.’ I give a great deal of credit to (hitting coach) D.J. Boston. He and Keon clicked.

When he felt lost at the plate, Barnum returned to what had worked for him at King High in Tampa. Barnum went back to a version of the stance that worked for him when he was playing travel ball as an amateur. The bat rests on his shoulder in an upright stance. Then as the pitcher begins his delivery, Barnum sinks into his legs to begin his load.

More important was Barnum’s newfound opposite-field power. The book on Barnum used to be simple. Pitch him in with fastballs that were so far inside that a swing was at worst a long foul ball. And once he swung at that, go soft away and watch him turn himself into a corkscrew.

Now that Barnum has developed the ability to stay back and drive the outside pitch to the opposite field, his plate coverage has improved.

In 2018, just two of his home runs were hit to the opposite field. In 2019, more than half of his home runs were to left or left-center field.

“Being able to crush balls the other way, I found that added to my game,” Barnum said. “I could always go the other way, but hitting home runs the other way? That’s new. I wanted to be consistent (driving the ball) the other way. That helped me a lot because most pitchers have pitched me soft and away.”

Barnum’s strong season paid off with a contract to play in the winter Mexican Pacific League. He and the Dogs now hope that it will also help get him back to affiliated ball.

“Keon is one of those guys if I’m coaching first base, I’m backing up down the right-field line a little bit,” Hobson said. “The ball jumps off his bat. I just believe that he really learned to hit and he proved he deserves a chance to show he can do it in Double-A or Triple-A.”

Robert Puason Billmitchell

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