Matt Barnes

Can Matt Barnes Fix Boston’s Bullpen?

Building a lineup is something that happens over years. Players are drafted, developed, traded, picked up, signed in free agency and so on. Years it takes. Lineups are like trees. If you cut them open the rings are countless. Bullpens are the opposite. They’re weeds. They have no history. Bullpens turn over almost completely every two or three years. In 2012 the four relievers who threw the most innings for Boston were, in order of most to least, Alfredo Aceves, bless his unholy name, Scott Atchison, Vincente Padilla and Mark Melancon. If you dig a few deeper you get to Andrew Miller and Junichi Tazawa (and Clayton Mortensen), but you get the point.

While most chances for changing a lineup coming in the off-season, building the bullpen is a constant endeavor. Relievers are forever pitching terribly, then somehow pitching amazingly, then pitching horribly again, then getting hurt. You can’t predict, with a very few exceptions, who will be any good in any given year without using error bars large enough to require rent control.

This is the best possible news for the 2015 Boston Red Sox because this means the bullpen the Red Sox have now will not be the same as the bullpen the Red Sox will have in a few months. This isn’t to say the bullpen the team has now is terrible. It’s not. It’s not great either, and in truth, that even oversells it. There is, as in other areas, much room for improvement. And now that I’ve mentioned “other areas” I am tempted to trash the script and write about how frustrating the Red Sox offense is, but I promised Ben a piece on the Red Sox bullpen and Matt Barnes’s place in it and Ben is a very nice person who lets me write for you people, so I’m afraid I’m stuck writing this. I’d appreciate it if you’d stick with me here. Maybe we’ll learn something together! And if not, it’s Friday! Whatever!

The Red Sox don’t possess many hard throwers and while that isn’t the kiss of death, it generally means, as it does in this specific case, fewer strikeouts.

Cumulatively, which is to say the Red Sox bullpen as presently and previous constructed under the banner of 2015, ranks 26th in strike out percentage. They strike out 19 percent of the hitters they face, not good in a relative sense. Strikeouts have been, in this age of big strikeout bullpens, comparatively infrequent. Part of the problem is a lack of velocity out of the bullpen. The Red Sox don’t possess many hard throwers and while that isn’t the kiss of death, it generally means, as it does in this specific case, fewer strikeouts. Red Sox relievers average 91.8 mph on their fastball, good for 24th in baseball. It’s not a perfect relationship, but Dodgers relievers strike out almost 30 percent of the hitters they face, and throw, on average, the third hardest. Yankee relievers throw the fourth hardest and get the third most strikeouts. For Boston, there is, in the words of the captain of the Titanic, some room for improvement. I award myself 10 Timely Reference points and I move on to the next paragraph full of hope!

The first real fix the Red Sox have tried this season is Matt Barnes (if you don’t count Robbie Ross and please, I beg you, don’t count Robbie Ross). Barnes is a former first round draft pick out of the University of Connecticut with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and a strong curve. He’d been a starter in college and coming up through the minor league system, but he’s not been able to harness a third pitch as of yet and his first two aren’t so amazing that he’s capable of running through lineups multiple times with them alone. That might change, but for now he’s 25 and Boston’s bullpen is in need of help so we have ourselves a perfect little match! According to Brooks Baseball, Barnes’s fastball has averaged 96 mph during his time in the majors. That’s the fastest in the bullpen by a good bit. Alexi Ogando and Tazawa are the only other relievers to average over 93 mph and neither averages 95. Barnes is supposed to deploy his heat and hammer curve to full effect in the later innings, giving Boston three hard throwing relievers from which manager John Farrell can choose. Yay!

So far the numbers look dreadful (boo!) but don’t judge yet. Barnes has thrown all of eight innings and has five strikeouts and three walks. That’s whatever because that’s eight innings. Barnes may not ever be a great reliever, but eight innings are far too few to say for sure, and the combination of the fastball playing up, the curve, and the fact that he’ll only have to face hitters once makes him a potential weapon in a bullpen badly in need of such.

Matt Barnes can help but he is not going to fix the Red Sox bullpen single-handedly. The group is going to need to get better, and that likely means bringing someone else up or in. The next shoe to drop might be Craig Breslow, whose ERA says has not been very good and who other stats say has been significantly worse than that. The Red Sox might want to give Heath Hembree another shot as he has a 94 mph fastball and 17 strikeouts and two walks in just under 17 innings in Triple-A. He’s likely not the savior either, but he’s better than watching Robbie Ross struggle again. Otherwise it might be time to look outside the organization.

Matt Barnes can help but he is not going to fix the Red Sox bullpen single-handedly.

This team has some holes, maybe more than we thought coming into the season. There are significant concerns on defense, the starting rotation seems to be rounding into form but has been a huge problem until recently, and now it seems the Red Sox turn to icicles whenever a runner gets on base or a left-handed pitcher stands on the mound. The front office will have to make some difficult choices about where to best allocate their capital and I won’t sit here and advocate for another bullpen arm in the face of this mountain of potentially more pressing issues.

It does strike me, though, that the likelihood of the bullpen fixing itself, like could happen with the offense, like could happen if to a lesser degree with the rotation, is remarkably slim. The Red Sox already have what has to be considered full Koji. Tazawa has been better than anyone had a right to expect, and the same could be said of Ogando considering his history. Throw Barnes on that and it isn’t a bad starting spot, but it’s only a starting spot. The Breslows and Laynes of the world are place holders for the better relievers Boston needs. No team has eight Wade Davises (Davi?) coming out of the bullpen, but at this stage the Red Sox barely have one. It’s going to take more from the pen if this team wants to compete in October. Matt Barnes’s fastball is a good start but it’s only a start. The organic reformulation of the Red Sox bullpen must continue!

Photo by John Rieger/USA Today Sports Images

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