Matt Barnes

Roster Recap: Matt Barnes’ Bumpy Bullpen Ride

Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! Over the next four months, we’ll be breaking down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of their top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the Red Sox roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.

In his Roster Recap for Clay Buchholz, Matt Collins wrote that the good thing about veteran players is they are known quantities whose production you can plan around. Well, the other side of this coin is prospect-type players who are unknown quantities and may need to adapt to different roles from a projected plan to produce for the big league club. This describes Matt Barnes. Barnes came into 2015 with a top-10 Red Sox prospect label; a member of a group of young pitchers who were expected to make another progression toward Boston and provide the pitching depth that could set the Red Sox apart from the pack in the American League East. Barnes had a secure spot in the Pawtucket rotation, a chance at being in the big league rotation, and a spot in the Fenway bullpen as a likely fallback.

Over the course of the season he would fill both starting and relief roles for the Red Sox, although never with the kind of success that instills confidence in what he can provide going forward. The lack of a defined role and perpetual shuttling back and forth between Boston and Pawtucket likely did not help, but to some extent those issues were brought on by his poor performance. The 5.29 RA9, 13/5 K/BB, and three home runs allowed in 17.0 innings during his stint as a reliever with Boston in May-June is not the sort of thing that locks down a roster spot. That stint was the first of three for Barnes in Boston, during what was not a smooth season, but one that certainly helped shape his likely career trajectory.

What Went Right in 2015

The best thing about 2015 for Matt Barnes was the ever important gaining of experience. As rough as his performance was in 2015 it provided him with first-hand insight into the difference between Triple-A and big league hitters, and the process involved in converting to life as a reliever. There is a case to be made that getting his feet wet the way he did in 2015 should benefit him in 2016.

In an attempt to better develop himself as a starter, Barnes was tasked with improving the quality of a third pitch, for him a changeup, to mix with his mid-90s fastball and 12-to-6 hook. A quality third pitch is a necessary part of a big league starter’s arsenal, but this is not the case for relievers who can usually get by with just two pitches. Despite the effort to develop as a starting pitcher, Barnes was simply not very good in his two big league starts. On both occasions he failed to get through six innings, allowed a lot of baserunners (14 hits, four walks, combined), and with that, too many runs (11 total). Much of the same could be said for his starts with Pawtucket.

With a bunch of poor starts behind him, Barnes was pushed back into focusing on life as a reliever. Unfortunately, the mid-season focus on developing an effective changeup that was necessary for his role as a starter contributed to his difficulty with knowing when, and how often, to throw his secondary stuff when being used as a reliever. The variability in his pitch usage breakdown shows his self-reported pitch-mix confusion, but also that he came to a better understanding of how to distribute his offerings as the season progressed, leading to positive results (data are for relief outings only):






























Not used as Reliever








The small sample siren should be blaring here, but there is positive development that could serve as a foundation for Barnes’ future. For example, he should probably aim to throw his 95mph fastball more than half of the time, throw the curveball on a fifth of his offerings, and keep his changeup usage in the 10 percent range. With a defined role as reliever, Barnes may even be able to tick that fastball velocity up a bit, and needn’t worry so much about having a high-quality third pitch, both of which will ideally contribute to increasing his effectiveness. Now, obviously a definite blueprint is yet to be defined, but the experience he gained working things out in 2015 is something he can carry into 2016.

What Went Wrong in 2015

As I have already noted, perhaps too many times, Barnes’ performance in 2015 left much to be desired. A 5.90 DRA is ugly. But it is important to note that this poor performance involved a bunch of components that we tend to consider bad luck. Barnes had some misfortune with batted balls in 2015. Since he is a fly-ball pitcher, that meantlots of extra home runs and extra base hits.

Among relievers who threw at least 30 innings, Barnes was fifth worst in HR/9 (1.93; 7 allowed). Some of this appears to be bad luck, as his HR/FB% was 16.4%; a rate that should come down given that the league average for relievers has been in the 9-10% for each of the last five years. The batted ball issues were not isolated to home runs, as Barnes also dealt with a .351 BABIP-against, which, like his HR/FB rate should be expected to drop a fair amount.

However, it must be mentioned that Barnes was not necessarily getting dinked-and-dunked to death. Among those relievers with at least 30 innings, Barnes allowed the 10th-highest percentage of hard hit balls (35.2%). It is tough to be effective when you are allowing rockets a third of the time. Pair that with the fact that he struck batters out at a lower rate than was typical for relievers in 2015, and you have a guy who allowed too much contact and was too often hit hard and far (.511 SLG-against as a reliever). Positive regression in these batted ball characteristics can be expected, although the low innings pitched total muddles things. One way or another, Barnes will need to improve in these areas if he is going to stick as an effective major leaguer.

Outlook for 2016

The transitions from reliever to starter back to reliever at both the minor and major league levels made Barnes’ 2015 development difficult. The balance between team needs and individual player development was strained in his case, but fortunately, while it may have affected his performance, Barnes finished the season healthy and appears to have been fine with the process. He will not have to deal with the yo-yoing of his role in 2016, as bossman Dave Dombrowski has already stated that Barnes is ticketed for relief duty. Barnes may be a beneficiary of the knock-on effect produced by the Craig Kimbrel trade. Getting Kimbrel bumps everyone down an inning/leverage mark. Kimbrel now owns the 9th/highest leverage moments, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara grab the bulk of the 7th and 8th innings, leaving the majority of the 5th/6th/lower leverage innings for guys like Barnes. This presents another opportunity for Barnes to accumulate relief innings at the major league level, that, should he prove effective, could lead to a more critical role in years to come. He remains an interesting piece of the Red Sox puzzle, even if he’ll need to be used differently than we once imagined.

Photo by Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports Images

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username