It seems like an understatement to say the Red Sox bullpen was great in 2017. Craig Kimbrel had arguably the best season of his career, the Red Sox had a ton of guys who could casually throw 95+ on any given day, and this was all without Tyler Thornburg and with Carson Smith only throwing a handful of innings. That’s pretty impressive, especially considering that Matt Barnes had to shoulder a lot of late-game, crucial innings throughout the year.
When you think of a guy you want in the eighth inning, Matt Barnes is far from your first choice, even if you limit it to only Red Sox and exclude Kimbrel as the closer. The relievers you want there can’t crumble under pressure, have some filthy pitches, and can be relied on as a “fireman” pitcher of sorts — to put an end to situations where the opposing team can put your lead to the torch. Barnes definitely had at least one filthy pitch, but the other two parts of that? Not so much. Barnes wasn’t worse than his 2016 self, but he also wasn’t a pitcher you felt comfortable putting in high-leverage situations, and he didn’t do much to keep your heart rate down. That’s the nature of relievers, but for Barnes, it was pretty apparent.
What Went Right
Barnes took notable steps forward from 2016. His strikeout rate rose over four percentage points to 28.9 percent, which was second-best of all relievers on the team. His walk rate dropped a single point to 9.8 percent, which was still mediocre — but it’s an improvement nonetheless! When the time came to eat up innings, Barnes excelled, striking out over 31 percent of batters in low and medium leverage situations, with a combined FIP nearing 3.20. He might not be a fireman, but he’s perfect for the mop-up crew.
His peripherals were solid, with a 3.33 FIP and a 3.22 DRA overall. Barnes also induced groundballs on 48 percent of all contact, easily the best of his career. He also substantially lowered the amount of hard-hit balls as those went below 30 percent of all contact, the first time that number hasn’t hovered around 35 percent in his career. The amount of fly balls dropped for the fourth straight season, and now sits just north of 28 percent. There’s a lot of career numbers here for Barnes, but just by looking at these numbers, he’s a strikeout machine that gets a ton of wormburners. That’ll fly.
Also his signature curveball still has that bite. Not even Brian Dozier can resist swinging when Barnes drops the hammer:
What Went Wrong
Pitching in tough spots isn’t easy to do, but Barnes absolutely crumbled in those situations. When pitching in a high leverage situation this season, Barnes’ strikeout and walk rates dropped to 20.3 percent and 17.1 percent, respectively. He allowed a .404 BABIP, a 8.78 ERA, and batters ripped a line drive on over 33 percent of contact made. Barnes had 13.1 innings pitched in high leverage situations, and he allowed 13 earned runs (14 total!), gave out 10 free passes, 15 hits, and allowed nearly two baserunners per inning. That’s downright ghastly. There’s a lot of credit due to the rest of the Red Sox bullpen for being able to build a bridge to Kimbrel here, since Barnes certainly didn’t make it easy on them.
If the last paragraph’s carnage wasn’t enough for you, Barnes also bought into the retaliation garbage with Manny Machado early in the season:
This is reprehensibly stupid, and Barnes totally deserved to be ejected. Christian Vazquez sets up low and away, and Barnes goes headhunting. For reasons that have been elaborated on by people far smarter than me, don’t ever do this. Or, in Barnes’ case, don’t ever do this again.
What To Expect
Hopefully some progression in the high leverage department. Barnes was truly awful in those few innings, but it’s also just 13 innings. It’s another small sample size, and when you’re dealing with one like that, the potential range of outcomes is pretty vast. He’s better than that, even if he only has his control 50 percent of the time.
Barnes has been improving year by year, and 2017 was mostly good for him. He’s slowly turning into a good reliever, and it’s no fluke. If he can learn to deal with being under pressure, and actually play up to his peripherals, we’ll see him turn in a better year than ever before. If not, well, we’re in for more of the same, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’ll keep him from being anything more than a solid innings eater.
Photo by Winslow Townson — USA TODAY Sports