Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Matt Barnes.
The Question: Can Matt Barnes build upon his secondaries?
Well, it only took until the second day to reach a player about whom I’ve already written about in the recent past. Just two weeks ago, I looked back on Matt Barnes’ 2016 and foresaw some possible breakout potential in his future. Specifically, I pointed out his pedigree and stuff as strong building blocks for a possible late-innings arm. Obviously, things weren’t all good last year, despite the trust he clearly built up in John Farrell. Barnes struggled with his control at times during the year, and was just generally inconsistent from month to month. With him coming up so early in this series, I don’t want to rehash the same thoughts all over again. So, for today I’m going to look at a different question that sort of ties into those themes of inconsistencies.
Among the reasons Barnes wasn’t able to fulfill his potential as a starting pitcher was that he couldn’t develop a full repertoire of offerings. His fastball turned into a reliable weapon, and as a reliever that’s a huge first step. He leaned heavily on the pitch in 2016, throwing it a whopping 64 percent of the time. There’s plenty of reason for him to use the pitch so often, especially after bumping the average velocity up over 97 mph last year. For a reliever that throws almost entirely in short stints, leaning so heavily on one pitch is far from the end of the world. Zach Britton threw his sinker 92 percent of the time last year, and he had one of the greatest seasons for a reliever in baseball history. Mariano Rivera is the best reliever of all time, and he threw his cutter over 90 percent of the time and basically never threw a pitch under 90 mph.
The issue is, Barnes isn’t Britton or Rivera and his fastball isn’t that kind of elite pitch. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a good one. It generated whiffs on a quarter of swings last year and ground balls on just about half of balls in play. He challenged hitters up and out of the zone with the pitch, and he won that battle many times. Unfortunately for Barnes, major-league hitters are absurdly good at what they do. They’ll surely start to feel more and more comfortable sitting fastball, and once that happens he’ll start getting hit much harder. Leaning so heavily on a cutter or sinker — particularly elite ones -- is one thing, given their movement. It’s much harder to succeed with a four seamer that lacks that elite late break, even if Barnes has better movement on his than most.
The good news is, as a former top starting pitching prospect, Barnes at least has a base on which to build. Back in 2012, when his prospect status was coming to a head and he was ranked as high as number 38 in baseball, scouts were talking about his potential for a plus curveball. Now, that was given with the caveat that it wasn’t at all fully developed, and he clearly never hit that stride. However, it was his second most-used pitch in 2016, and it once again had its moments. Throwing it nearly a quarter of the time, Barnes’ curve induced whiffs on 37 percent of swings, his highest rate of any pitch. Unfortunately, the pitch was also prone to hard contact, as it allowed his highest line drive rate (32 percent of batted balls) and home run rate (11 percent of all balls hit in the air).
The issue was pretty simple: He left the pitch hanging too often. There were plenty of instances in which he had the proper snap on the curveball and deposited it under the bottom of the strike zone. That high whiff rate was no accident. Unfortunately, as you can see in this zone plot from last season, there were also plenty of instances in which he left it sitting right over the middle of the plate.
Beyond the fastball and curveball, Barnes also utilizes a changeup. He didn’t use it much in 2016 -- just five percent of the time — but in 2015 he threw it over 14 percent of the time. As a pitch he generally uses to keep lefties on their toes, it’s proven to be a below-average offering. The goal of a changeup is to fool the opponent and have them swing right through it. Unfortunately, as you can see here, that was rarely the case last year.
Having three usable pitches would be a big advantage for Barnes, but with his weak changeup that doesn’t appear to be overly likely. However, with a little more consistency that curveball can become a legitimate weapon to complement his already-plus fastball. With Craig Kimbrel and Tyler Thornburg, the Red Sox have a solid base in their bullpen. They could use another arm to step up into a late-inning role, though, and Barnes has a good shot at being that guy. There’s an outside chance he could do it with just one strong pitch, but with the league having another year of scouting him under their belts, he’ll have a much better shot if he can take at least one of his other pitches to the next level.