While the rotation has been the biggest area of focus for the Red Sox this winter — both by adding Chris Sale and subtracting Clay Buchholz — it wasn’t inevitable for things to lean this way. Heading into the offseason, it was the bullpen that was expected to hold the spotlight during the cold months. They did add Tyler Thornburg, which certainly isn’t a move to scoff at, but they also let Brad Ziegler, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa walk. That means they’ll be looking for at least one of their current relievers to take a big step forward to contribute in the late innings with Thornburg and Craig Kimbrel, particularly while Carson Smith remains on the shelf. After what we saw from Joe Kelly at the end of last season, he’s the popular pick. I wouldn’t argue with anyone expecting him to be the third best reliever in this bullpen. Me, though, I’m looking at Matt Barnes as the potential breakout in this group.
In what was his first full season as a reliever, the former UConn star was a mixed bag in 2016. He certainly showed flashes that led to him being among John Farrell’s most trusted arms in the late innings. However, he also showed the inconsistencies that can be expected from young, non-elite arms. Barnes ended up throwing 66-2/3 innings in 62 appearances with a 4.05 ERA, a 3.72 FIP and a 4.05 DRA (which was ever so slightly better than average). Those are definitely numbers that look better suited for the middle innings rather than the late ones, but looking a little bit deeper there are reasons for optimism.
We’ll start with some intangible qualities that, in this writer’s opinion, have some significance. To start with, Barnes isn’t all that far removed from being one of the top prospects in the system. He was the 19th overall pick in Boston’s incredible 2011 draft, and was a top-75 prospect according to Baseball America in both 2013 and 2014. It’s easy to forget now, but he was also one of the Killer B’s that was coming up through the system a few years back. Clearly, things have changed since then, but the talent exists and could easily play up with more development in shorter stints.
Beyond that, there is also the fact that he was started to adapt well to his new role. While it’s assumed that most starters can excel as relievers — and that’s probably true in more cases than not — it’s still a different mentality. Coming in with runners on base changes everything, and Barnes lived up to that task. In a year in which he inherited the eighth most runners in all of baseball, he allowed just 22 percent of them to score. That was the 28th best rate among the 84 pitchers who inherited at least 25 runners. To look at things another way, the 26-year-old allowed a .758 OPS with the bases empty, a .669 OPS with runners on base, and a .578 OPS with runners in scoring position. Those are small samples and certainly not enough to make super strong conclusions about, but they are at the very least encouraging. Especially for a guy who, again, was in his first year as a reliever.
It’s not just the mentality and the pedigree, though. The dude can flat out deal when he’s on, too. Barnes finished the year with nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings, which is less impressive in today’s wild strikeout environment but also nothing to sneeze at. The secondary numbers backed it up, too. For one thing, the righty’s fastball played up in a big way in shorter stints, going over 97 mph on average for the season. That helped lead to his 28 percent swinging strike rate (per Baseball Prospectus), better than 83 percent of the league.
Lastly, Barnes started to induce some more ground balls in 2016. While his 46 percent rate (again, per BP) wasn’t close to elite, it was much better than what we’d seen previously in the pros. He has a tendency to get hit hard at times (he’s never allowed a batting average on balls in play below .322), so keeping it on the ground at least limits the damage. There’s a reason his career HR/9 is 1.2. However, a change of repertoire helped get him to a more manageable level of ground balls and that showed in his overall numbers. Specifically, he was throwing more sliders and inducing many more grounders with his improved fastball.
Of course, as the overall numbers hint, it wasn’t all roses for Barnes. His inconsistencies were an issue all year, and they’re not something you want from one of your top relievers. Most of the time, it came down to the walks. He finished the season with a 4.2 BB/9, well above the 3.4 average for relievers in 2016. With it being his first major-league season, blaming it on fatigue down the stretch could be a simple solution. There may even be some merit to it, as he had rates above 5.0 in both August and September. However, he also flashed high rates in April and May, so it’s likely a bigger problem than simply being tired.
The good news is he’s not the first talented reliever to have issues with control. Some of the best relievers in the game had this same issue when they first began throwing out of major-league bullpens. Andrew Miller, Wade Davis, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, Cody Allen, David Robertson and Kimbrel all walked over four batters per nine to start their careers, just to name a few. It goes without saying that they are all among the elite class of bullpen arms in the game now. Obviously, the list of pitchers with control issues who never figured it out is much longer, but this is at least an encouraging list.
With the approach Boston has taken with their bullpen this winter, they are counting on steps forward from some of their returning arms in 2017. Given his pedigree, fearlessness and overall stuff, Barnes could be the surprise breakout of the Red Sox bullpen. He’ll have to overcome some real control issues to take that leap, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. This is probably the last chance for that original triumvirate of Killer B’s to become a reality.