Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will look at the positives of their 2017, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2018. Today, we discuss Matt Barnes.
Barnes was one of the more interesting players of the season looking back, as the perception of him varied wildly based on who you asked and when you asked them. On the plus side, he spent much of the season as one of the most trusted arms in the bullpen, which could feasibly be used as a point against John Farrell, I suppose. Still, he was good for a long stretch of the year, and as the primary setup man for many points in the season he was a major reason Boston’s was one of the best bullpens in baseball for much of the year. His overall pitching line was a positive in and of itself, as the 27-year-old put up careers bests with a 3.88 ERA, a 3.30 FIP and a 3.22 DRA.
The biggest reason for Barnes’ success is, of course, the strikeout. That was why he was called upon in many late-game situations this year. When the team needed someone to miss bats, there weren’t many better options at their disposal than Barnes. He took a huge step forward in this regard in 2017, finishing the year with almost eleven strikeouts per nine innings, a full strikeout better than his previous career high. The righty’s swinging strike rate did rise a bit in this season, but the real success came from him inducing swings on pitches out of the zone and allowing the 17th-lowest contact rate on those pitches among the 264 pitchers who tossed at least 1,000 pitches.
The strikeouts were the biggest positive for Barnes and, if he ends up having a long career, they will be the reason. That being said, it wasn’t the only step forward he took in 2017. A long time flyball pitcher, he’s been taking steps towards improving his contact profile as he’s shifted to the bullpen. That came to a head this past year, as he finished the year with a 50 percent ground ball rate according to Baseball Prospectus. This is a key for a fastball-heavy strikeout guy, which is a profile that can be vulnerable to home runs. In addition to that, simply staying healthy all year is a positive. As a big reliever, durability is the expectation, but it’s much easier said than done. He made 70 appearances on the season and tossed 69 2⁄3 innings.
Much of Barnes’ year was positive, but in watching the whole season I think everyone would agree there were plenty of problems with his 2017 as well. The most notable issue, in my eyes, is an important one to watch moving forward. That is his performance in high-leverage situations. As someone whose next step would seemingly be becoming a consistent late-inning arm, he needs to be better in high-leverage situations. This is the second year in a row he has struggled here, and in 2017 he struggled to the tune of a .732 OPS from his opponents. The biggest reason for the uptick from his opponents was that they were able to draw walks, as Barnes seemed to consistently lose his control when the pressure was at its highest. It’s a troubling trend, and one that I frankly can’t really explain.
In addition to the high-leverage struggles, Barnes also seemed to have a lot more trouble on the road than he did at Fenway. At home, he finished the year with a 2.77 ERA compared to a 5.28 mark on the road. That is....bad. He did everything worse on the road, though once again a lack of control played the biggest role. In fact, that lack of control on its own is a negative. Barnes had his moments where he could hit the zone on a consistent basis, but he had too many instances when he lost the zone and put runners on for free.
Finally, Barnes struggled a lot in September, putting up his worst month of the season. It’s never good to end the year on a sour note, particularly for a player who still hasn’t fully established himself in this league. In fact, the month of September was bad enough that he pitched his way off the postseason roster despite being so trusted all year long.
The Big Question
For Barnes, the answer to his preseason big question was yes, and that was a big part of his ability to take the next step, even if there’s still room to grow. As explained in the linked preseason post, Barnes was coming off a 2016 in which he leaned far too heavily on his fastball. This year, he threw more breaking balls, with both his curveball and slider usage moving up. His slider in particular produced strong results, though it was his least utilized pitch. The increased reliance on the breaking ball shows in his strikeout numbers, specifically with the lack of contact on pitches out of the zone mentioned above.
Looking ahead to 2018
Barnes enters this offseason as his final winter as a pre-arbitration player. It seems almost certain the Red Sox would look to keep him around, as he has a solid baseline after this season and shows potential for more growth. He was miscast as a late-inning arm for much of this year, but he fits perfectly as a fourth or fifth man in the bullpen and whoever the next manager is should try to find a way to get him there and see if Barnes can earn a more impressive role as the year goes on.