The Red Sox bullpen is always a hot point of contention. I’m sure this is true of every contending team in the league, but I know it’s true in Boston. It makes sense, as they pitch in the most important situations and games are often won and lost based on their performance. It can lead to overreactions to be sure, but it’s at least an understandable overreaction. What is more frustrating than a game being blown by the bullpen?
This year, the Red Sox bullpen has been mostly fantastic, and it’s been even better when you consider that they’ve been without their two primary setup arms for the entire season. Craig Kimbrel has led the charge, of course, and has been arguably the best reliever in the game. The rest of the group has been great, too, and that’s at least partially due to the managing job done by John Farrell.
Of course, Wednesday’s game in Kansas City was a very bad one for the bullpen. With their recent performance, it was only a matter of time until they blew one, but that fact doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. Among those at the center of the implosion was Matt Barnes, who has been entrusted with the primary setup role for the majority of the season. He’s sort of a controversial figure on this team, as many believe he’s not good enough for this role. For whatever it’s worth, I’m on record saying I believe Joe Kelly is the second-best reliever in this bullpen. With that being said, I’m not sure Barnes is as bad as some believe. Of course, I’m not sure he’s not as bad as some believe. So, let’s run through his 2017 and try to figure out just who the hell he is.
Overall, it’s been anything from a solid season to a great one for Barnes depending on which numbers you prefer. Over 31 2⁄3 innings that span 32 appearances, the righty has a 3.41 ERA, a 3.19 FIP and a 2.18 DRA. In order, those numbers are fine, good and outstanding. I’ve said before that DRA — and all-encompassing stat created by the Baseball Prospectus statistical team that you can read more about here if you’re interested — and it is easily the most flattering for Barnes this season.
When adjusted for the league, the former first round pick’s DRA is 54 percent better than the league average, a number that ranks 10th among the 233 pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings this season. For what it’s worth, Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale are first and second in the league in adjusted-DRA. The more descriptive counterpart to DRA, cFIP, is also high on Barnes, although not quite as high. Through Wednesday’s action he has a cFIP of 79 (21 percent better than league-average).
Looking a little bit deeper, the best part of Barnes’ game is clearly his ability to rack up strikeouts. He was solid in that area last year, but he’s taken the leap to near-elite levels this season. At this point in the year, he is striking out a little over 11 batters per nine innings and just under 30 percent of the batters he’s faced. To make matters even better, this leap isn’t unsubstantiated. Barnes has induced whiffs on 31 percent of swings this season, a three percentage point jump from 2016. That rate ranks 25th among the 228 pitchers who have tossed at least 500 pitches.
Even better, those improvements are backed up by a repertoire change. In 2016, Barnes was in his first full season out of the bullpen and it was clear that he was still adjusting to his new role. As such, we saw him using a larger repertoire as he tried to figure out what worked and what didn’t. This season, he’s adjusted and has decided on the pitch mix he feels works. Specifically, he is leaning more on his slider and has cut his changeup out completely. Things have obviously worked out, as each of his three pitches (fastball and curveball to go along with the slider) have induced whiffs on at least a quarter of swings.
It’s not all good news for Barnes, though. As we saw on Wednesday, the biggest issue for the 27-year-old is his control. This has always been an issue for the righty, and he hasn’t yet figured a way to fix it. As of this writing, he has walked exactly four batters per nine innings and 12 percent of the batters he has faced. Those are both well below-average and not a great look for a pitcher who often throws in high-leverage spots. Furthermore, he has hit the zone less than ever before while also inducing fewer swings on those pitches that miss the zone. If you want to allow a lot of walks, that’s how you do it.
Speaking of those high-leverage spots, Barnes’ performances when the pressure is at its highest has not been good. There’s been some speculation that the righty struggles with clutch situations, and while I don’t really like to speculate on a player’s mental fortitude there is at least some statistical evidence that he does indeed struggle more here. This season, he has faced 49 batters in high-leverage spots while allowing an .861 OPS in those situations. He is allowing a .671 OPS in medium-leverage spots and a .538 OPS in low-leverage spots. This isn’t a new issue, either. In his career, he’s allowed an .869 OPS in high-leverage spots, a .696 OPS in medium-leverage and a .766 in low-leverage. I’m not close to being entirely convinced this is a trend that is doomed to continue throughout his career, though. We’re only talking about 144 high-leverage plate appearances over the course of his entire career to this point.
In the end, I remain convinced that Barnes is a good pitcher who certainly has his flaws but is treated too harshly by many who follow this team. He has proven to have near-elite strikeout stuff and the changes he’s made this season make that stuff to appear sustainable. The control obviously needs to be worked on and the high-leverage numbers are head scratching, but the talent is clearly there. In an ideal world, Barnes wouldn’t be the second-most trusted arm in a major-league bullpen, but he’s pitched well enough for most of this season to at least be in that conversation, even after a horrible performance Wednesday afternoon.