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One Big Question: Can Matt Barnes come through in big spots?

The preseason series starts with a talented, but frustrating, reliever

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Matt Barnes.

The Question: Can Matt Barnes perform up to his talent level in high-leverage situations?

Matt Barnes, it seems to be, is among the more polarizing members of the Red Sox. Of course, this could be something of an egocentric point of view as I’ve long been among the righty’s bigger supporters and often find myself in (largely genial) arguments about his merits as a pitcher. So, perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is a one-side polarization with me on one side and the rest of the world on the other. Either way, I think it would be fair to say it’d be a major upset if Barnes weren’t on the Opening Day roster despite having minor-league options. In fact, it seems reasonable to expect the 27-year-old to play a relatively large role to start the year given the uncertainty around the other possible setup men. Looking back at 2017, Barnes’ overall season was mostly impressive, though it was at least as frustrating as it was productive. The bulk of that frustration came in high-leverage spots, and as he looks to take the next step in his career we wonder whether or not he’ll be able to perform in those instances.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Before we look at this particular weakness, I think it’s worth it to look back at Barnes’ season as a whole. The righty spent just about the entire year in Boston in 2017 making 70 appearances with 69 23 innings over that time. His run prevention was fine if unspectacular, finishing the season with a 3.88 ERA. Digging a little deeper, though, one could reasonably suggest his ERA should have been better. He struck out just under 11 batters per nine innings while walking 3.6, finishing the year with a 3.30 FIP. Meanwhile, DRA (an all-encompassing stat from Baseball Prospectus) was an even bigger fan as Barnes finished with a 3.22 mark that was about 32 percent better than the league-average pitcher. For reference, after adjusting for park effects Barnes was sandwiched between Ken Giles and Justin Verlander on the DRA leaderboard.

Of course, for as strong and perhaps underrated as his overall performance was, there is no denying that he has struggled when the lights are shining their brightest. Barnes was spectacular in low- and medium-leverage situations, allowing OPS’s of .650 and .567, respectively. In high-leverage spots, though, things took a turn and his opponents managed to hit .270/.380/.351 in these situations for a .732 OPS. Although that’s not a horrendous mark or anything, it certainly wasn’t up to the standards of his other outings. It’s also not a one-year issue, either. Baseball-Reference has a stat called tOPS+ that compares an OPS in any given split to a player’s overall performance. A number over 100 indicates a worse-than-average OPS allowed for pitchers. Over Barnes’ career, he has allowed a tOPS+ of 118 in high-leverage situations. It’s only 188 plate appearances so the sample size isn’t massive, but it’s also all we have.

More important than the performance, though, is why it’s happening. Really, it comes down to one thing: Control. As you can see in his high-leverage line in 2017, extra base hits weren’t a huge issue for Barnes as he allowed an Isolated Power under .100. However, he walked 16 percent of the batters he faced in the biggest spots. It seemed whenever Barnes was called upon in a crucial moment, he struggled to find the strike zone. The natural and most obvious assumption to make here would be that Barnes was overthrowing in these spots, trying too hard to make an impact pitch rather than sticking with his game. It’s hard to prove that this was definitively the case, but it’s worth noting that a cursory check on Brooks Baseball shows that Barnes leaned heavily on his fastball in many of these rough outings, perhaps lending a little more credence to this theory.

Whatever the reason may be for Barnes’ struggles in his biggest appearances, he needs to figure out a way to work past those. Perhaps a new coaching staff will help find a way to calm him down in these outings, or perhaps it’s something that can just come with more experience. It’s also possible that this is all small-sample size noise and we’re worrying over nothing, though that’s not the feeling I get. Whatever the case may be, Barnes is on the cusp of being a very solid late-inning arm for a contending team. He has the stuff and he has the talent, as he’s shown in significant flashes over his career. If he truly wants to take that last step, though, he’ll have to find a way to stay within his game and succeed in the most important situations.