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 wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Matt Barnes.
The Season in a Sentence
For most of the 2018 season, Matt Barnes stabilized the eighth inning for the Red Sox and gave them a legitimate late-inning one-two punch along with Craig Kimbrel
I think it’s fair to call Barnes’ season as a whole a positive on its own, as he finished the year with a 3.65 ERA over 61 2⁄3 innings that was supported by much stronger peripherals in the form of a 2.74 FIP and a 2.21 DRA. In fact, among the 273 pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched in 2018, only three had a better cFIP (the more predictive version of DRA) and only six had a better DRA- (DRA adjusted for park effects). So, the biggest positive for Barnes in 2018 was simply that he pitched super well.
Going down on a slightly more granular level, the biggest story behind Barnes’ success was easily his ability to miss bats. The Red Sox righty was one of the best in all of baseball at racking up strikeouts, and among those same 273 pitchers mentioned above his 36.2 percent strikeout rate ranked seventh in baseball. (Side note: The Red Sox had three of the top seven in K%.) Barnes has been trending up in strikeouts with each year of his career, but he took things to an elite level this year when his K% jumped all the way up from 28.9 percent. It didn’t seem particularly fluky, either, as his swinging strike rate (according to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers) ranked seventh among the 268 pitchers who threw at least 1000 pitches. The key seems to be his curveball, as he’s upped his usage on the pitch with each season, throwing it 40 percent of the time in 2018 per Brooks Baseball while getting a swing and miss 16 percent of the time he threw the pitch and 40 percent of the time he got a swing.
The strikeouts are clearly the focus of Barnes’ game, and it’s the biggest reason he was a fantastic reliever for the majority of the 2018 season. It’s not the only area in which he succeeds, however, and it’s also not the only area in which he’s seen consistent improvement. Barnes bucks the trend of a lot of other power pitchers on the Red Sox staff, as he combines the strikeouts with an ability to induce weak contact on the ground. He does get in trouble from time to time, but most of the time it’s not because he’s getting hit all around. This past year he allowed only five homers on the season and induced ground balls on a career-high 53 percent of balls put into play. His ground ball rate has risen incrementally in each season he’s spent in the majors.
Looking a little bit further into the data and at Barnes’ splits, there’s one final development that could represent a major step forward in his quest to be a legitimate late-inning weapon and potential closer. In the past, the setup man was significantly worse against left-handed opponents. In 2017, his OPS against lefties was 215 points higher than it was against righties while in 2016 the difference was 51 points. He also allowed OPS’s over .700 against lefties in both seasons. In 2018, though, he allowed an OPS of just .643 against lefties, which was only 33 points higher than the OPS he allowed to righties. These kind of splits obviously involve inherently small samples, particularly for relievers, so I’m not sure we can say this should be the expectation moving forward. For one year, however, it made him very valuable.
While, on the whole, the 2018 season represented a major success for Barnes, there are still concerns for the righty that showed up over the course of the year. First and foremost among the negatives is certainly his control. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. While the impact of his walks does decrease a bit as his strikeout rate increases, it’s still hard for him to truly be elite as long as he’s walking nearly 12 percent of the batters he faces like he did in 2018. That was a career-worst for Barnes, but that’s not the same as saying it was a blip. He’s always had control issues, walking at least 9.8 percent of his opponents in each of the last three years. The issue is quite simple, too: Barnes misses the zone too often. In 2018, he was in the bottom 12 percent of the league in zone rate and the bottom 21 percent in swing rate on pitches out of the zone. Each of his two main pitches (the fastball and curveball) ended up as balls 39-40 percent of the time in 2018, and that’s just not sustainable. The fastball in particular needs to be something he can throw for a strike confidently much more often.
In addition to the walks, Barnes also had a really rough stretch in the second half, with most of that coming in August. Over ten appearances that month, the righty tossed 9 1⁄3 innings with 15 strikeouts and four walks while allowing an OPS of 1.044. Most alarming was how he was doing so poorly. Remember above when I said Barnes’ struggles don’t usually come with a ton of hard contact? Well, that’s what was happening here. Four of the five homers he allowed on the year were in August. He was getting rocked time after time. It was....worrisome. The good news is, it didn’t continue. He missed much of September with injury, but came back and was a big part of the bullpen in the postseason. I have no proof of this, but the injury seems to be the most likely explanation for his horrible performance during this stretch. Whatever the cause, however, it was a part of his season.
The Big Question
If you’ll recall, the biggest gripe with Barnes before this season was that he shrunk in the biggest moments. I generally hate arguments like this and think we tend to believe we know more about a player’s psyche than we really do. In this case, there was real data backing it up. Not to say Barnes wasn’t mentally tough or anything that concrete, but he simply pitched worse in the most important moments. For the most part, he answered those questions this year. Barnes was still worse in high-leverage spots compared to other situations, but he only allowed an OPS of .673. We’ll live with that.
The Year Ahead
The Red Sox bullpen is one of the few question marks on this roster looking ahead to 2019, but however it shakes out I would be shocked if Barnes isn’t a major part of it. If Craig Kimbrel leaves and they don’t sign a big name off the free agent market, I would bet on Barnes being the closer next year. I don’t think any other in-house options come close to his talent, and I don’t think they’ll trade what it takes to get a closer already under contract. I also don’t expect that scenario to play out. My guess is that someone who is not currently in the organization will be signed to put ahead of Barnes on the depth chart — whether that be Kimbrel or someone else — but either way Barnes will be one of the top two arms in the ‘pen and there’s every reason to be confident in him in that role.