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Matt Barnes should be the eighth inning man

He’s having a great season.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

We are approaching mid-June and Matt Barnes is having by far the best season of his career. His traditional metrics are filthy, as he boasts a 2.03 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 35 strikeouts over 26 23 IP. Those are the stats of an elite reliever. Still, we know Barnes well enough to know it’s not that simple. If he really an elite reliever? And should he be locked in as the Red Sox eighth inning option?

For all the talk of the Red Sox failing to develop starters, they have done a decent job drafting and developing relief pitchers over the last few years. In addition to Barnes the Red Sox feature Brian Johnson, Bobby Poyner, and Brandon Workman as home grown members of the bullpen. Barnes has the unique distinction of being the only one of these such players drafted in the first round. Drafted out of UConn in the legendary 2011 Red Sox draft, Barnes failed to develop into a quality starter, but really began to hit his stride in a relief role last season.

Looking at advance metrics we still see that Barnes is better than he has ever been. Here are some of the metrics in which Barnes is posting career-best numbers:

Matt Barnes Stats

Stat 2018 Season Previous Best Season
Stat 2018 Season Previous Best Season
DRA* 2.44 3.61 (2017)
K-BB% 20.8 19.2 (2017)
BAA** 0.152 .221 (2017)
HR/9 0.34 0.81 (2016)
BABIP*** 0.232 .298 (2017)

*DRA: Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing pitching metric, on the same scale of ERA.

**BAA: Batting Average Against

***BABIP: Batting Average on Balls in Play

Moreover, he is enjoying the best marks of his career in terms groundball percentage, HR/FB ratio, and leads the team in reliever fWAR ahead of Craig Kimbrel. We have firmly established that Barnes is good, now let’s see how he’s being successful.

Barnes has always had a big fastball and an excellent curveball—what he didn’t always have was a reliable third offering. In 2015 and 2016 as Barnes was beginning his transition to a bullpen arm he was still relying on four pitches including a changeup and slider. Neither of these pitches were very effective. Barnes ditched the changeup after 2016 and this year he has yet to throw a single slider. Instead Barnes has opted for a new pitch—the splitter.

While Barnes still relies heavily on his two best pitches, his four-seam and curveball, he has mixed in the splitter nearly six percent of the time in 2018. Although the righty hasn’t leaned heavily on the pitch, he has been successful with it generating a .167 opponent slugging percentage on the offering. What is different about the choice to throw a splitter this year is that his release point on all three of his pitches are now nearly identical, something that has not been the case at any other point in his career.

In his age 28 season, Barnes is fully experiencing a breakout season and knows what his strengths are. In 2017 he did the majority of the heavy lifting to set him up for this success, but now he has put it all together. Barnes has three quality pitches that all look very similar coming out of his hand. He can throw all of those pitches for strikes and hasn’t hesitated to throw any of them whether he’s ahead or behind in the count.

This year Cora has done an exceptional job of using Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Barnes, and Kimbrel with almost the exact same frequency. Having realized how effective Barnes has been Cora has leaned on him more than any reliever aside from Kimbrel in high leverage situations this season. Here is how those four have performed and how often they have been used:

High Leverage Situations

Relief Pitcher IP High Leverage BAA High Leverage
Relief Pitcher IP High Leverage BAA High Leverage
Heath Hembree 3.1 0.231
Joe Kelly 7 0.167
Matt Barnes 8 0.115
Craig Kimbrel 12 0.146

On merit alone, Barnes should be getting the call as often as he can in high leverage situations. Like it or not Kimbrel has made it known that he prefers to pitch in a clean 9th inning and hasn’t been tasked with putting out fires as much this season. Cora seems to recognize this and has reacted by turning to Kelly and Barnes in these fireman situations. As the year draws on I expect that Cora will continue to rely more and more on Barnes for situations where the game is on the line, and you know what? I feel good about that.

I get that in 2016 and 2017 Barnes was prone to meltdowns posting a 36/21 shutdown to meltdown ratio over those seasons. This year that ratio is 13/3: much better. He has evolved. Barnes is a different pitcher and deserves your trust and the trust of Cora.