It goes without saying that the Red Sox should be dedicating the majority of their focus on 2018. They have the best record in baseball, a wildly talented roster and a real chance of doing something very special this season. Obviously there is a long road ahead of them if they are going to accomplish what they hope to accomplish, but the opportunity is there and it deserves the team’s focus. The front office should be making moves with 2018 in mind, even if they have to mortgage the future a bit. Of course, there is still some level of balance and the future has to be some part of the equation. It’s just a smaller part for the Red Sox now than most other teams given their situation.
With that out of the way, I do want to talk a little bit about the near-future for today. It’s the All-Star break, so why not? In the coming offseason, Boston’s biggest free agent set to hit the open market is Craig Kimbrel, one of the best closers of all time. It seems to me, from the outside at least, that most are already assuming he is gone and many agree that it is the correct move. I’m not convinced either of those things are true, for whatever that’s worth. The Red Sox are still the Red Sox and Kimbrel is a future Hall of Famer in his prime. That’s not to say he’ll definitely be back, but counting it out already seems silly. That’s a discussion for another day, though. Today, I want to add to the discussion that’s been on the fringes of the entire season. Who takes over as the closer after Kimbrel leaves?
In an ideal world, Alex Cora and the Red Sox make the future now and decide they won’t have a real closer, instead playing matchups. Even in that scenario, though, they need an anchor. A guy they trust above all others. Regardless of what you want to call the role, there’s always a best reliever, and that ultimately is what Kimbrel is right now. Among internal options, Joe Kelly got some buzz earlier this year despite also being a free agent at the end of the season. Carson Smith was a possibility heading into the year, but we know how that has worked out. There’s some hope Tyler Thornburg can go back to being that guy, but it’s too early to really think like that. There’s even been some talk that Durbin Feltman could take over the role as early as next year. That seems like crazy talk to me, but I suppose it’s not impossible. Beyond them, it’s been external acquisitions like Raisel Iglesias and Brad Hand, among others. There’s a very obvious name missing from that list, the guy who has been the second-best reliever in the bullpen all year. Why can’t Matt Barnes be a future closer?
This is very much not the perception around Barnes, and a lot of people are still holding on to their first impressions of the righty from two and three years ago. The current version of Barnes, however, is one who can close. He’s made 41 appearances this year over 42 innings and has posted a 2.36 ERA to go with a 2.09 FIP and a 2.36 DRA. Consider that there are 246 pitchers in baseball who have tossed at least 40 innings this year. After adjusting those three metrics for park effects, Barnes ranks 18th in ERA, 8th in FIP and 20th in DRA. In other words, he’s been a legitimately elite reliever all year long.
Now, the obvious counterargument for this is that we are dealing with a small sample size and the Red Sox shouldn’t build their bullpen around someone who has been good for 40 innings. This would be fair if it didn’t ignore the trend of Barnes’ career. The truth is that he’s been building to this pitcher for years, improving markedly with each passing year. He wasn’t at the same level last year, but he was well above-average in all three metrics mentioned above in 2017 as well.
He still has some issues with control — he’s walking more than four batters per nine innings this season — but he’s consistently increased his strikeout rate and ground ball rate with each year. That’s culminated with more than 13 strikeouts per nine innings in 2018 with opponents hitting the ball on the ground 56 percent of the time they put the ball in play (per Baseball Prospectus). The walks still come back to hurt him from time to time, but for the most part he can get by because he has been so good at avoiding the big hit. I’m not sure how much room for improvement there is from here unless he can get the walk rate down, but he doesn’t really need to improve anymore. He’s already at a closer level.
The other argument against Barnes is that he can succeed in certain situations, but closers need to be more flexible and that he will melt under that spotlight. Again. Phooey. In the past, Barnes has had some legitimate issues in high-leverage situations. He’s put those behind him this year, holding opponents to a .170/.313/.245 line. He’s also had issues on the road in the past, but again those issues are behind him. This year he has actually been better away from Fenway, holding opponents to a .132/.258/.184 line. The one split that actually is worrisome are of the platoon variety, as left-handed opponents are hitting .241/.364/.352 against Barnes. That is a real concern, but really the only one. Plus, the fact that Barnes has improved in just about every other way with each passing season suggests he can improve here too, particularly given his increasing confidence in his secondary offerings.
As I said at the top of this post, I am not in the camp that believes the team necessarily has to move on from Kimbrel after this season. If they do, they also don’t have to stick with what they have. I will never complain about having more good relievers, as there’s essentially always room for one more. That being said, Barnes has certainly earned his seat at the table in the conversation for closer of the future. He still has an entire second half to prove that he can keep this up, but given the trajectory of his career and just how flat-out dominant he’s looked for much of 2018, there’s no reason he can’t keep doing this. And if he does, there’s no reason he can’t be the best reliever in a bullpen as early as 2019.