The Red Sox, on Monday, settled up pretty much all of their possible regular season goals. With their victory over Baltimore, they ensured that any postseason series in which they play will go through Fenway, and they also ensured they will be the winningest regular season Red Sox team ever. Despite all of the accolades that this team has earned all year long, there is still concern around them heading into the postseason because of course there is. That’s the nature of the postseason in this game, and even a perfect team will be surrounded by concern. The unsettling fact is that you just never know what will happen in the small sample that is the MLB Playoffs. It’s fun, but terrifying. Of course, the Red Sox also aren’t a perfect team (such a thing doesn’t really exist). They have flaws, and the largest and most high-profile of those flaws is certainly the bullpen.
We’ve talked about this a billion times since last season ended, wondering why they haven’t added arms and examining the current arms and just about every other angle. For as much as I thought they should have added someone either last winter or at the trade deadline, however, the recent poor performance has been a bit overblown. Granted, the numbers look awful. You can’t deny that. However, they’ve also come from a whole lot of pitchers who (hopefully) won’t be throwing important pitches in October. If you just look at the top guys, they’ve either gotten good grades in September or they get an incomplete.
This is totally arbitrary, but if we assume the team will carry a seven-man bullpen into October, the top-half of that unit is the portion that will get the significant bulk of the work. There’s no more rest in October, and they will be used when they’re needed. Of the top four, Craig Kimbrel has been very good in September and is hitting his stride exactly when the team has needed it. Eduardo Rodriguez, who now looks likely to lose his rotation spot to Nathan Eovaldi, only made his first relief appearance on Monday and he looked very, very good. Ryan Brasier has been the worst of this group in September, but he’s still been solid with a 3.00 ERA and nine strikeouts with no walks in nine innings of work. That’s pretty good for a bad stretch.
Then, there’s Matt Barnes, who is the final part of this foursome and in my mind, the most important part. The righty has never really gained the trust of Red Sox fandom, and some of that is earned and some of that is a nice lesson out for those out there who need to learn the importance of a first impression. Barnes as come up small in big moments in the past, but for most of this season he’s been elite. That is, until August rolled around and he got roughed up. Shortly after that, the righty was shut down with injury and he only recently came back, making two appearances since the very start of the month.
Now, we can’t just ignore the poor stretch of baseball for Barnes, as it reaffirmed the beliefs of those who don’t trust him. It’s hard to argue against it, too. The former first round pick just saw his season turn on a dime and suddenly he was regularly getting shelled. Through the entire month of August he allowed runs in six of his ten appearances and pitched to a 9.64 ERA. That’s bad! There are a couple reasons why I’m at least wary to throw Barnes away due to that stretch even beyond the nominal small sample concerns.
For one thing, the injury could have played a role. At the very least, he could have been fatigued, and either way the three weeks off should go a long way to help him if that was indeed the reason for the struggles. Secondly, it wasn’t a normal bad run for Barnes. He’s been around long enough that we know what bad Barnes looks like — basically, he just can’t find the zone. When he can’t throw strikes he usually gets in trouble, but when he does he’s usually dominant. That wasn’t the case in this stretch. Despite the rough ERA, he still posted a 15/4 K/BB ratio in nine innings. Those four walks aren’t very bad at all. This isn’t to say the ERA was a fluke — Barnes earned every bit of hard contact he allowed during that run — but it was not normal for him. To me, it is another indication that it was a fatigue issue rather than Barnes reverting to his true self as some others would argue.
Then, you get to how Barnes pitched before that stretch, and he was nothing short of phenomenal for the first four months of the year. The Red Sox needed someone to step up directly in front of Kimbrel, and Barnes did that and then some. Through July, the righty had pitched to a 2.30 ERA over 47 innings of work with 74 (!) strikeouts and 25 walks. The control still wasn’t great, but it didn’t hurt him too much because of that ability to induce weak contact. Opponents hit just .165 against Barnes with a .070 Isolated Power. He didn’t really get any All-Star buzz, and it’s understandable, but he was pitching at an All-Star-caliber level.
Essentially, what it comes down to for Barnes, and arguably for the bullpen as a whole, is whether or not that August run was a fluke and if that three-week stretch of rest can pay off. If that poor performance was indeed brought on by fatigue and injury, and if he is indeed feeling fine now, that’s a massive weapon for the Red Sox. If Barnes can indeed get back to the version of himself we saw through July, then Boston suddenly has two elite arms in the back of the bullpen, along with Rodriguez and Brasier. That’s a group that can push a team deep into October to be sure. Of course, that’s a lot of ifs up there. I’m unabashed in my belief that Barnes is outstanding, but it would be silly to act as if it’s a sure thing. He’s looked fine in two outings since returning, but that’s two outings. Only time will tell what kind of pitcher he will be to end the year, and that could be the difference between this bullpen fulfilling everyone’s worst prophecies, or it surprising a large chunk of this fandom.