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One Big Question: Is Matt Barnes really an elite strikeout pitcher?

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He was in 2018, but is that the new norm?

League Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we start with Matt Barnes.

The Question: Was the elite strikeout pitcher we saw in 2018 the real Matt Barnes?

It’s no secret that I am one of the biggest proponents of Matt Barnes as a significant piece in the Red Sox bullpen and on their roster in general. Granted, I’d like to see them bring back Kimbrel, but that’s not because I don’t think Barnes is capable of holding down the ninth inning. That’s more about who Kimbrel would push out of the bullpen from the guys competing for one of the final roster spots. Anyway, while the bullpen was a concern for portions of last season, Barnes was rarely a part of that. He did struggle a bit in the second half, but that was almost certainly because he was pitching hurt, as he looked better after coming back from the DL and was phenomenal in the postseason. The former first round pick has been steadily progressing through his career, and that all built up to a near-elite (or just plain ol’ elite depending on how you prefer to measure pitching performance) year in 2018.

Now, most of the focus from people who aren’t entirely sold on Barnes look at the control, and that’s not entirely unfair. The righty does miss the zone quite often and lets more runners on base via free passes than anyone would like to see. That’s not the focus for today, though. He was able to succeed despite showing the worst control of his career because of the major jump he took with his strikeout rate. Whichever way you slice it, Barnes was one of the truly elite strikeout pitchers in the game this past summer, and as he enters his age-29 season you have to wonder if that was a one-year blip or if that’s the new norm from Boston’s setup man.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Over the course of the regular season, Barnes pitched to a 3.65 ERA with a 2.74 FIP and a 2.21 DRA (7th in baseball among the 273 pitchers with at least 60 innings, after adjusting for park effects), and again most of that was due to his strikeout rate. After striking out a very good 28.9 percent of his opponents in 2017, he jumped to a rate of 36.2 percent this past year. To put that in perspective, among those same 273 pitchers with at least 60 innings, only Josh Hader, Edwin Diaz, Dellin Betances, Kimbrel, Chris Sale and Adam Ottavino had higher strikeout rates on the season. Ottavino being in that group is interesting as he was one of the premiere relievers on the market this winter before signing with the Yankees, and he was basically identical to Barnes in terms of strikeouts and walks. There’s obviously more to pitching than strikeouts and walks, but the comparison helps illustrate how great Barnes was in 2018.

The question, as we’ve said, is whether or not we can expect this to continue. One way to figure that out is to look at the pitch discipline numbers and see if anything looks particularly fluky, but Barnes survives there as well. Swinging strike rate is generally the best measure of this, and per Baseball Prospectus only six of the 268 pitchers with at least 1000 pitches in 2018 missed bats at a higher rate than Barnes. The Red Sox righty finished just ahead of guys like Blake Treinen, Sale and Blake Snell. Pretty good company!

That alone doesn’t mean that success is going to stick around, though. All that means is that it wasn’t a total and obvious fluke. There’s still the chance of the league adjusting to Barnes. One point in his favor would be if there were real changes from 2017 to 2018 that could help explain the jump in strikeouts, and there are indeed a couple worth noting. The first is that his fastball velocity simply took a jump. After seeing a jump up to 97 mph on average (according to Brooks Baseball) in 2016, Barnes’ fastball dropped back around 95 mph in 2017. He was still able to miss bats with the pitch that year, but he kept that same deception and added to 2 mph back to the heater and the results were undeniable. Sticking around that 97 mph mark would go a long way towards sustainability.

More important than the fastball, however, was the curveball. Big velocity aside, this breaking ball is the straw that stirs the drink for the most underrated reliever in Boston’s bullpen. Barnes has shown more and more confidence in this pitch as his career has gone on, and in 2018 he was throwing it harder than ever (85 mph) and more than ever (40 percent of the time). Even beyond the simple usage rate, it was the unpredictability with which he’d use the pitch. Prior to this past season, the curveball was strictly an out pitch that he’d use when he was ahead in the count. In 2018, he stopped just turning to the fastball when he was behind the batter and trusted his curveball more in those spots. Being able to keep an opponent off-balance is a big key to success at the highest level, and Barnes was consistent with using his curveball in any and all situations.

This is where the potential adjustment from the rest of the league comes in. It’s easier said than done for hitters to adjust to Barnes’ curveball being used more often because A) the fastball can still come at any time and there’s a 12 mph difference between the two pitches and B) when the curveball is on, it’s filthy even if you know it’s coming. He got whiffs on 40 percent of swings against the pitch and 16 percent of the time he threw it in general.

League Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Still, as players become more familiar new wrinkles need to be added, and Barnes started on that path in 2018 with the splitter. According to Brooks, this was the first year he threw the pitch after he ditched the changeup a few years back when he fully converted to the bullpen. The splitter gives him a different offspeed look, clocking in at 89 mph, and it had success in a small sample (6 percent usage rate) in 2018. Opponents whiffed on a third of swings against the pitch in 2018 and 13.4 percent of the time in general, and most importantly hit the ball into the ground almost 90 percent of the time.

As we look ahead to the next season, there is little we saw from Barnes that we should feel is unsustainable, but even just a few small things changing for the worse would take him from that elite strikeout group to merely being very good. There’s a reason the elite groups are so small. He has the stuff to maintain his place here with the big fastball and devastating curveball in which he is only gaining confidence. The key to me, however, is the splitter. After playing around with it and having some success in 2018, it’s time to build on it. At the highest level, opponents are always going to adjust which makes it important to keep evolving. For Barnes, that means adding a third trustworthy pitch. If he can maintain his gains with the fastball and curveball while maintaining some success with the splitter with a 10-20 percent usage rate, Barnes can hang among the elite in 2019 and beyond.