Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day (minus a week in October where I’ll be mostly off) we’ll deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as the negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. We start today with Matt Barnes.
2019 in one sentence
While avoiding a total disaster, Matt Barnes took a step back from a strong 2018 with his command looking less consistent than ever before.
We’ll go into some more detail here a little bit later in this post, but Barnes was an incredible strikeout pitcher yet again in 2019. He has taken a step forward in this area in each of his five major-league seasons, culminating in over 15 strikeouts per nine innings in 2019 with nearly 39 percent of his opponents going down by way of the K. In an era where it seems like every other batted ball is leaving the yard, the ability to miss bats and keep the ball out of play is a more valuable skill than ever. Looking around the league pretty much every reliever seems to carry an elite strikeout rate today, but Barnes is a step beyond that and is truly one of the most difficult pitchers in baseball to make contact off in the entire league.
Barnes was also, more generally, terrific to start the year. The rotation ended up being the thing that took this team down, but we all remember the concern surrounding this bullpen coming into the season. They were solid to start the year, though, and Barnes was a big reason why. The righty was tasked with a near-impossible role, facing the meat of the opponents’ lineup night in and night out regardless of the inning. It is the ideal way to run a bullpen in a vacuum with your best pitchers facing their best hitters, but it’s easier said than done in real life. For the first two months, Barnes was money in this role. Over his first eighteen appearances, the righty had a stellar 1.42 ERA while striking out 49 percent of his opponents and walking only 5.6 percent. For that period, he looked every bit the elite reliever I continuously claimed he was.
The money pitch for Barnes, and perhaps to too much of an extent which we’ll get to later, was his curveball. Although the righty does have a big fastball, it’s the breaking ball that really does the work for him on the mound. With a massive break and a change-of-speed from his heater, batters struggle to adjust to it on the fly and more often than not it makes them look silly. Barnes threw that breaking ball a whopping 50.7 percent of the time in 2019. Among the 609 pitchers who threw at least 250 pitches in 2019, only two (according to Statcast data) threw their curveball more often. It worked, too, as batters whiffed against the pitch 41 percent of the time and when they put it in play they had an expected wOBA of just .213.
For as overwhelming as some of those positives were, it still felt like a disappointing year for Barnes in a lot of ways. That is kind of the Matt Barnes Experience at this point, I suppose. Any struggles that he did have largely came down to a lack of control. Barnes has always had some issues with walks, but in shorter stints with his strikeout rate, he can get by as long as he is walking fewer than about five per nine. That was not the case in 2019, when he walked 5.3 batters per nine and 13.3 percent of his total opponents. Part of this was because he relied so heavily on that curveball, which by design ends up out of the strike zone a good chunk of the time. According to Baseball Prospectus he hit the strike zone just 40 percent of the time in 2019, putting him among the bottom six percent in that category across baseball. He was above-average at getting chases out of the zone, but to overcome such a low zone rate he needed to be elite in getting chases. He wasn’t in 2019.
Again, a lot of this came down to his repertoire, which in turn came down to confidence in his fastball. It’s hard to know exactly what was behind the extreme usage of his curveball. I’d imagine some of it was due to him simply being ultra-confident in the pitch, and for good reason. As outlined above, it was a great weapon. Presumably, though, it was also partially due to a lack of confidence in his fastball. He threw that just 47 percent of the time and struggled to command it consistently. Below you can see heat maps (courtesy of Baseball Savant) from the last two years with the pitch. You’ll see in 2018 he was able to consistently command the top of the strike zone, but last year he missed a lot more often.
Barnes’ curveball is great, but he needs to be able to establish his fastball and throw it consistently for strikes if he is going to be the high-level reliever he is capable of being.
There is also the matter of how he slowed down as the year went along. I mentioned above how great he was in his first 18 appearances. Well, in his next 19 appearances after that, taking us through the end of June, he pitched to a 9.19 ERA with a 33 percent strikeout rate and a 17 percent walk rate to go with an .866 OPS for his opponents. A lot of this was blamed on being overworked early in the year, and there’s probably some merit to that. He not only pitched close to every other day but also was doing so in consistently high-stress situations. At the same time, it is a convenient excuse. For someone who again truly has the potential to be elite, a similar workload has to be the expectation. There is a balance to be struck, but putting the blame for Barnes’ midseason swoon solely on Alex Cora’s bullpen management and/or the rotation’s inability to pitch deep into games seems to be taking too much blame off Barnes’s shoulders for simply not doing the job.
Finally, one of the big issues for Barnes throughout his career has often been a tendency to struggle when the lights are shining the brightest. He turned that narrative on its head for most of 2018, to be fair, pitching well regardless of leverage in the regular season and playing a big role in the postseason bullpen. In 2019, however, he struggled again in high leverage spots, allowing a .719 OPS in those situations compared to .641 in medium leverage and .560 in low leverage. I’m not convinced this is indicative of future concern, but it has to be pointed out that he struggled the most in 2019 when the situation was most dire.
The Big Question
Is Matt Barnes really an elite strikeout pitcher?
As I said near the top of this post, Barnes has improved his strikeout rate in every season he’s been in the majors. In 2018, he emerged as a truly elite strikeout pitcher, and it was fair to wonder if that was the plateau. This past year he proved that it was not. He brought things up to another level, and while that was arguably at the cost of his control, he undeniably missed bats at an elite level. Among the 398 pitchers with at least 40 innings (Barnes had 64), only seven struck out batters at a higher rate. Furthermore, among the 371 pitchers with at least 750 pitches (Barnes had 1276) only 18 missed bats at a higher rate. Barnes is unquestionably among the elite in this category after two years at this level.
Barnes is entering his second year of arbitration and will certainly be tendered a contract. He will be right back in a similar role as one of the lead arms in the bullpen, though should not be the top arm heading into the year if this team wants to have a playoff caliber relief corps. Among the players set to return next year, Barnes is paired with Brandon Workman as the lone possible late-inning arms that could be ready for that role from day one of the season.