As we’ve discussed before, because there are only so many good things we can talk about early on in this Red Sox season and if we only talk about the bad things we (or, perhaps more accurately, I) may actually lose our (my) minds, the bullpen has looked very impressive early in the year. It’s been success from top to bottom of the depth chart, with the guys we expected to be good and the guys we expected to possibly be out of a job within six weeks looking like they want to stick around a while. No, success through twelve games in no way means it will continue and no success through twelve games in no way takes Dave Dombrowski and company off the hook for not doing more to pursue upgrades over the offseason. These ideas can be obvious and acknowledged while also enjoying that guys like Brandon Workman and Tyler Thornburg look like actual weapons so far this year. Again, if we can’t even enjoy the few positives what are we even doing?
Even amid all of the totally valid questions around this unit hading into the season, there were a couple of guys who seemed like relatively safe bet to at least be solid in 2019. The top guy was undoubtedly Matt Barnes. The righty had arguably surpassed Craig Kimbrel in terms of talent last year, and even if that might be a bit much he did nearly make his way up to elite status in 2018. It wasn’t just a sudden spike, either, as the former starting pitching prospect has been steadily progressing with each passing season as a reliever. It all culminated in a huge season in which he struck out over 14 batters per nine innings and made him one of the better relievers in the game by both FIP and DRA. He still seems to be underrated by a weirdly large section of the Red Sox fan base, but his success is becoming hard to ignore.
This season, there’s not a ton of room left for him to rise, and instead the main goal is to simply prove that 2018 was no fluke and that this is who Matt Barnes is. Now, it is April 11 and the righty has made just four appearances with five innings pitched into the season so even I am not going to be “that guy” who makes huge declarations at this point of the year. Plus, the last time we saw him, in the ninth inning of a one-run game in the home opener, he wasn’t great. In that outing Barnes hit the first batter he saw with the first pitch he threw then immediately gave up an RBI double. Still, even with that outing the overall performance very early in the year he has been fantastic. That run was the first he allowed all year and he’s struck out eight of the eighteen batters he’s faced (44 percent). He’s also yet to walk a guy, though again he did hit one batter.
Perhaps even more encouraging than the performance is how he’s being used. Even five years ago there would be no doubt about Barnes’ usage on this roster. He is clearly the best reliever in the bullpen and there is no obvious veteran ahead of him in terms of track record. Barnes would be a traditional closer, rarely appearing before the ninth inning. That’s not the case here. He does have one save and will be used in that role if the situation calls for it, but his job on this roster is to shut down the best portion of opposing lineups in close games. Sometimes that will happen in the ninth, but others it will happen in the seventh or eighth. If he needs to record more than three outs he will do that too, just as he has in two of his four appearances. Alex Cora obviously deserves credit for willing to buck traditional trends here, but Barnes deserves credit as well. Not only is it more difficult pitching in a more flexible role, but he’s also leaving money on the table in future arbitration cases by passing up save chances. He doesn’t exactly have the clout to demand roles, of course, but by all accounts he’s totally buying into this role with full enthusiasm.
What’s been almost as interesting as how he has been used early in the year has been how he has used his repertoire. Part of the reason Barnes had to switch over to a relief role was a lack of a third pitch, as he’s mainly a fastball/curveball guy. He’s flirted a bit with a third pitch this year, which we’ll get to, but the main takeaway here is that the dude loves his curveball. It’s hard to blame him, too. The pitch has been nasty in the past, resulting in whiffs almost 17 percent of the time he threw it in 2018 per Brooks Baseball. This year, he’s leaning on it much more than ever. Through these first five innings of work Barnes is using his breaking ball a whopping 60 percent of the time, up from 42 percent last year. It’s not just a putaway pitch, either, as he’s using it at least 60 percent of the time the batter isn’t ahead, and even in those situations he’s throwing it 43 percent of the time against lefties. The results have been outstanding so far, too, with his whiff rate just about up to 20 percent with the pitch.
He really shouldn’t forget about his other pitches though, because this approach may not be sustainable. His fastball isn’t quite triple digits like some other top relievers in the game, but he can get up pretty close to that and sits in the 95-96 mph range. Even in the modern game that’s nothing to sneeze at. Command with the pitch has always been an issue, but it’s resulted in a called ball just 21 percent of the time in 2019 compared to almost 40 percent in 2018. Then, there’s the splitter, which Brooks Baseball calls a changeup. Whatever you want to call it, Barnes still uses it sparingly but he started showing more confidence in it last year and has thrown it three times this season, with the last resulting in a swing and miss for strike three.
As I said above, Barnes may want to start using those pitches more, and if he’s worried about using his fastball too much given the lapses in control perhaps the splitter can and will become a greater weapon. For as great as his curveball can be, using it so much can lead to it becoming predictable. At that point, batters can sit on it and then Barnes has two choices. He can either keep trying to bait swings and consistently fall behind as more opponents lay off or he can try to throw the curveball in the zone, which is possible but also asking for trouble. Given the sample size we’re dealing with, I don’t think it’s fair to assume Barnes is going to utilize his curveball in this way for the rest of the year. More importantly, given his growth and numbers over the last few years, it’s fair to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even with a little shakiness in his last outing Barnes has picked up right where he left off last season, and that’s a huge boost for a bullpen that came into the season with so many questions.