The Red Sox are stuck in a funk in which they’ve been all year where they take two steps forward but can’t continue that momentum and inevitably take at least one step back. That continued this past weekend when they dropped two of three to the Blue Jays after rolling into that series, and it’s the bullpen that has been the focus of the fan base of late. It’s certainly not the only issue, and as a unit they’ve actually been solid this year. Boston’s relief corps is in the bottom of the top ten in both ERA and FIP this season. I think it’s fair to say that part of the issue is that every fan base thinks their bullpen sucks. It’s part of the nature of the position where your failures are just so much more magnified than your successes.
At the same time, there are very real issues with this bullpen that are in some ways masked by the numbers. There simply isn’t a lot of talent in this unit and it feels like guys like Brandon Workman and Marcus Walden and, when he’s healthy again, Heath Hembree are all pitching over their heads this season. It’s certainly possible that is me underrating these pitchers — it certainly wouldn’t be my first time doing this — but looking at the depth chart it seems like there is one top guy and then a whole lot of issues.
What’s making matters even more untenable of late is that the one top guy, Matt Barnes, is struggling mightily. Barnes is clearly the best reliever in this Red Sox bullpen, but he has not been pitching like it lately. To be fair, even with the recent struggles his overall numbers still look great. The righty has made 34 appearances this year with 33 innings and he has pitched to a 3.82 ERA, a 2.39 FIP and a 1.79 DRA. In fact, by peripherals this has been the best season of his career with over 16 strikeouts per nine innings and a career-high ground ball rate just below 60 percent. In fact, among the 269 pitchers with at least 30 innings under their belts this year, Barnes’ park-adjusted DRA is the best in all of baseball.
That’s all well and good, but it’s not exactly a consolation prize for what he has looked like lately. What he has looked like is not the top reliever of a playoff-caliber bullpen, particularly not one with the lack of depth possessed by the Red Sox. Going back to May 22, he has pitched to an ugly 7.07 ERA with nearly a walk per inning. He’s still getting the strikeouts (24 in 14 innings) but the walks combined with a .406 batting average on balls in play are leading to disastrous results. What the Red Sox need to figure out is what exactly is going on.
Right now, it’s the control that is really killing him of late. As I said, he is walking nearly a batter per inning in this recent stretch. In that time frame, he has walked just over 17 percent of his opponents, which is among the worst rates in baseball. There have been 334 pitchers who have tossed at least 10 innings since May 22 and only five have walked batters at a higher rate. (A little off-topic, but Brandon Workman is one of those five pitchers).
Digging a little bit deeper, it’s been his fastball in particular that seems to be an issue. Early in the season, Barnes was relying very heavily on his curveball, and it was working. As I wrote early in the year, though, it seemed unsustainable. Eventually, batters were going to lay off his curveball and force him to come back with the fastball. That’s happened of late, as he has slowly used his fastball more and more this year and in June is starting to throw the pitch more than half the time for the first time in 2019. However, he’s also struggling more than ever with his command on the pitch. His swing rate on the fastball has fallen by 16 percent since the start of his slide and almost half of the heaters he’s thrown have gone for balls. That’s supposed to be the pitch he gets over for strikes when he needs it.
All of this so far has ignored what is almost certainly the biggest issue for Barnes so far: His workload. Since the start of June, no pitcher has been used more than Barnes. Moreover, these have all been high-stress appearances since his role is to face off against his opponents’ best hitters day in and day out. It’s hard to know how much of the blame goes on this usage, because putting it all on the lack of depth forcing Cora to use Barnes as much as he has seems to be taking an undue amount of responsibility away from the pitcher who isn’t making his pitches. At the same time, it’s hard watching him and not thinking he looks like a fatigued arm. Whatever the case may be, with the way this Red Sox bullpen is constituted it doesn’t work unless Barnes is throwing strikes, getting swings and dominating. That hasn’t been happening of late, but hopefully a little rest will get him back on that path.