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 singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Matt Barnes.
The Question: What’s the adjustment to get Matt Barnes’ walk rate back down to a manageable level?
Matt Barnes is good. I know this is a thing I like to say sometimes to rile people up, but it also need to be pointed out that this simply is a fact. There are arguments to be had about the extend of his goodness as well as whether or not he’s as good as he should be, to be sure. It is more than fair to express those opinions and just generally be frustrated with the right-handed reliever. Just don’t conflate that with him not being good, because we have enough of a sample size that it’s patently absurd to say he’s bad. As much as I’ve stumped for him in the past, it’s hard not to be frustrated, because he should be better.
But still, Barnes is good. By park-adjusted ERA — both not the best metric by which to judge a reliever and not Barnes’ best metric over the years — he has been at least 15 percent better than league-average in each of the last three years, including a career-best 22 percent better last year. By park-adjusted FIP, he’s been at least 23 percent better than league-average in each of the last three years, including 27 percent better than average in 2019. And by park-adjusted DRA he has been at least 30 percent better than league-average in each of the last three years including 43 percent better last year. His ability to rack up strikeouts has been particularly absurd, peaking with a 38.6 percent rate in 2019, which is absolutely absurd. It is, again, simply incorrect to say he is not good.
Okay, that is the end of the Matt Barnes Fan Club portion of the program, and we thank you for tagging along. Now we get into the issues, and specifically with his inability to limit his walks. This has always been the primary (not only, to be clear) issue for Barnes when things are going poorly. We know from Craig Kimbrel — no I’m not comparing Barnes to Kimbrel, neither the Hall of Fame version nor the 2019 disaster version — that pitchers who miss bats at an elite rate can get by with a higher walk rate, but there’s still a limit. Barnes was beyond that limit in 2019, walking over 13 percent of the opponents he faced. Among 341 pitchers with at least 50 innings, only 14 issued free passes at a higher rate.
If Barnes wants to make the leap into that near-elite tier where his talent says he should be, he is going to need to get his walk rate down. At the very least, he needs to get it down to around 10 percent, where he last was in 2017. On its own, it’s not that hard to see the path to having a lower walk rate for Barnes. Just throw more strikes, right? Hire me as pitching coach! Obviously, it’s not that simple. We want to find a way to balance the walk rate while maintaining his elite strikeout ability.
The way that works for Barnes with his pitching style is that there are going to be a lot of balls. His zone rate reached an all-time low last year, with Baseball Prospectus saying he hit the zone only 40 percent of the time. Among 267 pitchers with at least 1000 pitches in 2019, only 12 hit the zone less often than Barnes.
That’s how he operates, though, and it makes sense that it would be to that kind of extreme last year, as it was the first time in his career that he threw his curveball more often than any other offering. The curveball, of course, is at its most effective if it is breaking out of the zone. The goal is to get ugly swings and misses on pitches below the zone, something Barnes got plenty of over the season. The nature of the beast, though, is that this will come with some walks. Brandon Workman provides a blueprint for that as well.
So, the simple solution would seem to be a tweak in approach that cuts back a bit on the curveball usage to focus more on the fastball. It’s not unreasonable, and I think it’s probably work looking at. Unlike Workman, who used this curveball-heavy approach to play up an average fastball, Barnes can throw heat. His fastball sits around 96 mph and can get up higher when he needs to, so it makes sense that he’d be able to lean on his fastball a bit more, even while throwing a lot of curveballs.
That being said, looking at how his pitches performed in 2019, it would be a mistake to not look at the fastball command, too. While the curveball is the focal point of Barnes’ arsenal, he’s at his best when he can get an opponent looking for the looping breaking ball at the bottom of the zone then blow a fastball by in the upper-third. That only works if he’s hitting his spot, which he didn’t do consistently last season.
Consider that Barnes’ fastball was hit much, much harder than his curveball. Now, that is probably always going to be the case, as fastballs are the easiest pitch to hit. Still, opponents had an expected wOBA of .366 and an actual wOBA of .390 against the offering in 2019 compared to much more manageable marks of .319 and .326 the year before. To get back to the walk issue, too, he missed up at the top of the zone much more often. Below you’ll see where his fastballs crossed the plate in 2019 as well as 2018, via Baseball Savant.
So, there’s a lot more pitches above the zone. That’s not always a bad strategy with a fastball, of course, but consider that hitters are, again, sitting curveball and both ready to take and waiting on a slower pitch. They’re more likely to let a fastball sneak by. Also note the zone below getting the fewest swings, also via Baseball Savant.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the place where Barnes’ fastball missed the most is also the zone that gets the fewest swings.
Barnes should be the best reliever in the bullpen in 2020. He won’t be the closer — Workman earned that role — but he should be trusted for big outs in the seventh and eighth innings. If he wants to get close to his ceiling, the walks can’t be at the same level they reached in 2019. Part of that probably includes throwing his curveball a bit less, but perhaps more importantly is simply commanding the fastball and throwing that in the zone more often.