Welcome to our 2020 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 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we are exploring how 2020 was for Matt Barnes.
2020 in one sentence
Matt Barnes struggled, particularly early in the year, but he finished strong and took control of the full-time closer role.
Matt Barnes concluded the 2020 season as the Red Sox’s closer, ultimately taking the job once Brandon Workman was traded to the Phillies. While his final status on the roster makes a lot of sense for a reliever who seemed to be getting better and better between 2016 and 2019, the bulk of his work in 2020 was, much like of the rest of the team around him, less than stellar. However, before we get to some of the struggles that Barnes endured, let’s highlight the positive.
To start, Barnes was much better about getting ahead in counts. The right-hander posted a first pitch strike rate of 60.8 percent, marking a career-high unless you count the five games he pitched in 2014. In addition, despite a higher ERA than usual (4.30), Barnes generally didn’t lose much in terms of velocity, as his fastball still averaged out in the mid-90s while his curveball and sparingly used changeup were in the mid-to-high 80s. With his fastball still scorching, it became his favored offering and his most valuable, tallying 1.3 runs above average (per FanGraphs) and ending a two-year run where his fastball was actually worth negative runs compared with the average. That 1.3 mark is still far below where it was during 2017 (7.4 runs above average), but it was still a positive result.
Speaking of positive results, Barnes really started to rack them up during the last month of the shortened season. Across 10 innings in September, Barnes posted a 2.70 ERA and a 2.93 xFIP while striking out batters at a very closer-like 36.6 percent clip. In addition, his walk rate in that time (9.8 percent) was much better than earlier in the year, but we’ll talk more about Barnes’ walk issues later.
While the elite performance of September eluded him earlier in the season, Barnes at least showed up in high leverage situations when examining his full-year numbers. He faced 41 batters in such situations and pitched to a 2.80 xFIP and 34.1 percent strikeout rate, which were both markedly better results than in medium and low leverage spots.
If we want to get even more granular, we could note Barnes’ success against left-handed batters, whom he held to a .167/.326/.167 slash line, although over only 10 total innings.
When a player is expected to succeed and falls short, there is a desire to find a quick fix. For Barnes, there wasn’t just one reason he had trouble this past season, but his declining confidence in a less effective curveball was certainly a top suspect.
When Barnes is on, his curveball snaps sharply and causes batters to buckle at the knees. In 2019, Barnes’ hook was worth a personal-best 7.4 runs above average, making it the sixth-most valuable curve among MLB relievers. Unfortunately, in 2020, his curve had a tendency to hang, leading to a negative value for the first time since 2016. Losing such an effective pitch forced Barnes to rethink his approach, as he went from throwing his curveball 50.7 percent of the time in 2019 to 43.1 percent in 2020. To be fair, that 2020 mark was still the second-highest curveball usage rate of his career, but it still stands as a striking difference compared with a 2019 campaign when he posted a career-high 1.3 fWAR.
With his curveball neutered, Barnes failed to rack up as many strikeouts, with his late surge the only reason he managed to get his strikeout rate above 30 percent for the third-straight year and just barely at that (30.4 percent). For context, he comfortably surpassed 30 percent in 2018 (36.2) and 2019 (38.6).
It wasn’t just that Barnes failed to miss bats. Compounding the issue was a tendency to find the barrel. In fact, his barrel percentage more than doubled between 2019 and 2020. In addition, opponents had a 43.6 percent hard hit rate against Barnes, a career-high for the reliever. To make matters worse, a whole lot of those hard hits ended up over the fence, with Barnes tagged for 1.57 home runs per nine innings, which was his highest mark in the statistic since 2015.
On top of all of that, he was also walking a whole lot of his opponents as well. His 13.7 percent walk rate was a career-high and did no favors for his strand rate, as the combination of walks and hard hits led to his lowest left on base percentage since 2017.
The Big Question
When we looked at ways Barnes could limit his walks and become even more effective prior to this season, Over the Monster managing editor Matt Collins suggested Barnes dial back his curveball usage and improve his fastball location. Unfortunately, while that did come to pass in some degree, it didn’t lead to the results Barnes wanted. Instead of shrinking his then personal-worst walk rate from 2019, Barnes ended up with a higher one in 2020, which looked even worse as his strikeouts plummeted.
Looking Ahead to 2021
When reviewing this season, the best way to avoid abject panic is to lean on the small sample argument. Evaluating a player over 60 games is not the same as evaluating them over 162, and for a reliever, the small sample argument is even stronger since they couldn’t get anywhere close to 60 games. Barnes logged all of 23 innings this season after tallying at least 60 in each of the previous four years. If this had been a normal season and we took Barnes’ success at the end of the year and assume he would have continued on a similar trajectory over another 40 innings or so, then we could look past the early struggles a bit more and talk about how great a campaign he had in 2020.
Unfortunately, we can’t build a review based on assumptions and the Red Sox will have to make their decisions with the data available. Barnes is up for arbitration this offseason, so we’ll see how his 2020 performance may impact his financial standing. In addition, Barnes likes closing games and he is the obvious in-house candidate for the job. If he can bounce back from what could have just been a tough couple of months, he will once again be one of, if not the, most important relievers on the roster.