The Red Sox have a lot of issues right now. We always knew the starting pitching was going to be an issue, but you don’t get off to their 3-7 start without being bad at everything at least at certain points of the year. That has been the case with the offense, which hasn’t been bad all year but has for sure had it’s frustrating stretches. The starting pitching, well, we knew what to expect. And the bullpen has clearly missed their two big lefties, Josh Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez, which has thrust some other pitchers into bigger roles than one would prefer.
I was personally confident in the back end of this Red Sox bullpen, at least relative to most Red Sox fans. Losing Taylor and Hernandez definitely hurt my confidence, but the worst part of this bullpen right now has been one of the top arms in the unit. And as much as it pains me to say it, that arm is Matt Barnes.
Any relatively long-time reader knows how high I am on Barnes, generally speaking. Coming into this year, I would have argued that he was extremely underrated both locally and nationally. This article isn’t really about defending that opinion, but because I know people will come at me let me just point out that Barnes has struck out over 35 percent of his opponents in each of the last two years, has been at least 23 percent better than league-average by park-adjusted FIP in each of the last three years, and has been at least 30 percent better than league-average by park-adjusted DRA in each of the last three years. Again, the past is the past and I will get into the start of this season, but it is worth pointing out just why my expectations were, and still are, very high.
But now we get to this year, and there really aren’t any positives to point out. Barnes has made four appearances so far in 2020, and he hasn’t been particularly effective in any of them. In the first, he walked the first two batters he faced before getting out of the inning. In the second, he gave up a solo home run to Yoenis Céspedes — who soon after decided this season just wasn’t for him — on the first pitch he threw and also gave up a base hit right after that. In the third, he didn’t allow a run but he did hit a batter, issue a walk and give up a single. And then on Sunday night, he issued a walk and gave up a base hit before serving up what would ultimately serve as the go-ahead homer to Aaron Judge. All told, he’s pitched to a 9.00 ERA with a 11.30 ERA over four innings with one strikeout and one walk being issued per inning.
So, yeah. Barnes, who is supposed to be the number two in this bullpen and who I, if asked before the season, would have opined was the best arm in the relief corps and perhaps the best arm on the entire roster. I’m not going to write off any pitcher after just four outings — as an aside, it’s a weird thought process knowing that these games are such a big percentage of the year but they are still the same sample in the grand scheme of things — but there is no doubt that Barnes is not doing the job and the Red Sox need to figure out what’s going on. For my own sanity as the Resident Barnes Defender, I also wanted to figure out what was happening here.
The natural place to start for all of this was to simply look at his arsenal and see if he’s made any changes here. For Barnes, it’s not overly complicated as he is essentially a two-pitch guy with his curveball and his fastball. Last year he started throwing his curveball more than his fastball for the first time, and he’s taken it even further so far this year with his curveball being thrown 60 percent of the time, per Baseball Savant. That could be part of the issue, but the fastball is down in velocity by about a mile and a half per hour. Also, both pitches are being crushed by whatever metric you would like to look at. Whether it’s wOBA or expected wOBA or whiff rate or average exit velocity or hard hit rate. Both pitches are way worse than they were a year ago.
With that, it’s possible that the increase in curveball usage contributed here, but it sure seems like there’s more than that going on. So, the next thing I looked at was where he was throwing his pitches. My assumption based on how hard he was being hit was that everything would be over the heart of the plate. But that’s not exactly the case. Below you can see the comparison of both of his pitches with 2019. The red areas are where more pitches are being thrown.
This is where I’m seeing the real issue here with both of his pitches. With the curveball, he simply isn’t throwing the pitch for strikes as often, and he’s also favoring his glove side a bit more. We saw what happens when one of those are left up against Aaron Judge. With the fastball things are even more jarring, as he’s almost totally to the glove side. So, with both of his pitches, he is overwhelmingly favoring one side of the dish.
My initial thought was that his release point was messed up, but nothing I saw in that data indicated a major issue. Instead, it just seems he’s missing location. In the home run for Céspedes, for example, the target was on the outer half but it ended up as a fastball middle-in. We hear a lot when people talk about pitching that the idea is to change the hitter’s eyes. That’s up and down, but it’s also side to side. When you’re in a rut like Barnes where you’re throwing so much on one half of the plate, the opponent can focus in there and do big-time damage.
It also means they are going to put more balls in play. If there’s one thing Barnes needs to do it’s miss bats. Strikeouts have been his bread and butter, and over the last couple of years he has emerged as one of the truly elite strikeout arms in the game. But again, if you’re cutting the zone in half the whiffs just aren’t going to be there. Sure enough, his whiff rate (again, per Baseball Savant) is down to 26 percent from 36 percent the year before. And sure enough, the big difference between the two years is down and in.
Barnes needs to get whiffs to be successful, and he needs to be getting swings and misses on all of those curveballs below the zone to do that. Right now, he’s just too predictable. Whether it’s a mechanical issue or something mental, I am not qualified to tell you. But I can tell you the Red Sox desperately need him to fix it, and in a shortened season it needs to be fixed basically immediately. To put it frankly, this team isn’t good enough to be blowing late leads. If they have a lead in the eighth, they need to win, plain and simple. And right now Matt Barnes is not getting that job done.