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2021 in Review: Matt Barnes

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It was a tale of two halves for the All-Star reliever.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at a rollercoaster year from Matt Barnes.

2021 in one sentence

Matt Barnes was dominant in the closer role through the first half of the season, but completely lost his way in the second half, eventually being left off the Red Sox’ ALCS roster.

The Positives

The biggest positive for Matt Barnes was certainly his first half performance. To start the year he converted 19 saves with a 2.09 FIP, 44.1 percent strikeout rate, and 7.1 percent walk rate, earning himself an All-Star selection and a contract extension. He was one of the absolute best closers in the league during this stretch, and the impact he had on the team’s playoff chances can’t be understated. The Sox went 26-18 in 1-run games, and Barnes was a major reason why.

Barnes’ overall season was actually quite good on paper too, despite his second half struggles. He finished the year with the best strikeout of his career, best walk rate since 2015, a 3.21 FIP, and 1.3 fWAR. If I hadn’t watched a single game, I would think this season was a big success for him.

The most notable improvement for Barnes this year was his control, as walks are something he’s struggled with for a long time. Barnes lowering his walk rate into single digits for just the second time in his career was a big factor in his early-season success. He pounded the zone early, something that he hasn’t done in the past, and threw first-pitch strikes 68.5 percent of the time. That’s a rate almost 10 percentage points above his career average.

Another big positive for Barnes was the effectiveness of his curveball. Barnes’ curveball has been the best pitch in his arsenal throughout his career, and this year proved to be no different. Opposing hitters could only muster up a minuscule .195 wOBA against his curveball, and FanGraphs valued the pitch at 9.9 runs above average. Barnes heavily relied on his hook, throwing it more than 48 percent of the time. Not coincidentally, the only other year he’s thrown his curveball that often was in 2019, one of his best years.

The Negatives

All of the negatives from Matt Barnes’ season can be found in his second half splits. Barnes’ K-BB rate decreased by an astonishing 21 percentage points from the first half to the second half, and his FIP ballooned to 5.75. Barnes saw his control and fastball velocity diminish as the season progressed.

Yes, Barnes’ control was listed as a positive, but it has to be included as a negative as well. His first half and season total walk numbers were much improved, but his second half walk numbers were most certainly not. Whatever he figured out at the beginning of the season, he was not able to replicate after the All-Star break, and his walk rate soared back into the double digits. As mentioned above, Barnes had done a great job attacking hitters on the first pitch in the first half, but this strength faded throughout the season.

Perhaps the biggest negative for Barnes was the ineffectiveness of his fastball. His arsenal consists of just two pitches (he does throw a changeup, but very rarely), and no matter how good his curveball is, Barnes needs to throw something fast here and there. To directly compare his fastball to his curveball, opponents had a .351 wOBA against his fastball, and FanGraphs valued the pitch at -1.7 runs above average. Not great.

A major reason for Barnes’ unproductive fastball was its decrease in velocity as the season went on. A 4-seamer sitting 97-98 mph is obviously going to be more effective than one that sits 94-95. The graph below shows just how much his fastball velo tapered off in the second half.

Having just one productive offering and falling behind in counts were two of the main reasons Barnes was phased out of the closer role and eventually left off the ALCS roster. Alex Cora said as much in late September.

The Big Question

Can Matt Barnes get his fastball back?

One of the keys in our preview for Matt Barnes’ 2021 season was whether he could be more effective with his fastball, specifically by improving its location. Unfortunately, as discussed in The Negatives section, this did not come to pass. Barnes’ fastball location was actually a bit better in 2021 than it was in 2020, but the results were still not there.

2022 and Beyond

The Red Sox gave Matt Barnes a two-year, $18.75 million extension with an option for a third year, so he’s here to stay. At the time, it looked like the Red Sox were locking up their closer for the future, but it now seems like the Sox extended him at the worst time possible.

I’m definitely not ready to label the extension a failure, however, it’s much too early to tell. Anyone who’s paid any amount of attention to the Red Sox for the past few years knows Barnes has his ups and downs. Certainly, he had a major down in this year’s second half, but there’s no reason he can’t recapture his first half success in 2022. His price tag might not be ideal, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see Matt Barnes rebound next season.