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The Red Sox need to get Matt Barnes back into form

They can’t rely solely on external additions to shore up the bullpen.

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Division Series - Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Two Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

We’ve talked a bit over the last couple of weeks about the issues the Boston Red Sox need to address this winter regarding a bullpen that is just lacking in the kind of talent a contending team is looking for in the late innings. There are some options who could be available to help on that front, including but not limited to Ryan Tepera and Collin McHugh. And without a doubt, external additions will be needed to shore up this group. At the same time, however, the team is going to need some help from players already on the roster if their bullpen is going to be as good as it needs to be to make a real run.

That discussion of internal players very clearly, to me at least, starts with Matt Barnes. We saw two different versions of the right-handed veteran this season, with the good version showing up for a longer stretch of the season, but the not-so-good version showing up at the worst possible time, ultimately leaving him off the postseason roster altogether. (He’d end up getting added anyway as an injury replacement.)

Over his first 44 appearances of the season, which took him through his first outing in August, Barnes was legitimately one of the best relievers in the entire league. Tossing 44 innings in those 44 outings, he pitched to a 2.25 ERA with 68 strikeouts and only 11 walks, rates of 42 and 6.8 percent, respectively. That was good enough to earn him a midseason extension, but he crashed in the latter portion of the year. Looking at his last 16 outings of the season starting immediately after that 44-appearance stretch, Barnes pitched to a 10.13 ERA with 16 strikeouts and nine walks, rates of 27 and 15 percent, respectively.

The samples are certainly smaller in the second group, and that’s a point in favor of optimism for Red Sox fans, but it’s certainly overly simplistic to attribute the downfall to a small sample size. For one thing, even while the performance stayed strong overall, there were signs of doom in July. Additionally, that performance did keep going into the postseason play as well. Boston doesn’t necessarily need Barnes to be what he was in the early part of the year when he was among the elite, but they need to figure out what went wrong in that latter portion of the season, and more importantly how they can rectify it.

Digging into the season a little bit more deeply, the thing that really stands out is the trajectory of his fastball performance as the season went on. While Barnes’ curveball is clearly his best offering, as a two-pitch pitcher he needs both of his options to be working, and when his curveball is at its best it is working masterfully off his fastball. In the first four months of 2021, we saw that a ton with the velocity on the pitch sitting in the 96-97 range while inducing average exit velocities in the mid-to-high 80s. But over those last two months and into the playoffs, the velocity on the pitch fell by a tick or two on average, and the contact against it went way up, including a month of August where the average exit velocity against the pitch was a startling 98 mph.

There are a couple of zone plots from Brooks Baseball I want to show to illustrate what was happening to Barnes’ fastball, with particular attention paid to the upper third of the zone, and especially in towards a right-handed batter’s hands. In the first portion of the season, you will see opponents were having a tougher time getting the bat on the ball at all in those zones, and you’ll also see when contact was made, that is where a lot of that harder contact was coming.

Barnes early-season whiff rate
Barnes late-season whiff rate
Barnes early-season exit velocity
Barnes late-season exit velocity

So, from those numbers and the zone plots above, it couldn’t really be more clear that his fastball simply became more hittable, especially in on the hands of righties. But figuring that out is only half the battle for the Red Sox. If they are going to get Barnes back to where they need him, they need to figure out what leads to that. And the more thought put into it, it’s harder and harder for it not to come back to a potential fatigue issue.

Barnes was leaned on heavily for the Red Sox during that first portion of the season, as they had trouble finding consistent help behind him, especially very early on when it was still unclear exactly what they had in Garrett Whitlock. Beyond that, it was a shuffling cast of characters with Adam Ottavino, Hirokazu Sawamura, Darwinzon Hernandez, and others filtering in and out as the other late-inning options. But Barnes was always the stalwart, and his 44 appearances ranked up there with some of the most-used relievers in baseball. He wasn’t at the very top of the leaderboard, but he was in the 20 percent or so of the league, and every pitcher has different amounts of stress they can take.

But fatigue also doesn’t come down strictly to the number of games pitched. There is also things like high-stress innings, which are a hard thing to measure in larger samples, and also how often pitchers go without much rest. For Barnes, that second part seems to me to be the most troublesome and something that caught up with him as the year went on. The veteran made 16 appearances this season with no days of rest between his previous outing, which again puts him towards the top of the leaderboard though not quite at the peak of that group. But in terms of performance in those situations, we see a troubling trend of Barnes doing much worse than most pitchers when he doesn’t get that rest.

Baseball-Reference has a stat called tOPS+, which measures a player’s performance in specific splits and compares said performance to the player’s overall production. For pitchers, a higher tOPS+ is worse. Barnes’ tOPS+ was 156 in 2021 when pitching without a day of rest, which was the 12th-worst in baseball among the 117 pitchers who pitched in such situations at least 10 times. And that’s not an anomaly. Barnes has consistently had tOPS+’s in that same range throughout his career, with a career mark of 125. For what it’s worth, in 2021 the median mark among that aforementioned group of 117 was in the 87-88 range.

This sort of thing tracks with Barnes’ career trend of falling off as the season goes on, as its been something of a yearly thing that he struggles more in the second half compared to the first. Granted, it’s not always as pronounced as it was this past season, though some of that is the fact that the highs aren’t usually as high as they were in 2021. But either way, he has a career 3.44 ERA in the first half while allowing a .646 OPS. In the second half, those numbers are 4.92 and .765, respectively.

The conclusion here is not a novel one, but it’s one that the Red Sox really need to take to heart if they are going to build a good bullpen. They need depth around Barnes. He’s a very talented reliever who can be a major part of a successful relief corps, but he needs help around him. If they go into next season with the hope that he can carry the load again, we’re going to see a similar story. It’s much easier said than done, of course, but it seems the key for Barnes to pitch at his best is to have at least a couple of other clear late-inning arms around him, allowing him to pitch a little less on a week-to-week basis, but keeping his well above-average production rolling through September rather than hitting a wall as he has tended to do around July and August.