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One Big Question: Can Matt Barnes get his fastball back?

The Red Sox need him to.

Philadelphia Phillies v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Matt Barnes.

The Question: Can Matt Barnes be more effective with his fastball?

Regular readers of the site are, by now, well aware of my unabashed apologism (yeah I’m making up words sue me) of Matt Barnes in the Red Sox bullpen. Now, even I will acknowledge he is not an elite arm and ideally the team would not have to lean on him as their best reliever. But just because you’re not elite does not mean you’re very good, and with Barnes specifically his ability to miss bats at an elite rate gives him at least a decent floor. Strikeouts aren’t everything, but particularly in short stints elite rates can mask a lot of flaws, and going back to 2018 only four relievers have struck out batters at a higher rate.

I’m not blind though. Clearly there are issues that he has been dealing with his entire career, and while my own biases make me more likely to give him more runway to correct the faults than maybe some other pitchers, at a certain point they become impossible to ignore. And for Barnes, the command issues are becoming impossible to ignore. Some people will argue they make him straight-up bad, which is frankly absurd, but they also prevent him from being a legitimate top-flight relief arm. Generally speaking it’s been more control than hard contact that has caught up to him over his career, though the shortened 2020 season saw both lead to trouble for Barnes.

Over the course of the 60-game summer, the righty appeared in 24 games for the Red Sox with 23 innings, and by both park-adjusted ERA and park-adjusted FIP it was the worst season of his since 2015, which was the season in which he first shifted to the bullpen on a full-time basis. His strikeout rate fell to 30 percent, and while that’s still good it’s a nine-point drop from his previous campaign. Likewise, his walk rate jumped up one point to a nearly untenable 14 percent. Throw in four home runs — over 1.5 per nine innings — and a career-worst 45 percent hard-hit rate, and it was a bad season all around.

With Barnes, things are generally fairly simple to figure out in terms of issues because his repertoire is about as straight forward as it gets. He is a traditional two-pitch reliever, throwing a big fastball and a sweeping curveball. The latter is his better pitch, and it had issues of its own in 2020 that led to the whiff rate dropping by 10 percentage points from 41 percent in 2019 to 31 percent last summer. Given how bad last year was for him compared to the rest of his career, it shouldn’t be a surprise that both offerings were issues in some way for him.

I want to focus on the fastball today, though. To me, that’s where the key lies for Barnes’s game. This can be a little counter intuitive, because the curveball is the better pitch, and when things are going well he will throw the breaking ball both in and out of the zone at any point in the count. But it doesn’t work without the fastball. He needs batters to be thinking about the 95-plus mph heat that can come at the top of the zone so that when he drops a loopy mid-80s breaking ball at the bottom of the zone they have no chance to adjust. We always hear pitchers say they work off their fastball, of course, but it’s especially true when it is 50 percent of your arsenal.

And for Barnes, the fastball took a bunch of steps back last year both in terms of stuff and command, and the ripple effects show up in the final numbers of the season. In terms of velocity, according to Baseball Savant he had a full tick come off of the fastball, dropping from 96.6 mph on average in 2019 to 95.5 mph last summer. The weird ramp up resulting from COVID delays could, of course, have played a role in this. He also saw his spin rate drop to its lowest levels in three years. As a result, the average exit velocity against his fastball went from 89 mph in 2019 to 92 in 2020.

More than the stuff, though, it was the command and location of his fastball that was the biggest concern last year. As I alluded to above, part of the reason Barnes can be so effective is that he will throw either pitch in any count, and change eye levels on a whim with each offering. For that to work, the fastball needs to be up in the zone. If he leaves it out over the plate, especially with the slightly diminished stuff we saw last year, he’s going to get hit. Hard. And as you’ll see below, he was leaving a whole lot more fastballs out over the plate last summer as opposed to his 2019.

2020; via Baseball Savant
2019; via Baseball Savant

There are balls left over the plate in both of these images, and that’s not a surprise because command issues in general are not a new thing for Barnes. That said, in 2019 the darkest red portion is right at the upper limit of the zone, which is exactly where he wants it. On last year’s chart, the darkest red portion is smack dab in the middle of the zone, and there aren’t major-league hitters these days who can’t handle a 95 mph fastball in that zone and hit it a long way. But even beyond that, their eyes are focused further down than he would like, and then from there it’s not as difficult to adjust to the breaking balls down at the knees.

As the local Barnes apologist, I’m legally required to have some faith that he can turn it around, and there’s plenty of reason to think so. The biggest one is simply that all of this from 2020 was both in a small sample size and in a bizarre season that saw pitchers unable to prepare like they always do. That, at the very least, could go a long way to explain the slightly diminished stuff on the fastball.

The command has been trending worse than it already had been for a few years now, though. If he’s going to be effective, he needs to locate that fastball better to get the most out of his nasty curveball. Without a clear ninth inning option, the Red Sox need Barnes to step up if they’re going to surprise people with a run in 2021. And as a guy getting set to hit free agency after the coming season, he has that extra motivation for a big payday next winter if he can get that command where it needs to be.