Here at Over the Monster, we are big believers in Matt Barnes. We always have been and always will be. Throughout his career, Barnes has been a reliable reliever for the late innings for the Red Sox, showing an ability to get outs in high leverage situations while helping to solidify a bullpen that has not always been among the league’s best. Although Barnes’s ERA has usually been okay rather than exceptional, hovering in the mid threes to the low fours for the most part, he has been a steady and effective force on the mound.
Although its early in the 2021 season, Barnes has looked better than ever this year. Entering Sunday, in his first four appearances (five innings total) he has yet to allow a hit or a run while striking out 11 and walking just one batter. Taking a look at Barnes’s stats right now is pretty fun. For instance, his marks in FIP (fielding independent pitching) and xFIP (expected fielder independent pitching) are both below zero. That is just one example of some of the hilarity to be had with Barnes’ numbers, and while they may not be entirely sustainable, there is reason to believe that Barnes has unlocked something new this year, and he’s done so by simplifying things.
Barnes has always relied primarily on his fastball and outstanding curveball, but he’s experimented with mixing in other pitches as well, throwing a slider, split finger and changeup from time to time over the years. It’s never a bad thing to try to mix things up to keep batters guessing, but those additional offerings have never been that effective for Barnes. Early in this season, Barnes has cut out the add-ons and focused primarily on throwing his fastball and curveball. They are the only two pitches he’s thrown and, to help even more, they’ve both been plus pitches.
That’s usually nothing new for Barnes’ curveball, which has historically been one of the best in baseball. For example, in 2019, Barnes’ curveball tied as the 10th best in MLB by run value (-11) among pitchers who faced at least 10 batters, according to Baseball Savant. However, Barnes’s curveball lost some of its effectiveness last season, leading to an even zero in run value. This year, he has thrown his curveball 35.4 percent of the time and elicited an 80 percent strikeout rate on it. Once again, we’re dealing with unsustainable small samples, but there’s no denying that his curveball has looked better, even if he’s been throwing it a bit less often compared with recent seasons.
Helping his hook get back to a more effective level has been the new life Barnes has found on his fastball. The pitch still sits in the mid 90s, but he is using it to exceptional effect, matching his run value with it from the entire 2020 season already while inducing strikeouts on it at a 63.6 percent clip. In addition, he’s throwing it 64.6 percent of the time, which far outpaces his frequency in recent years. In fact, he hasn’t thrown his fastball this much since 2016.
It’s not just a simplification of his arsenal that has helped Barnes. He also is taking a consistent approach to locating his pitches and executing on that plan each time he steps on the mound. The approach relies on him keeping his fastball high in the zone and then hammering opponents with curveballs low in the zone or outside of it entirely. While that has usually been the plan before 2021, Barnes’ execution has been much better this season, especially with his fastball. Just take a look at where he’s locating it this season vs. last season.
By cutting out excess pitches and consistently hitting his spots, Barnes has found his strikeout stuff again. Although he’s not going to maintain his current pace (68.8 percent strikeout rate), he is well on his way to improving on the 30.4 percent mark he produced in 2020. While that is a pretty good showing for any reliever, it was a sizable dip from the previous two seasons for Barnes and corresponded with a huge leap in his results in ERA, FIP and xFIP.
Futhermore, because Barnes is working far more at the edges of the strike zone, he is not only getting batters to chase pitches, he’s also avoiding hard contact. Barnes’ average exit velocity is in the 31st percentile among MLB pitchers this season, according to Baseball Savant, and he has allowed a hard hit rate of only 25 percent, which is down nearly 10 percentage points from 2020, according to FanGraphs.
In addition to simplifying his offerings and executing a straightforward yet effective game plan, Barnes also is working efficiently, wasting very little time in taking it right to hitters. According to FanGraphs, he has thrown a a strike on his first pitch to every batter he has faced this season. It’s not just starting with a strike. Whether by getting batters to chase or hitting the zone, Barnes isn’t giving opposing batters any time to relax throughout each plate appearance. He has reached a three-ball count only once and has gotten 17 batters combined into either 0-2 or 1-2 counts.
When you combine all these factors (relying on his best pitches, throwing them in good spots, throwing strikes early and often), it’s clear why Barnes has been so successful through the early going this season. Although the Red Sox still have some things to fix and answers to find with their bullpen, especially as they try to improve on the horrendous production from last year, Barnes has emphatically shown that he can be the anchor for the relief corps, just as he has been for the last five years or so. If he can maintain even a fraction of the pace he’s currently on, he might even be seen as more than that by folks outside of Boston and the Over the Monster staff.