Matt Barnes: Elite Closer?

Lockdown reliever, shutdown closer, elite; I’ve heard these phrases associated with Matt Barnes all season long. As Matt Barnes heads into the second half after his first All-Star game, I want to make it clear that I think he deserved to be there and that I hope his success continues. I'm just not sure if it will. Matt Barnes reportedly simplified his mechanics and changed his approach on the mound this year. Those changes have paid dividends. He just signed a new contract and is ready to anchor the Red Sox bullpen after the break. What can we expect from this All-Star closer?

Great first-half starts. Matt Barnes is no stranger to beginning the season well. This was definitely his best pre All-Star break as he left the first half with a 0.89 WHIP/ 2.61 ERA with 19 saves. We can also point to his 2.09 FIP and 179 ERA+ as indicators of a great first half. He deserves every bit of his All-Star selection.

Since becoming a regular in the Sox’s bullpen in 2016, Barnes has posted fine first half numbers. Without counting the weird 2020 year, Barnes has averaged a 1.25 WHIP and a 3.37 ERA from 2016 to 2019. These numbers are solid, but his 2016 and 2018 years look very similar to his 2021 start. Through the end of the first half, Barnes had a 1.28 WHIP/ 2.93 ERA in 2016 and a 1.10 WHIP/ 2.36 ERA in the glorious 2018 season. Matt Barnes hasn’t been an elite reliever yet because his second-half numbers rarely compare.

Poor second-halves. Over that same four year span, Barnes has averaged a 1.48 WHIP/ 4.86 ERA after the All-Star break. In those 2016 and 2018 years, Barnes posted 1.61/6.08 and 1.63/6.41 splits respectively. Only once, in 2019, has Barnes statistically pitched better in the second half than the first half. Barnes’s 2019 second-half split was a 1.50 WHIP/ 2.63 ERA. WHIP and ERA do not completely assess pitching performance, but they do tell a simple story: Barnes often struggles in the second-half of the season; in a big way.

This is a new Matt Barnes with a new role and a wildly successful, career-best, first half. Can we compare this Matt Barnes to the middle of the line reliever of the past? Only time will tell. After a sizzling start, Barnes has already cooled off a bit. This trend will happen to every player. I’m not betting against Barnes; as a Sox fan, I desperately want him to keep this going. I hope he does, but I’m not sure he will.