Among the many reasons the Red Sox were able to jump out to such a surprising start, the bullpen may have been the area that exceeded expectations the most. While the offense was great, it was mostly from guys you expected to be great. Similarly, the concerns with the rotation coming into the year were less about talent (though still somewhat about that) and more about durability. How many innings was this group really going to be able to throw? But with the bullpen, there were all sorts of concerns that they were able to overcome to catapult this team, particularly in the first half of summer when comebacks were a seemingly every-other-day occurrence.
And in that bullpen, it was far and away Matt Barnes leading the pack. There were other pitchers who had nice runs like Josh Taylor and Hirokazu Sawamura, and others like Garrett Whitlock who pitched well in a more limited workload, but Barnes was the consistent workhorse. He parlayed his monster first half performance into his first ever All-Star bid as well as a new contract. The world was his oyster, and it seemed the team had solved its ninth inning issue with an internal solution.
Except, well, Barnes hasn’t been quite as lights out of late, and it’s starting to have major effects. This has come into the forefront much more recently over the last 10 days or so, as he’s had a few high-profile meltdowns, including Tuesday night to start their series against the Rays. He’s certainly not the only player on this roster struggling, but given his role any time he takes a step back it is that much more noticeable. And it also hasn’t even just been the last few weeks. Really, going back to the start of July Barnes just hasn’t been the same guy, and it’s important to figure out what exactly is going on.
First, the numbers. Over the first three months of the season, Barnes wasn’t just leading the Red Sox bullpen. He was one of the very best relievers in all of baseball. Through June, he had pitched to a 2.57 ERA, allowing a .208 wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) with a 45 percent strikeout rate and a seven percent walk rate. Now, looking at his numbers since the start of July (a much smaller sample, which needs to be noted) those numbers are: 6.55, 3.34, 29 percent, and 11 percent. To put it more concisely, everything has been markedly worse.
It’s not enough to just say there’s a problem, though. The key is finding where the catalyst to these problems lie, and how to fix them. I’m not so sure about that second part, but I do think the issues for Barnes all seem to stem from his fastball. Although the big righty’s best pitch is certainly his curveball, he needs the fastball for his curveball to play off of, similar to how Brandon Workman operated in his dominant 2019 season. I’ve seen some point to him being overworked as a reason for his recent run, and that could very well be true. That said, I’d typically look at velocity for a sign of that, and his fastball hasn’t ticked down all that much. That’s not to rule out being overworked as a cause, but rather to say it’s not clear cut that it is.
But whatever the cause, the effectiveness of the fastball is way down, and it’s having terrible effects on his entire strategy on the mound. And like I said, the velocity isn’t down much, but the spin is down a touch from that first half, and his command has suffered as well. A slower spin rate with more pitches center-cut is not going to help. And to point out how these two issues are interplaying, I’ll look to Brooks Baseball for some zone plots.
Firstly, you can see below a comparison of his first three months to what he’s done since July 1 in terms of just where he’s throwing the fastball. Notice the uptick on hittable pitches in the middle of the zone. Whereas in the first plot it seems when he missed it was above the zone, in the second the misses seem to be hitting the middle of the zone much more often.
And then in this next plot, you’ll find that Barnes is no longer missing bats on pitches in the zone as frequently. This, I would tend to guess, goes back to that swing rate and making the pitch less effective in terms of overall stuff. Whiff rate on pitches in the zone is, to me, the best pure measure of stuff, which can be corroborated by looking at the pitchers at the top of that leaderboard.
So the fastball is less effective, and from there we also see that it is starting to affect the confidence he has with the pitch. In the first half of the season, one of the reasons he was so effective is that he would throw either his fastball or his curveball in pretty much literally any situation. Looking again at Brooks Baseball, those numbers were almost exactly 50/50 throughout the chart. But since July, although that has largely remained the case against righties, lefties are seeing a different approach.
He’s no longer confident in the pitch against lefties, so Barnes is now frequently starting off with his curveball, and going to the curveball much more often when he’s ahead. That has two effects. One is that he’s more predictable. Lefties can sit and hope for a hanging curveball on the first pitch. The other is that he is more apt to fall behind. A curveball is harder to locate just by nature of its movement, so if he’s starting off more counts with that pitch he’s almost certainly getting into more 1-0 counts.
And this is all reflected in his numbers against left-handed bats. While the overall numbers, i.e. wOBA, look fine — lefties still have a .290 wOBA against him since the start of July — the peripherals are more concerning. With lefties at the plate, Barnes has seen his strikeout rate fall from 40 percent to 22 percent in this time while his walk rate has jumped from 13 percent to nearly 29 percent. That’s disastrous, and absolutely can not work in the highest leverage situations.
Unfortunately, the Red Sox absolutely need to turn to Barnes in those highest leverage situations, because he’s still the best they got. They desperately need to rediscover the effectiveness of that fastball, and also get him to be confident against everyone with the pitch as well. If it’s a matter of being overworked, give him the rest of the week and through the weekend of, or whatever it takes. If it’s mechanical, they need to be working the film to figure that out. I would be lying if I said I had the answer. But I do know that if the situation is not solved, and if Barnes continues to lose confidence in this pitch, we’re going to be in for more late-game heartbreak.