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OTM Roundtable: Can Matt Barnes turn things around?

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Things could get dicey if he can’t.

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There’s no secret what the number one concern with the Red Sox is right now. It’s Matt Barnes and his massive struggles in the ninth inning. We won’t waste any time here and get right into it. This week’s question to the staff was simply: On a scale of 1-10, what is your comfort level with Barnes the rest of the season?

Scott Neville

My comfort level with Barnes the rest of the way is at a six out of ten. He has a 6.30 ERA after the All-Star break, that’s not ideal. However, I don’t think it’s time for complete panic. Barnes is clearly fatigued. When a player is fatigued his mechanics are the first thing to go. He can still throw in the upper 90’s but his control will falter. He’s been used sparingly over the second half due to the Red Sox not being in the lead very often. Fatigue should not be much of a factor going forward. I still see a scenario where I fully trust Barnes because his struggles are not hard to fix. He needs to gain confidence and command with his fastball again. If he can get ahead in counts with his fastball and put them away with a mix of high heat and his elite curveball, then he will be right back to where he was in July, an All-Star closer.

Steven Brown

On a scale of 1-10, I would put my trust in relief pitcher Matt Barnes a solid 6. I do not completely trust him, nor do I think he is a lost cause. Pitchers notoriously go on cold streaks and are unable to get through an outing unscathed, Barnes is just on the hot-seat because these opportunities are oft-speculated. His job is to close. Has he done his job as of late? No. Has he done it for the majority of the season prior to the month of August? Yes, and it earned him a spot on the American League All-Star team as a result. To write Barnes off completely in the middle of a relatively underwhelming stretch of baseball for Boston is an unfair assessment, to say the least. The anger within the fan base stemming from Barnes’ recent blown saves comes as no surprise, as the closer’s role is where pitchers are put in the spotlight. But as everyone knows, that is a part of the task of being the shut-down guy late in games.

His being overworked has clearly led to some mechanical flaws in his ability to consistently throw competitive pitches, something that he will clearly continue to address when he isn’t in the game competing for wins. While I would not go as far as to say that his spot as a closer should be relinquished, it is at least fair to consider giving other bullpen arms a look at closing while he eases himself back into rediscovering the form that made him as much of an asset as he has been for the months prior to August. Whether that be by giving him low-leverage opportunities and turn to a rotating closing role as fans have seen in years past until he is deemed polished enough for a second look remains to be seen. That idea could be at least temporarily considered, but I ultimately believe that he will find himself down the stretch.

Michael Walsh

I think my comfort level with Matt Barnes is a 5 out of 10. While I do think it makes sense to let someone like Garrett Whitlock or Adam Ottavino close games temporarily, I definitely don’t think Barnes is a lost cause. His season numbers still look fine, and his recent stretch seems to stem from correctable issues. Just from the eye test, it looks like Barnes has struggled to locate his fastball and has been the victim of many groundball hits. The latter is certainly luck-related, but the former is something that needs to be worked on before he can transition back into the full-time closer role. Getting more reps in lower-leverage situations could be helpful in getting Barnes on the right track.

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Keaton DeRocher

3. It’s been too long a string of poor outings now that Barnes is looking at losing save chances down the stretch. He was pulled from his most recent save attempt (as of Wednesday) without recording an out and Robles finished it off. For a team barely above water in the second wild-card spot that can’t be giving games away and right now Barnes just cant lock it down.

Mike Carlucci

I’ve written and rewritten this three or four times. On a scale of 1-10 I want to say I’m at a 3, unless there’s an underlying injury to Matt Barnes we, and presumably the team, are unaware of. He’s been a perfectly cromulent pitcher in his years with the Sox, though shifting from starter to reliever robbed us of those early Justin Verlander comparisons some were dreaming on. In August though he’s a guy we’ve never seen before. Or have we....

When Daniel Bard was moved back to the bullpen at the tail end of 2012 he made six appearances while allowing a .400/.519/.900 slash line with an 18.69 ERA, and a strikeout to walk ratio of .666. Matt Barnes in August has allowed a .407/.500/.852 slash line to his opponents with an ERA of 16.88, and a strikeout to walk ratio of 2.00. But that last bit is where the hope is. While Barne’s strikeouts and walks trended in the wrong direction in August he is still getting Ks. The worry is when we start looking at his is on FanGraphs. His wFB (Fastball runs above average) or how valuable his fastball has been dipped into the negatives. His fastball has been worth negative value 6 times in August and 7 total times from the start of the season through July. So unless there’s really something physically wrong, causing the fastball not to be up to his normal stuff, I’m sticking with 3. He’s gonna pull out of this. But probably not while closing games.

Phil Neuffer

When a player is unexpectedly amazing for an extended stretch, there are always those ready to throw a bucket of ice water on everyone’s excitement by saying that the sample size is too small or that the performance is unsustainable. Although they are usually right (and I’m among them plenty of times), it is still a bummer. However, when a player struggles unexpectedly, that same logic serves as a beacon of hope rather than a stark reality check. We’re in such a situation with Matt Barnes. While I do think he’s been better than we should expect going forward for most of this season, his recent struggles are even more of an outlier. Plus, although it’s been rough, we are mostly talking about a total of 5 1/3 innings in August. In July, Barnes still posted a 1.13 ERA (even if his FIP was a little concerning) across eight total innings. I’m not here to say that he’ll be unstoppable the rest of the year. After all, his walk rate and home run rate have shot up and there are reasons to be pessimistic, especially as the wear and tear of a full season continues to take its toll, but I’m also not ready to give up on him all together. Put me down as a 6.5 out of 10 in terms of confidence.

Bayleigh Von Schneider

Believing in Matt Barnes isn’t easy these days, but that’s what I will do moving forward, I will believe in Matt Barnes. Matt Barnes is easily the best available option in the Red Sox bullpen. I know, I know, Red Sox Twitter is in love with Garett Whitlock, and I am too, but Matt Barnes is still the best option to close games for the Boston Red Sox. Whitlock is primed for a starting roll in 2022 and coming off an injury, he’s been managed properly, suddenly putting him in the closer role seems detrimental to his development. As poorly as Barnes has pitched in August, he has a 2.50 xERA/2.96 FIP/2.65 xFIP/1.055 WHIP and a 1.0 rWAR for the season.

Texas Rangers v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Barnes was easily one of the best relievers till the All-Star break, even making the All-Star team a reliever, which isn’t an easy feat. As bad as Matt Barnes has been, and yes, he’s been bad, we’re talking a 16.68 ERA, .407 OBA bad during the month of August. I believe there is something actually wrong whether it be physically, or mentally, because Matt Barnes, in July, was extremely solid. Barne’s had a 1.13 ERA, and a 1.60 OBA in July. Barnes was one of the best closers in baseball in April, May, June, and July. Fans can debate all day long about how “Barnes isn’t built to close,” I’ll ask you this if Barnes wasn’t built to be a closer then how did he exactly do so at an elite level for four months?

Barnes should be given a breather, some much-needed time off, as his workload has been extremely taxing so far this season. Barnes could also maybe use a little mental break, be given some time off from closing. Just a little bit of time, because like I said, the best option for the Boston Red Sox at closer is a happy and healthy Matt Barnes. My faith in Matt Barnes returning to form is a 10 because it really has to be, I don’t see anyone else as capable as Matt Barnes to close out games for the Red Sox.

Stephen Thompson

I’m a Matt Barnes guy. I really am. I want to believe that he will get out of this funk and return to form. I want to believe that his pre-August self, which amassed a 2.30 ERA and strikeout to walk ratio of 6.00, is more indicative of the pitcher he is than his performance this month — a 16.88 ERA and .407 batting average against. But it’s difficult, almost painful, watching Barnes pitch right now. The frustration is visible and he looks lost.

We know the why: his fastball is leaking out over the plate too frequently. That in theory should mean the solution is pretty straight forward: stop throwing fastballs over the middle of the plate. But if it were really that simple, the issue would have been fixed right now. Barnes appears to be in his own head and the solution might be to temporarily move him out of the highest-leverage situations for now while he recovers the mechanics and process that made him so dominant. Again, I like Matt Barnes, but my confidence in his abilities as a closer right now is hanging around a 4/10.

Brendan Campbell

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, I would rate my comfort level with Matt Barnes for the remainder of the season at a 6. For whatever reason, Barnes has not been the same pitcher since coming back off the COVID-19 related injured list earlier this month – to the point where it looks like he could be relinquishing his closing duties if these struggles continue.

That being said, I would not be surprised at all if Barnes were to bounce back in September in order to reestablish himself as the Red Sox’ closer moving forward. Despite the recent hardships on the mound (16.88 ERA this month, hello), I still think the righty is the best man for the job.

Bob Osgood

It’s easy to have recency bias from a disastrous past three weeks for Matt Barnes which, not coincidentally, has been the worst three weeks of the Red Sox season. Between August 7th through 10th, Barnes was saddled with three losses (and a win) in four days. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Barnes was pulled during the ninth inning in back-to-back days. Thankfully, and to Alex Cora’s credit, he gave Barnes the hook quickly and the Red Sox were able to salvage wins in both games. Entering Thursday’s action, over the eight appearances since the 7th, Barnes has allowed 10 earned runs and three home runs in 4 1/3 innings and a .458/.552/.958 slash line. That stinks, there’s no way around it.

Unfortunately, this bullpen (and staff for that matter) isn’t deep enough to permanently remove Barnes from the closer’s role and expect that everything will fall into place. Even the biggest Garrett Whitlock fan (me) must recognize that he has yet to throw back-to-back days all season, and that he can’t be the long man, setup man, and closer. The Red Sox need Barnes to succeed to have any chance in the playoffs, not only this year, but in the upcoming two seasons as he enters a two-year, $18.75 million contract extension. Barnes, who enters Thursday with a 3.91 ERA, has had a lot of bad luck on batted balls, as his FIP, xFIP, xERA, and SIERA are all under 3.00, and he ranks in the 96-98th percentile on Statcast in Expected ERA, BA, and wOBA. That being said, the “middle-middle” tape measure shots that Barnes has allowed for three home runs in August are not a case of bad luck. Command and location need to get straightened out soon. Call me the Middle Man, I’ll put my faith in Matt Barnes at a 5 for the rest of this season.

Brady Childs

I tweeted out something yesterday about Barnes’ splits since the enforcement of the foreign substance ban. They’re not good, but I think painting with that broad of a brush is doing Barnes dirty. His numbers didn’t tank immediately after he lost the sticky stuff. His trouble has been confined mostly to the month of August, so I think there’s hope here. If I were to put a number on it, I’d say a 6.

Bryan Joiner

Give me a 6. Things are pretty bad now, but they’re not end-of-world levels. He’s still a good pitcher when he has it together, so he just needs to work on that part of it. This, too, shall pass. I think.