2022 In One Sentence
After an offseason of cynicism about Matt Barnes’ value due to a late-season collapse, he had another questionable (but injury-ridden) season, albeit not as bad on paper as it seemed at points.
The year is 2018. More specifically, it’s around this time of year in 2018. The Red Sox have just finished beating the Dodgers to wrap up the best season in franchise history. Matt Barnes was a considerable part of that, and in fact, was more clutch than the closer of that season’s campaign, Craig Kimbrel. Throwing 61.2 innings with an ERA of 3.69, an xERA of 3.05, and just three blown save opportunities (which seems small compared to this season’s relievers), he got better as the season went along, and in the playoffs was almost automatic in the 7th or 8th innings. That fateful October saw Matt Barnes allow just three hits the entire postseason, steamrolling the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers with a 1.04 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP across 8.2 innings pitched. The team decided not to extend only a qualifying offer to Kimbrel, opting instead to keep their blood pressure low in the 9th inning in 2019 (in theory). Barnes saw some time as a closing option in 2019, but wasn’t seriously considered the guy in the 9th inning until 2020’s abbreviated season. Barnes recorded a save in 9 of Boston’s 24 wins (hahahaha), and despite a negative WAR in 2020, came back for the same role in 2021, earned an All Star selection, and . . . well, I’ll save after that for another section.
As for what Barnes does well, I’m going to put my disdain for Barnes’ performance over much of the last 500 days or so (spoiler alert for the rest of the article!) and state that he strikes out a lot of guys, even for a reliever. Throughout his career, which started in 2014 after being selected in the first round in the 2011 draft, he’s punched out 11.59 batters per nine innings, and that is a number that’s even decreased a bit following his recent struggles. He also sports a .211 xBA (expected batting average), which is good for 33 points under the league average in that span of time. This season, after dealing with a cramped shoulder that shelved him for longer than expected, he saw just a 4.3% home run to fly ball rate.
What’s more, beyond that, as the pitcher on this team with the longest tenure in Boston, he has a unifying demeanor about him. He’s calm on the mound even when things are unraveling. He’s measured in his press appearances, and he’s often on Instagram in the springtime, getting fans acquainted with the new faces on the 40-man. He’s become a friendly face for Boston to turn to in a troubling time.
Is being a friendly face enough to buy into Matt Barnes as a long-term solution to a troublesome bullpen, given the past two seasons? How many words do I have? I could sum it up with three: most likely not!
In all seriousness, I do not want to harp on Barnes’ shortcomings, because for a true reliever, 8.125 million dollars can be considered somewhat short money, especially if they can show face in 60 games throughout the year. But, when you factor in the sheer dumbfoundedness in which Barnes has reached his decisions (he was 0-4), and evaluate the times in which Alex Cora opted not to use him when he was seemingly rested enough to pitch (including the 2021 ALDS, when after a Garrett Freaking Richards injury he did his best Garrett Freaking Richards impression), when he’s making this money to close games, you have to scratch your head a bit, until you realize . . . maybe we’d get the same dismal result with him in, anyway. This becomes even more daunting when you realize he’s owed $8.375 million and, barring any injuries, he’ll log about 60 innings, but will highly likely not be our closer in 2023. When that was the slot the club had in mind for him not even 18 months ago when he signed this deal, that’s a pretty decent sized problem.
In 2020, despite recording those nine saves, he allowed a home run on 23% of his fly balls. That’s mind boggling. This season, with respect to the very poor start, he finished the season having walked 5 batters per 9 innings, and at times of the season, his ERA was approaching double digits. Though he cut that in about half, as the season went on (to 4.31), I still can’t say I’m comfortable with where the future is going with Barnes as a leader in this bullpen, especially given that group’s troubles in closing games out in the late innings these past 162 games.
I know I’ve spent a lot of time on Barnes’ shortcomings in this article, so I want to state that he must have spent an exorbitant amount of time while on the shelf (and while in rehab) for shoulder inflammation re-working his stuff, because he was suddenly back in command when he returned.
I’m going to go with August 4, in Kansas City, when he returned from 60 days of absence to allow a scoreless 6th inning in a high-leverage situation. That Darwinzon Hernandez ended up blowing that game and allowing four runs shows that that was a lineup chomping at the bit for balls to hit off a pitcher with less commanding stuff. He didn’t allow a baserunner in that inning. Three days later, on August 7, he came in another relief situation and didn’t allow a baserunner. The Royals scored 13 runs, and this Over The Monster contributor who was supposed to be in attendance that weekend was breathing a sigh of relief that his case of COVID prevented him from making the trip. But Barnes remained strong through a lineup that had Boston’s number most of that weekend.
It’s also worth mentioning that Barnes went through the entire month of September without allowing a run (though he did allow some inherited runners to score). In fact, while he certainly allowed some hits, he went a month (seven appearances) without walking a batter. And, of course, he recorded saves in all three of his last games of the season, including two in the final series of the 2022 in Tampa, which is a great note to end a season on.
The Big Question
In this highly-valued Jekyll and Hyde member of the bullpen, which obviously lacks the quality late in games that this team desperately needs, are we going to get the Matt Barnes that earned an All-Star selection in 2021, or the Matt Barnes that left Red Sox fans wondering why an extension was ever signed?
My guess is honestly as good as yours. But, despite my tone that may be seen as harsh, I was quite excited by Barnes’ reinvigoration at the end of the season after the struggles he faced in April and May, and I want to err on the side of cautious optimism. When a guy lowers his season ERA by a point in a half and goes from being a guy Alex Cora ignores in the ninth inning of a high-leverage game to being in line for the save later that same season, it’s noticed. Problem is, whatever missteps he may make in 2023 will be noticed and overanalyzed, and perhaps rightfully, too.
2023 and Beyond
Matt Barnes is 32 years old and is heading into his ninth season since being called up from Pawtucket. He’s had his share of injuries, but most have been minor until this nagging shoulder that he seems to have overcome. This, in theory, leaves him in line to have a few more years in this organization, especially seeing as his 2024 option is for 8 million (with a 2.25 million dollar buyout.) IF we get the good Matt Barnes we see from time to time, we’ll be golden, in possession of an asset to the bullpen, and it would stand to reason that Matt Barnes will finish his career with the team who drafted him in 2014. But, if we get an injury-riddled, confidence-stricken version instead, you could see a lot more concerned articles about payroll throughout the 2023 season. Let’s hope it’s the former!