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One Big Question: Can Matt Barnes keep more hard contact on the ground?

He has to find a way to limit damage again.

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Division Series - Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Two Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously the lockout may change the timing on the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Matt Barnes.

The Question: Can Matt Barnes get his ground ball rate back up?

The Red Sox have some major bullpen questions that need to be answered whenever this lockout ends and player transactions start back up. By the end of last season Garrett Whitlock was really the only reliever who has fully trusted to get the job done, and it’s not clear he’ll even be back in the bullpen picture for this season since he was selected as a Rule 5 draftee with an eye on him eventually joining the rotation. There’s no doubt they’ll need reinforcements from outside the organization if this bullpen is going to be what it needs to be, but they also need help from players who are already in the organization. At the top of that list is the guy who was elite for the first chunk of the 2021 season before falling off dramatically. That, of course, is Matt Barnes.

We’ve already talked earlier this offseason about the team’s need to find a way for Barnes to rebound back to something close to his first half self from last season, even if he never quite reaches that peak. In that linked post we talked about how his fastball seemed to be the main culprit for his steep fall-off last season, and how that needs to be a consistent pitch for him to be at his best. The curveball is Barnes’ bread and butter, but it doesn’t work without the threat of a big fastball up in the zone. I want to continue to pull at that fastball string today, but this time want to focus on the kind of contact he is inducing.

Barnes, essentially, is who he is at this point, which is to say he is a pure power pitcher. He looks the part as a big righty on the mound, and he throws upper-90s heat to go with a power curveball that shoots down through the zone. He puts up some of the best strikeout rates in all of baseball, which helps make up for the fact that he is also going to issue more than his fair share of walks. Working in short stints, a pitcher can more easily maneuver around a couple free passes if they’re striking everybody else out. Barnes is also going to give up some hard contact now and again, but again the strikeouts help make up for it.

However, what also has helped him make up for these deficiencies in the past is that fact that when he did allow hard contact, it was at least on a low enough trajectory that it wouldn’t lead to too much damage. Yeah, he might give up a rocket of a line drive or ground ball, but it could be kept in front of an outfielder and limited to a single. In the middle parts of his career, his ground ball rate consistently hovered around 50 percent and it helped him keep his home run rate down at acceptable levels. More recently, though, that ground ball rate has crept down towards 40 percent and the home run rate has risen with it.

Now, we should of course mention that this is not all happening to Barnes in a vacuum. As we all know, baseball is an ever-evolving game and right now hitters are focusing more than ever on launching the ball in the air and putting the ball over the fence. Most every pitcher in the league is going to be giving up more balls in the air, and more damage on those batted balls in the air, than they did even five years ago. That’s just the evolution of the game.

That said, Barnes is not totally innocent in this conversation, and again it’s coming down to his fastball just not getting the job done. Baseball Savant shows opponents’ average launch angles against an individual pitch, and while it is not a perfect measurement (ranges in launch angle are such that outliers can skew an average in a small enough sample size) it does provide a good baseline look at what we’re talking about. For most of Barnes’ career, the average launch angle against his fastball has been somewhere in the nine to 15 degree range. Last season, it was 23 degrees, and to be clear the higher the degree the higher in the air it is going.

And of course, intuitively we know that between two balls hit at the same exit velocity, the one in the air are more likely to lead to runs than one on the ground. In the linked post above we talked about how much hard contact Barnes was giving up on that fastball, and now we see that it’s not leading to those singles that he could wriggle himself away from thanks to his elite stuff. Instead, they were leaving the yard for home runs or banging off the Monster for RBI doubles. And really, the culprit is simple. His command was just off, with too many fastballs finding the heart of the zone.

via Baseball Savant

The Red Sox need to find a way to get Barnes to induce more balls on the ground, whether it be from getting the ball in the upper portion of the zone or above it more often, which would either lead to pop ups or weak ground balls, or just getting whiffs so he can get ahead in counts and go more to the curveball, which did continue to induce ground balls last season. And it should also be mentioned that Barnes’ ground ball rate only continued to shrink as the season went along and his overall numbers took a plunge, leading to some of the fatigue questions from the linked post as well.

Whatever the case may be, this is clearly key for Barnes to find a way to limit the damage that comes from the inevitable hard contact. We know that the righty is going to have his flaws. His command is never going to be perfect, and frankly it’ll probably never even be average. At his best, the stuff is more than enough to make up for that as long as he only has to clean up after a walk and/or a single. But when this hard contact starts resulting in doubles and home runs, there’s only so much elite swing-and-miss stuff can do.