Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (Aug. 27, 2018 – Source: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images North America)
The Boston Red Sox bullpen has struggled lately, and a lot of those struggles are due to a major regression by reliever Matt Barnes. Barnes has served as one of the top options in the pen for the majority of the season and has excelled for the grand majority of 2018. However, since August 7th, the righty has struggled, blowing several late-inning leads and never looking quite right. The question now becomes, what is the cause behind Matt Barnes recent struggles?
Breaking Down Matt Barnes Recent Struggles
Before we get started, let’s establish that Matt Barnes is, in fact, a good pitcher. The righty was inconsistent early in his career, leading some members of Red Sox Nation to cringe every time he takes the mound.
However, prior to August 7th, Barnes put all those struggles behind him. The righty was one of the best relievers in the game, posting a 2.25 ERA, 1.93 FIP, and an elite 14.1 K/9. His walk rate was high (4.7 BB/9), but aside from that, his numbers put him among the best in the league.
Since August 7th, Barnes has not been anything close to that type of pitcher. Over the past three weeks, Barnes owns an ugly 10.80 ERA and a 7.84 FIP. Granted, these numbers come in just 8.1 innings of work, so it’s not the biggest sample size. That said, Barnes is struggling at the worst possible time of the season, and he’s a crucial part of this bullpen. The Red Sox path to a championship is significantly easier if Barnes is playing well, so what’s the cause of this rough patch?
The first place to look when analyzing Barnes’ struggles is his pitch selection. Over the season, Barnes has thrown his fastball 54.8% of the time with an average velocity of 96.6 miles per hour. His secondary offering is a curveball, throwing it 40.8% of the time with an average velocity of 84.4 miles per hour. He also adds in a split finger on rare occasions.
Since August 7th, neither his offerings nor his velocity has changed much. He’s throwing his fastball 53.5% of the time, and its’ velocity is actually above his season average at 97.1. Likewise, he’s throwing his curveball 44% of the time with an average velocity of 85.3 miles per hour. He’s throwing his top two pitches at essentially the same rate and velocity as he has all season, but has his ability to locate pitches changed?
The answer: yes and no. The grand majority of Barnes’ pitch location statistics during his bad stretch are roughly the same as his season-long statistics. His percentage of pitches in the zone is effectively unchanged (41.4% season, 39.6% since August 7th), and his swinging strike rate has actually improved (14.3% season, 14.7% since August 7th).
However, there are two major statistics which could explain Barnes’ rough patch: his first strike percentage and his zone contact percentage. On the season, Barnes has thrown 56.2% of his first pitches for a strike. This is obviously a good thing, as pitchers never want to start behind in the count. Since August 7th, Barnes has thrown just 38.1% of his first pitches for strikes. This obviously plays to the hitters’ advantage, and forces Barnes to be more predictable later on in the count.
Additionally, batters are swinging at more pitches in the zone. While he’s throwing roughly the same amount of pitches in the strike zone, batters are swinging at those pitches a lot more. On the season, batters have swung at 59.6% of pitches in the zone. Since August 7th, batters are swinging at 68.3% of pitches in the zone.
This tells us that Barnes isn’t locating pitches as well as he used to. Instead of painting the corners, he’s leaving pitches more over the middle, inspiring hitters to swing the bat. Additionally, since he’s falling behind in the count more often, hitters have a chance to wait, sit on a pitch, and swing when they see it.
Obviously, this will lead to trouble, but is it really enough to cause this much of a decline in production? Let’s take a look at what actually happens when batters put the ball in play against Barnes to see if bad luck has anything to do with this recent decline in production.
Barnes’ Batted Balls
There’s good news and bad news when looking at Matt Barnes’ peripherals. On the bright side, he’s been hilariously unlucky when it comes to balls in play. Since his rough stretch started, Barnes has a .421 BABIP. This number is unsustainably high and is due to go down as the season progresses. With the decrease in BABIP, his production on the mound will naturally improve.
That said, the type of contact Barnes is allowing is terrible. Since August 7th, Barnes has a fly ball rate of 56.5% and a ground ball rate of 34.8%. These numbers are bad, as pitchers should try to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible. Ground balls can only do so much damage, and fly balls can easily turn into home runs.
On the season, Barnes has been good at limiting fly balls. In 56.1 innings, Barnes owns a ground ball rate of 50.8% and a fly ball rate of 34.2%. If Barnes is to regain his early season form, he’ll need to get back to inducing ground balls.
Unfiltered Thoughts on Matt Barnes
Matt Barnes has struggled in August, there is no denying that. However, a decent chunk of his struggles involves bad luck, while the rest have clear fixes. His .421 BABIP will naturally move back to its norm, which will help improve Barnes’ numbers and production on the mound.
If he’s to find his old form, the first thing he needs to do is find the strike zone early. He’s falling behind in the count too much, which obviously isn’t a good thing. Because of this, hitters are able to key in on certain pitches, which naturally leads to better contact. By fixing this, Barnes may indirectly improve his fly ball problem. If Barnes is ahead in the count, hitters are less likely to sit on a certain pitch. If hitters aren’t sitting on certain pitches, then they won’t make as strong contact. And, if hitters aren’t making strong contact, the fly ball rate should decrease.
The good news for Red Sox Nation is that Barnes still has his velocity on both his fastball and his curveball. Because of this, one can assume that this recent slump isn’t related to fatigue. Barnes just needs to refocus on commanding the strike zone and locating his pitches, especially early in the count. If he can do that, then he should return to the borderline elite bullpen arm he was earlier in the season.