Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (June 5, 2018 – Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America)
Outside of starter David Price, there may be no Red Sox more unjustly disliked than reliever Matt Barnes. Barnes has garnered a reputation for being unreliable and unsuccessful whenever he’s thrown into the game. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Matt Barnes is actually good and has been the third-best reliever in the Red Sox bullpen.
Hot Take: Matt Barnes is Actually Good
When looking at his numbers, it’s clear to see that Barnes is actually in the midst of a great season. He has a 2.76 ERA, 2.39 FIP, and has a 0.8 fWAR through just 32.2 innings pitched. All these numbers are very good for a reliever, and his peripherals back that up. While his BB/9 is a little high at 4.68, he’s striking out an impressive 12.4 batters per nine innings. By comparison, Red Sox closer and strikeout machine Craig Kimbrel has a K/9 of 12.77 this season.
Barnes has gone on stretches of absolute dominance this year. From May 10th to June 9th, Barnes threw 13 straight scoreless innings, allowing just two extra-base hits while striking out 16 and walking five. Opponents were hitting a measly .174/.255/.239 slash line against him, and he was borderline unhittable.
That version of Barnes is constantly on display in the right situation. In medium and low leverage situations (per Fangraphs), Barnes has a 1.93 ERA, 2.84 FIP, and a 29.9% strikeout rate. When hitters do make contact, they hit ground balls 61.6% of the time. By just about every measure, this version of Matt Barnes would be one of the better relievers in baseball.
So Why Does Everyone Hate Him?
If Barnes is this good, why does everyone hate him? The most obvious answer is due to the bad memories. Barnes struggled his first few seasons in the league, and manager John Farrell loved using Barnes in just about every situation imaginable. A younger Barnes wasn’t ready for such a large role and oftentimes came up short in big moments. Honestly, most of the blame there should lie on Farrell for his poor usage of Barnes.
Historically, there are two very obvious situations in which Barnes has struggled: on the road and in high-leverage situations. However, despite his historical issues in those settings, he’s actually made strong strides in both areas this season.
Barnes was a nightmare on the road in 2017. In 30.2 innings of road appearances, Barnes allowed a 5.28 ERA, 4.92 FIP, and walked 15.5% of the batters he faced. While his walk rate is still on the high side (16.4%), Barnes has drastically improved in all other road statistics. Through 18.1 innings, 2018 Barnes has been strong on the road. Opponents have a .131/.274/.197 slash line against him and his ERA is just 2.45, while he’s lowered his FIP to just 2.66. He’s striking out 30.1% of the batters he faces. Quite frankly, there’s no longer any reason to doubt him on the road.
What to Make of High-Leverage Barnes
The one true strike against him is his struggles in high-leverage situations. Throughout his career, Barnes has been absolutely brutal when the lights shine the brightest. He has a career ERA of 9.57, a FIP of 3.71, and a WHIP of 1.58.
While his 2018 numbers still aren’t great, Barnes has again improved on these numbers this season. Barnes has a 4.82 ERA in high-leverage situations, which isn’t great. However, he has an impressive 1.28 FIP under the same circumstances. The 1.28 FIP would imply that he’s one of the best clutch pitchers in baseball, whereas the ERA suggests he’s one of the worst.
FIP tends to be more indicative of future success than ERA, as it takes more peripherals into account. For one, Barnes has been slightly unlucky with batted balls, as batters have a .313 BABIP against him. As of this posting, the league average for BABIP is .292. Additionally, Barnes is striking out an absurd 43.2% of the batters he faces in high-leverage situations. Obviously, this is a phenomenal number, as he’s striking out almost every other batter he faces. These peripherals are where his low FIP comes from.
While the strikeout rate and BABIP suggest Barnes is better than his ERA shows, the batted balls show that Barnes isn’t quite as good as his FIP, either. When batters do make contact, they tend to hit him hard. In high leverage situations, Barnes is allowing a ground ball rate of just 33.3%, and a soft contact rate of just 18.8%. Obviously, neither one of these statistics is ideal. Stronger contact leads to more extra-base hits, and putting the ball in the air is always bad news for a pitcher.
All of this is to say that high-leverage Barnes isn’t as bad as his ERA makes him look, or as good as his FIP make him look. Essentially, he’s average in high-leverage situations and great in every other situation. With Joe Kelly and Kimbrel working the eighth and ninth innings, Barnes is the perfect guy to take on the seventh.
Unfiltered Thoughts on Matt Barnes
This whole article is just one long way of saying that Matt Barnes doesn’t deserve the hate he gets. Should he be the closer or eighth inning guy? Probably not. Should the Red Sox still look to trade for a bullpen arm? Absolutely. There’s no such thing as too many good bullpen pieces, and the bottom of the bullpen could definitely be improved.
However, Barnes is certainly capable of being a great part of this bullpen. He’s having a fantastic 2018, and his presence makes the Red Sox a better, more complete ball club. Despite what your gut says, Barnes has been one of the more consistent members of the bullpen, and he could be the key difference between a good bullpen and a great bullpen.