Why You Should Feel Comfortable With Matt Barnes as Closer
The Boston Red Sox won their first game of the season in dramatic fashion, eliminating a five-run deficit thanks in part to a three-run Mitch Moreland blast. Of course, this comeback would not have been possible were it not for the bullpen tossing four scoreless innings of work. Everyone was great, but the star of the night was Matt Barnes. Barnes earned his first save since 2017, closing the game in dominant fashion. This should be the first of many save opportunities for Barnes, and Red Sox fans should have faith in his late-inning ability.
Why Matt Barnes is the Man for the Job
A first impression can have a lasting impact, and perhaps that is why some members of Red Sox Nation are not the biggest fans of Matt Barnes. Barnes first debuted in the majors back in 2014 but wasn’t a full-time member of the major league squad until 2016. Pitching 66.2 innings as a rookie, Barnes recorded an underwhelming 4.05 ERA and a 3.72 FIP. He struck out a solid 9.59 batters per nine innings while walking 4.19 batters per nine innings. These results weren’t great, and many fans remember this version of Matt Barnes when thinking about the current bullpen.
However, Barnes has improved each and every year he’s been in the majors. In 2017, Barnes ERA and FIP dropped to 3.88 and 3.33, respectively. These numbers, while not elite by any means, made him a solid mid-inning arm. However, the former first-round pick brought his game to another level in 2018, recording a 3.65 ERA and a 2.71 FIP. While his walk rate was still a little high, Barnes struck out an absurd 14.01 batters per nine innings. By some measures, Barnes was better in 2018 than star closer Craig Kimbrel.
The High-Leverage Myth
Barnes detractors often point to his underwhelming numbers in high-leverage moments when citing why they’re not comfortable with him as a closer. While Barnes has struggled in high-leverage situations throughout his career, the hard-throwing righty has gotten significantly better over the past few seasons.
Barnes finished the 2018 season with a 6.06 ERA in high-leverage situations as defined by Fangraphs. This is obviously horrible at first glance, but a deeper dive into the numbers shows that Barnes was just hilariously unlucky.
Barnes pitched in 16.1 “high-leverage” innings in 2018. During his time on the mound, the righty struck out 43.5% of the batters he faced. This is obviously fantastic and was a big reason he finished the season with a 1.94 FIP in high-leverage situations. FIP is basically just ERA adjusted for average batted ball luck and, statistically, is a better way to predict future success than ERA. Really, Barnes should have been one of the better high-leverage setup men in baseball, based on the type of contact he allowed.
There are questions with this bullpen, and one good game cannot silence all the doubt. However, Red Sox fans should feel comfortable with Matt Barnes in the ninth inning, as he’s one of the better young relievers in baseball.