Better Know a Reliever: Matt Barnes

The bullpen is often overlooked when a team is successful, yet quickly blamed when a team fails to secure tight wins. So when a talented reliever comes along, it’s wise to take notice and give him his due. Justin Gorman takes a look at Boston Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes.

The Red Sox bullpen has had its fair (or unfair – dealer’s choice) share of injuries this year. The excitement around the acquisition of Carson Smith swiftly gave way to a season-ending injury, while Joe Kelly, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, and Craig Kimbrel have all done tours of duty on the disabled list thus far in 2016. Vice President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski recently recently acquired Brad Ziegler from the Arizona Diamondbacks as a sort of Band-Aid for these injuries, most specifically Kimbrel’s.

While Ziegler has stepped in and pitched well, the rest of the bullpen has been a revolving door of injuries, the PawSox shuttle, and converted starters. The one constant – and unexpected – bright spot in the Red Sox bullpen this year has been youngster Matt Barnes, who has quietly been doing yeoman’s work all season with a decidedly loud pitch repertoire. Barnes has matured this season into  Boston’s top setup man – a role he will yield to Ziegler upon Kimbrel’s return. Based on his performance this year, it would come as no surprise to see him as a regular late-inning option for years to come.

A native of New England, Barnes was drafted in the first round (19th overall pick) of the 2011 MLB Draft out of the University of Connecticut and made predictably quick work of the minor leagues – ascending from Single-A Greenville to AAA Pawtucket over the course of just two seasons. Throughout his brief minor-league career, Barnes showed a propensity for striking out batters, a habit that he has fortunately carried over into his major-league career (8.4 K/9).

Barnes had a rough introduction to the big leagues. He failed to make a serious impact in a five-appearance cup of coffee in 2014 and struggled mightily in a larger sample size last year. Over 32 appearances in 2015, Barnes limped his way to a 5.44 ERA and 1.651 WHIP, while striking out 39 in 43 innings. Some of his 2015 failings could be attributed to bad luck – he allowed a BABIP of .356 – but opponents hit 9 home runs off him in 190 at bats and he yielded a 30% line drive percentage, so clearly hitters were making very hard contact.

Barnes has finally lived up to his minor league potential and draft status in 2016. In 38 appearances thus far, Barnes has compiled a 3-3 record with a 3.23 ERA, a 1.289 WHIP, while striking out 46 batters in 47 1/3 innings of work. Barnes’s versatility is notable – he has logged more than one inning in 15 of his 38 appearances, while going two or more innings six times. Opponents are hitting .233 against him (BABIP of .286) with only 5 home runs allowed in 200 plate appearances and a 23% line drive percentage.

Barnes’s success is thanks to a four-pitch arsenal centered around his downright blurry four-seam fastball. PITCHf/x reveals that Barnes is 13th among all MLB pitchers this year in average four-seam velocity, registering 97.48 mph, good for second on the Red Sox behind Kimbrel (98.28 mph). His exceptional velocity allows him to contrast that gas with an abnormally hard 12-6 curveball (averages 83 mph) and a changeup that arrives as fast as many pitchers’ fastballs at 89 mph. He has thrown 19 sliders in 2016, averaging 90 mph.

Thus far in 2016, Barnes has proven himself to be a tremendously valuable and consistent piece of the otherwise chaotic Red Sox bullpen puzzle. He has shown the flexibility and dependability to be called upon in most every game situation, and contributing an out or three innings. His work ethic brings back memories of fan-favorite Mike Timlin. If Barnes can keep up this pace Red Sox fans can look forward to breathing a sigh of relief when Barnes starts jogging to the mound for the foreseeable future.


Justin Gorman has written about manager tirades, baseball contracts, an illegal delivery, and the case for expansion.

Follow Justin on Twitter @j1gorman.

Featured image courtesy of Charles Krupa of the Associated Press.

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