Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes can’t be trusted close and late

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 15: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox walks off the field after giving up the lead to the Seattle Mariners in the eighth inning of the game the game at Safeco Field on June 15, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 15: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox walks off the field after giving up the lead to the Seattle Mariners in the eighth inning of the game the game at Safeco Field on June 15, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images) /

Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes blew another game last night. Is it time for the Red Sox to move on from him in close and late situations?

As it currently stands, the Boston Red Sox bullpen hierarchy includes Matt Barnes taking the mound in the 8th inning of close games. Joe Kelly gets about half the opportunities in the 8th. He also gets a slightly higher rate of chances in close and late situations, and high leverage situations. But Barnes is out there plenty with the game on the line. The problem is he’s not very good in that role. Last night’s loss to the Seattle Mariners is just the latest reminder that the this Red Sox team has an Achilles heel. They lack a dominant bullpen.

A quick glance at his stats might leave you wondering what I’m getting on about. His ERA+ on the season is 150, even after last night. That’s 50% better than league average. Pretty good for a non-closer, right? Well, that depends on how that breaks down. Bullpens are about smart usage. Managers have to pick the right spots for their pitchers to make appearances. And it doesn’t appear that Matt Barnes likes close and late or high leverage spots very much.

Not long ago Sean Penney asked whether Matt Barnes could be trusted in close games. It’s been less than a week but I’m here to say we have an answer. And the answer is no.

Time to dive into the numbers!

For the season, Matt Barnes has a 2.41 strikeout to walk ratio. In close and late situations that drops to 1.86. In high leverage situations it’s 1.70. That’s due mostly to a jump in walk rate. He’s still striking batters out 32.5% of the time close and late as compared to 32% overall. His strikeout percentage in 2017 was 28.9%, so that rate has been consistent. His walk rate on the season is 13.3% (9.8% in 2017). That jumps to 17.5% close and late.

How about high leverage? Even higher at 20.4%. In short, he loses the zone in these situations. Maybe it’s an intentional shift, not wanting to groove one to a good hitter in a tight spot. Or maybe he just gets a little nervous and his command slips a bit. Either way, more walks when the game is on the line can only be described as a bad thing. Matt Barnes has struggled with walks for most of his career. So seeing these troubles enhanced when the pressure ramps up isn’t shocking. He has a 13.3% walk rate on the season, 16th highest in the majors. He’s also enjoying a .265 BABIP thus far, which is far lower than his .315 career BABIP against.

We’ve also seen a jump in medium contact from 48.0% to 53.6% from last season. And while his FIP and xFIP don’t suggest a lot of regression is in store, his SIERA of 3.32 is higher than either. FIP and xFIP ignore balls in play while SIERA incorporates ground ball and fly ball percentages. Barnes’ career high 53.7% ground ball rate is likely helping keep that SIERA as low as it is and may not be sustainable.

But he has a .629 OPS against in high leverage situations. That’s good!

We need to dig deeper to see the issues. One way is using tOPS+ which is a measure of OPS+ against in a particular split verus a pitcher’s own OPS+ against in total. So, for a pitcher, a number higher than 100 will mean he performs worse in that split, a number below means he performs better. Matt Barnes has a tOPS+ of 126 in high leverage situations. That’s 26% worse than his baseline performances. It’s 164 in close and late spots (64% worse). He also has a 117 sOPS+, or split against league average close and late. That means he’s 17% worse than league average in those situations. Interestingly, he has a 79 sOPS+ in high leverage situations, which is 21% better than league average. But most of these metrics paint a pretty clear picture. Matt Barnes gets worse in tough spots.

What does a real lock down late inning weapon look like? Let’s check him against one of the best non-closer relievers in the game. In 2017 Andrew Miller was 22% worse than his baseline close and late, but 59% better than league average. In high leverage situations he was 9% worse than his baseline but 75% better than league average. What makes them so different? It’s the walk rate. Miller’s walk rate close and late is 8.3%. In high leverage situations it’s 9.1%. His baseline walk rate in 2017? 8.6%.

Last night’s mess.

When Denard Span stepped into the box in the bottom of the 8th, the Mariners were only 23.5% likely to win the game. That at bat had a staggering 5.37 leverage index and ended up producing .485 WPA (win probability added). In other words, it altered the Mariners’ chances of winning by 48.5%. Barnes started with a clean inning and struck out Kyle Seager to kick things off. He then walked Ryon Healy on four pitches. The first one bounced a few feet in front of the plate. The second was a curve hung above the letters that missed the glove by more than a foot. The third was a curve that was a foot higher than that. Ball four was a few inches inside. He had no control in that at bat.

Then he allowed a single to Ben Gamble. Barnes opened up with a fastball down the middle. Gamble was taking all the way. The second pitch was a belt high fastball on the outside edge of the plate, and Gamble jumped on it. That brought Span up who got a hanging curve down the middle for strike one. He appeared to be taking. The second pitch was another curve way up and outside. It got by Christian Vazquez, but the runners did not advance. Span fouled off the next pitch, another belt high fastball on the outer edge. The fourth pitch was a fastball a good foot and a half above the zone. Finally, Denard Span put the Mariners on top on a hanging curve thigh high in the middle of the plate.

What was Barnes’s issue?

He was basically throwing meatballs or missing the plate badly. There wasn’t much in between after Seager struck out. Even in that at bat there was a pitch that missed the zone by a mile. This isn’t a new problem for Matt Barnes. Complete meltdown innings are sort of a recurring theme for him. Which is frustrating because he can look really good at times. But here’s the thing: If he can completely lose the ability to get batters out at any time, you can’t trust him at the most important of times. Sure, he might get through the inning in a breeze, but if it’s close and late in a playoff game and he falls apart? You might be regretting it all winter.

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Yes, the same can be said about a lot of relievers, but that’s the point. Matt Barnes is like a lot of relievers. He’s not elite. And a team hoping to win a championship needs better than that in the playoffs. The good news is that there is time to find alternatives. Hopefully, by the time the Red Sox are coming down the stretch, Matt Barnes will be a middle reliever. That’s just more his speed. Who do you think they’ll add by the deadline? Any internal options worth talking about? Let us know in the comments!