Hard-throwing righty Matt Barnes remains a pitcher capable of turning his bright future into a scintillating present, even if that sounds like a broken record.
Barnes’s career arc has been a vexing do-si-do of one step forward and one step back. At times he has shown lights-out stuff that hints at All Star-caliber setup specialist, although his Road to Somewhere has been a balancing act between brilliance and abject failure, while littered with starts, stops, stumbles, do-overs, and blown saves, as was especially evident in 2019.
Red Sox brass remains mindful of Barnes’s propensity to overpower hitters in tight spots. Over the last three seasons, Barnes’s strikeouts rate has climbed from 9.6 per nine innings in 2016 to 10.7 in 2017, 14.0 in 2018, and 15.4 in 2019. Remarkable improvement, but not without glitches.
Barnes’s walk rate also has climbed in that time, from 3.6 per nine innings in 2017, to 4.5 in 2018, and 5.3 this past season, suggesting an inability to trust himself to consistently go after hitters and keep them off base. A 1.383 WHIP helps explain his eight blown saves in 2019, the last of which was when he cost Eduardo Rodriguez what would have been his 20th victory on the last day of the regular season.
Barnes’s roughest stretch of 2019 came in June. Feeling the effects of an increased workload no thanks to starters unable to get beyond (let alone to) the fifth inning, Barnes had a 9.69 ERA in 15 June appearances encompassing 13 innings. Beyond that, however, as Manager Alex Cora dialed Barnes back into a comfortable workload groove, the big righthander responded well, ending the season with a 2.28 ERA in months not named June.
Barnes turns 30 in June. Now is the time, once and for all, for him to put it all together and become the consistently dominant set-up man he is profiled to be. If he can cut his walks at least a third, and if Cora can maintain discipline in not overworking him, Barnes could join presumed closer Brandon Workman to form a formidable one-two punch at the back of the Red Sox bullpen.