Matt Barnes claims he’s ready for a heavy workload out of the Boston Red Sox bullpen but history shows he struggles when overused.
The bullpen might be the key to this season for the Boston Red Sox. A thin starting rotation will force them to turn to spot starters to navigate the early season schedule and they are toying with the concept of utilizing the opener strategy. Either path will result in the Red Sox leaning heavily on their bullpen, perhaps even more so than last season when their relievers threw the sixth most innings in the majors.
With the starting rotation in shambles, it’s up to the bullpen to pick up the slack. One pitcher who views himself as a workhorse capable of carrying the load is Matt Barnes. The right-hander tied a career-high with 70 appearances last season and topped 60 innings for the fourth consecutive year. He’s ready for more, according to what he told The Boston Globe’s Julian McWilliams
"“I’m prepared to throw 80 games,” said Barnes. “I’m going into this season ready to throw 80 games.”"
That’s a bold proclamation considering Barnes has never come close to that total. Only four major league pitchers made 80+ appearances last season. Two of them still fell short of the 64 1/3 innings Barnes tossed, indicating those relievers racked up appearances with shorter stints. Barnes pitched a full inning and sometimes two in the majority of his outings. Unless the Red Sox start treating him as more of a situational pitcher brought in for one or two key outs, getting to 80 games would mean shattering his career-high innings total while placing himself among the league leaders for relievers.
Careful what you wish for. Barnes might be mentally preparing himself for this heavy workload but his history suggests that the Red Sox must be cautious about overusing him.
We witnessed the danger of relying on the arm of Barnes too frequently last June when he led the team with 15 appearances. His 13 innings were the most he pitched in any month and it’s no coincidence that it was also his worst with a brutal 9.69 ERA.
Barnes was used on consecutive days five times that month and he surrendered at least two runs on three of those occasions.
He settled down in July when he tossed eight innings over 10 appearances without giving up a run. Barnes pitched on consecutive days three times that month but on two of those occasions he was only called upon to get one out.
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These results from last year were no fluke. For his career as a reliever, Barnes owns a 5.40 ERA when pitching on zero days of rest. That dips to a 4.59 ERA with one day of rest, 4.02 ERA with two days, 2.95 ERA with three days and 0.46 ERA with four days.
A rested arm is a more reliable arm. That’s hardly a shocking statement since most relievers perform better when they’ve had some time off between appearances. Relievers don’t pile up the high innings totals of starting pitchers but they also aren’t getting four or five days off between outings. A team’s top relievers will pitch in far more games than any starter and that’s not even counting the times they warm up in the bullpen without getting called in.
The grind of preparing yourself to be ready to take the mound in any game is taxing over the course of a grueling season. Barnes has crumbled under that pressure before. As admirable as it is for him to accept the challenge and be the leader of this bullpen, the Red Sox would be better off monitoring his workload.
They may not have that luxury with the rotation issues putting more of an emphasis on the bullpen but in an ideal world, Barnes would finish with around 60 innings and no more than the 70 games he pitched in last year. He wants to be handed the ball more frequently but it’s hard to see him thriving under those conditions.