Matt Barnes deserves another shot at being the Red Sox closer
When the Boston Red Sox begin postseason play in either the division series after overtaking the Rays and winning the AL East or, the more likely scenario, in the one game Wild Card game against either the Blue Jays or Yankees, Matt Barnes should the one they turn to with a lead in the ninth inning.
Alex Cora seems to think differently since he has been reluctant to insert him into high-leverage situations this month. Some have defended Cora’s decision here noting how he was successfully able to juggle all of the different arms in the Red Sox bullpen during the 2018 postseason en route to a world championship.
What these people fail to mention is that the Red Sox did have a set closer during that postseason run in Craig Kimbrel. While Kimbrel wasn’t his typical lights-out self, he still nonetheless got the ball in the 9th inning in every save situation that postseason.
The same can be true of almost every World Series winner the last 10 years. The Dodgers had Kenley Jansen in 2020, the Nationals had Daniel Hudson in 2019, the Astros had Ken Giles in 2017, the Cubs had Aroldis Chapman in 2016, the Royals had Wade Davis in 2015, the Red Sox had Koji Uehara in 2013, the Cardinals had Jason Motte in 2011, and the Giants had Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, and Santiago Castilla in 2010, 2012, and 2014 respectively. If you want to win the World Series you need a closer.
The Red Sox of all teams should know the danger of not having a set closer in the back end of the bullpen. They have done the closer by committee experiment twice in 2003 and 2019 and both times it failed.
The reason why this experiment failed both times is that baseball relievers are creatures of habit and are used to having defined roles. Many baseball players, especially relievers, have specific routines that they go through before entering a game. It helps them calm down and prepare for the task at hand. Without defined roles those routines are upset, as every instance where the bullpen phone rings turns into a fire drill. This leads to many relievers coming into the game unprepared which needless to say affects their performance.
So now that we have established why the Red Sox need to have a set closer, let us talk about why it should be Barnes. First, why it should not be any of his teammates.
Of the Red Sox bullpen arms not named Matt Barnes, Adam Ottavino is the most likely candidate to be the team’s closer. He has experience in the role, collecting 30 career saves, and has been fairly consistent throughout this season, pitching to a 3.77 ERA in 59 2/3 innings and he’s collected 11 saves. Ottavino has a walk rate of 12.6%. In comparison, the league average walk rate is 9.2%. So can someone who is serving up so many free passes truly be trusted in the 9th inning of a playoff game?
Another possible option may be trade deadline acquisition Hansel Robles. Robles has experience in the role collecting 39 career saves, and has been hot as of late, not allowing a single run in the month of September so far and collecting 12 strikeouts in 7.1 innings pitched during that same period. However, what Robles has in experience he lacks in consistency. Before joining the Red Sox, Robles pitched to an unimpressive 4.91 ERA with the Twins and he owns a career 4.05 ERA. It may not be wise to hand the ninth inning over to someone who you don’t know what you are going to get from him on a given night.
The remaining relievers who have converted at least one save for the Red Sox this season are: Matt Andriese, who currently pitches for the Mariners. Philips Valdez, who is currently on the IL and unlikely to be on the postseason roster. Garrett Whitlock, who prior to this season hadn’t pitched above single-A ball and is also on the IL. Josh Taylor, who the Red Sox will most likely keep out of the closer role in order to match him up against lefty hitters in important situations. And Garrett Richards, who despite his recent success in the bullpen has been inconsistent this season and had a public meltdown after he was told he would no longer be able to use the sticky stuff.
This leaves us with the only clear remaining option – Matt Barnes.
For the first four months of this season Barnes was electric. He pitched to a 2.30 ERA, struck out 66 batters while only walking 11 in 43.0 innings, and was selected to his first MLB All-Star Game. Most importantly, during that period he converted 25 saves in 29 opportunities.
Then August happened. In the month of August, Barnes allowed 10 runs in 6 2/3 innings. As we all know, due to his poor performance, Barnes was removed from the closer role and shortly after tested positive for COVID-19, making him unavailable to pitch for the rest of August and most of September.
Needless to say, Barnes was terrible in August and it’s understandable for fans to not trust him in an important situation because of horrible performance. However, it should be noted that Barnes has a career 8.02 ERA in 67 1/3 innings pitched in the month of August. For whatever reason, August just isn’t Barnes’s month, but each year he bounces back. He has a career ERA of 2.91 in 65 innings pitched in September and October regular season games and more importantly has a career ERA of 0.87 in the postseason.
He has proven he can be a big league closer, he has proven he can pitch in the playoffs, and he has proven that he can come back from a tough August. Barnes should be the Red Sox closer.