Boston Red Sox face a conundrum with Matt Barnes

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 22: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox reacts as he leaves the game once he loaded the bases in the sixth inning against the New York Mets at Fenway Park on September 22, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 22: Matt Barnes #32 of the Boston Red Sox reacts as he leaves the game once he loaded the bases in the sixth inning against the New York Mets at Fenway Park on September 22, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images) /

Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes lacks a clearly defined role

For Boston Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes, the first half of the 2021 season felt like the ultimate success story. Drafted in the first round in the 2011 MLB amateur draft out of UCONN, Barnes was thought to be on the fast track to the big leagues. Standing at 6′ 4″ and weighing in at over 200lbs, his 98 MPH fastball, wipeout slider, and plus level changeup gave him the refined arsenal of a college pitcher that would be ready to step into a major league rotation not long after being selected.

Barnes would make his professional debut in 2012, breezing through the Class A levels of the minor leagues as a starting pitcher, and would work his way through the remaining levels of the minors as a starter before making his MLB debut with the Red Sox in September of 2014. His debut was promising, as he came in relief and pitched three scoreless innings against the Baltimore Orioles, allowing three hits and striking out a pair of batters without issuing a walk. In all, he’d finish the 2014 season making a total of five relief appearances, pitching a total of nine innings, striking out eight and walking two. He would not earn a decision and finished with a 4.00 ERA.

After working exclusively as a starter in the minors, Barnes’ introduction to big league batters came out of the bullpen, but he’d put himself in the mix as a viable rotation candidate entering 2015, as the Red Sox organization was reshaping their roster, giving younger players an opportunity to develop and establish themselves at the Major League level, with an eye toward contending as early as the 2016 season.

The 2015 season would be Barnes’ first as a full time big leaguer. He’d make 32 appearances, but only two as a starting pitcher.  His fastball remained hard, but hittable, and his secondary pitches lacked the consistency that was ideal for a starting pitcher. The Red Sox would labor to a last place finish, but the building blocks were in place for another sustained run as contenders. Among those building blocks was Barnes, who now would be used exclusively as a reliever.

In late August 2015 the Red Sox underwent an organizational overhaul at the executive level. Dave Dombrowski was brought in to be the president of Baseball Operations and as result, General Manager Ben Cherington would step down and leave the organization. The aftershocks of the front office shakeup would trickle all the way down to Barnes. Cherington was a key figure in the regime that drafted Barnes. Dombrowski was now tasked with hitting the fast forward button on getting the Commissioner’s Trophy back to Boston and had a blank checkbook and a top rated farm system at his disposal to do so.

The first big move Dombrowski would make would be trading for All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel. He sent three organizational top 10 prospects, headlined by outfielder Manuel Margot, from a consensus top-5 farm system in the game to acquire one of MLB’s elite closers. In acquiring Kimbrel, Dombrowski put any competition for the 9th inning role heading into the 2016 season to rest, effectively ending Barnes’ quest to lock down the premier bullpen role heading into the next season.

Barnes would find himself as a key reliever for a team that would make the playoffs each year from 2016 to 2018, capping that postseason run with a World Series championship in 2018. Barnes established himself as an important member of the bullpen, and pitched 8 2/3 innings of relief in the 2018 postseason, giving up just a single run. He made three appearances in the 2018 World Series, striking out four batters while only walking one. He did not allow a run in the 2018 World Series.

Kimbrel would depart as a free agent after the magical 2018 season, and the Red Sox would adopt a “closer by committee” philosophy to start 2019, with the hope that a permanent solution to fill the role would emerge. Barnes was part of that committee, notching four saves and 24 holds. However, it was Brandon Workman who would emerge to take on the regular role of closer for the 2019 season. By the end of 2019, there was no doubt that Barnes’ role in the majors was in relief, the question now was if he still had the upside to be a closer in the big leagues.

The 2020 season was an interesting one. The Red Sox once again made organizational changes at the top. Gone was Dombrowski’s reckless spending and disregard for the farm system, replaced by Chaim Bloom, who brought a small market philosophy from Tampa Bay to Boston.

The Red Sox, just a season removed from winning the World Series, were facing a sharp organizational reset, and the play on the field was a direct result of that. They played to an uninspiring 24-36 record during the pandemic-shortened season, finishing in last place in the AL East. Along the way, Workman was dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies, and next in line for the role was Barnes.

While the truncated 2020 season was a disappointment for the Red Sox, Barnes would find his footing down the stretch, going 6-for-8 in save opportunities and pitching to a 2.70 ERA in the season’s final month- the first month of his career where his role was truly defined as the closer.

The 2021 season was looked at as a rebuilding year for the Red Sox. They added some pieces to the bullpen, including international free agent Hirokazu Sawamura and Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock, along with established late-inning reliever, Adam Ottavino, but the closer role was Barnes’ to lose.

The Sox would exceed expectations as a whole, taking first place in the AL East in the season’s first few weeks and staying atop the standings through the All-Star break. Barnes thrived in the closer role, using his 97 MPH fastball to set up hitters to chase his put away pitch, a wipeout breaking ball thrown out of the strike zone and in the dirt.

The results were fantastic. Barnes was 23-for-27 in save opportunities with 66 K’s and 11 BB’s in 43 innings pitched from the start of the season through the end of July. He’d be recognized by the league with his first All-Star appearance, and rewarded by the team with a 2-year, $18.75M contract extension.

August, however, would change the narrative around Barnes. The hard charging defending AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays would wrestle first place away from the Sox, and the underperforming Yankees would right the ship to make the AL East a three-team race for supremacy, and the securing of a postseason spot vital. Barnes melted down, finishing the month of August 1-3 with a 13.50 ERA, saving just one game.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of Barnes’ meltdown. His usage rate throughout the season was higher than it had been at any point in his career, and the simple answer may be just a tired arm and overall fatigue. His wipeout breaking pitch that batters chased the first half of the season seemed to have caught up to him as well. Hitters made adjustments, working him into regular three-ball counts, forcing him to throw strikes, and crushing the result of those adjustments.

There’s also the mental aspect of pitching, and Barnes looked to have lost all of the confidence he had early in the season. As the fans watched Barnes collapse, and the box score showed his ineffectiveness at the end of games, Manager Alex Cora continued to trot him out there to finish games. Cora gave Barnes the opportunity to re-establish his dominance, or pitch himself out of the closer role. By the time the calendar turned to September, Barnes had done the latter.

The Red Sox would fight for a playoff spot in September 2021 mostly without the presence of their All-Star closer. He would start the month on the COVID-19 IL, eventually seeing his first game action on September 17th. The team was using a closer by committee with the key late innings role split between Ottovino, Whitlock and Josh Taylor.

Barnes would pitch a total of five innings from September 17th to October 1st, none of them save situations. Even without the pressure of holding a lead or closing out a win, the results for Barnes were dismal. In an obvious attempt by Cora to get Barnes into games in low-leverage situations, hoping to restore his confidence should he be called upon in the postseason, Barnes failed to show he could be counted on down the stretch.

In Barnes’ final appearance of the regular season he was brought in to start the 7th inning of the first game of a three-game series against Washington. The Sox were in control of their own destiny – sweep the season’s final three games and secure the first Wild Card spot, hosting the single elimination game in Fenway Park.

Barnes, staked a 4-0 lead, would surrender the Nationals first run of the game by giving up a solo home run to light hitting journeyman Alcides Escobar. He’d be the final batter that Barnes would face in the 2021 regular season. The Red Sox would go on to win the game 4-2, and sweep the final series of the season to host the 2021 AL Wild Card game.

The Red Sox would leave Barnes off of the postseason roster. He was added to the ALDS roster as an injury replacement, and saw game action in the 9th inning of Game 2. With the Sox leading 14-6, and the game in hand, Barnes was tasked with getting the final three outs in Tampa, before the series shifted to Fenway. He would get those final outs, closing out the game in a non-save situation. While he did not allow a run, he labored through the inning, allowing a hit and walking two batters. He did not appear again in the series and was left off the ALCS roster.

2022 presents a crucial year for the longest tenured player in the Boston Red Sox organization. Barnes will be in the first year the contract extension he signed over the summer. Should the Sox not sign or trade for an established closer, he’ll get the opportunity to compete for and reclaim his closer role. The emergence of Whitlock, the presence of Taylor, and the strong 2021 minor league season of Durbin Feltman tell us that Barnes’ leash will be on a short leash.

Baseball history is littered with stories of once great pitchers who lost their way under the mental rigors and pressure associated with effectively getting the baseball from the pitcher’s rubber to the catcher’s mitt. From Steve Blass, to Donnie Moore, to Mitch Williams, to Rick Ainkel we’ve all had a look at how quickly a promising career can turn into a cautionary tale. There’s also redemption stories like the one that once promising Red Sox prospect Daniel Bard is currently living. From total meltdown, to out of the game, to back on the big league mound with a $4.4 million contract for 2022 and the opportunity to cash in on a long term deal in free agency after the season.

At this point Barnes is neither a cautionary tale or a redemption story. His meltdown in the season’s final months may just be a bad stretch. Adjustments to his workout regimen and conditioning to adjust to a bigger workload and a higher usage rate could be all that’s needed for a return to form. Perhaps exhaustive film study will reveal a tweak in mechanics that bring back his early season success.

For those who watched Barnes go from All-Star to being left off the postseason roster, it felt like something different. Something beyond conditioning or mechanics. The 2022 season feels like the most important in his career. For Red Sox Nation, hopefully he returns to form and re-emerges as an asset, because at the end of his 2021 season he was a liability.

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