Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes has no doubt he’ll bounce back in 2022
Barnes was well on his way to a career year in the first half of the season, posting a 2.61 ERA, 0.895 WHIP, and 14.9 K/9 while notching 19 saves. He earned his first All-Star nod and was rewarded with a two-year extension from the Red Sox.
Then the dog days of August arrived and Barnes began to unravel. He made 11 appearances that month but logged only 6 2/3 innings, allowing 10 earned runs for a brutal 13.50 ERA. He coughed up three home runs in August, which was only one fewer than he allowed in the previous four months combined.
Boston’s confidence in their closer plummeted to the point where Barnes was left off the ALDS roster. He was later added when Garrett Richards went down with an injury but Barnes made only one postseason appearance, walking a pair of batters and allowing a hit. It was about as shaky as you can get in a scoreless inning.
The Jekyll & Hyde routine makes Barnes a polarizing figure entering this season. His contract extension locks him into a roster spot but the Red Sox will be understandably hesitant to insert him back into the closer role. Despite his second-half struggles, Barnes is ready to move forward and remains confident that he’ll regain his All-Star form, according to MassLive’s Chris Cotillo.
"“It was probably the craziest year of my life,” Barnes said Thursday. “Or one of the craziest baseball seasons. Highs and lows on both extremes and both ends of the spectrum. That’s kind of the game of baseball. That’s how it works sometimes. It’s unfortunate that it was sloppy at the end but you take it, learn from it, build on it and move forward.”"
Barnes made the leap from an inconsistent setup man to an elite closer by improving his command of the strike zone. He had a tendency to nibble on the corners, which led to a troubling 5.4 BB/9 over the previous two seasons. In the first half of 2021, Barnes was a different pitcher. He was always capable of striking batters out but he finally trusted his stuff enough to attack the strike zone to limit free passes, leading to an outstanding 5.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That would have placed Barnes among the best pitchers in baseball in that category if he had managed to maintain it.
Unfortunately, he could not. The strikeout rate dipped a bit while the walk rate inflated, resulting in a 2.33 K/BB ratio in the second half. Barnes walked nine batters in his final 11 2/3 innings after walking only 11 through the first four months of the season.
His late-season struggles were primarily based on a lack of command. What led to Barnes losing control? He has a fairly good idea.
"“I think it was kind of a perfect storm of scenarios,” he said. “I threw a lot in a short period of time and I think, as a pitcher, you try to create what you had when you were completely fresh. That, in turn, creates bad habits. That happens, then trying to fix it and it felt like we were getting close and I had to sit down for a couple of weeks because I got COVID (Aug. 30-Sept. 17). I then just ran out of time.”"
Barnes wasn’t given much of a mid-season break considering he was selected as an All-Star. When he returned for the second half, Barnes logged an inning of work five times in eight days to wrap up the month of July.
On August 7, Barnes pitched in both games of a double-header against the Toronto Blue Jays. Granted, he only threw one pitch in the first game, resulting in a walk-off home run by Marcus Semien. Barnes recovered to throw a scoreless inning in the nightcap. Both outings were short but it still takes a significant amount of effort for a reliever to warm up to enter a game twice in the same day.
The Red Sox sent Barnes back to the mound the next night and that’s when the wheels began to come off. George Springer took him deep for a three-run homer to hand Barnes a blown save and another loss. Two days later, Barnes was shelled for four runs by the Tampa Bay Rays.
Barnes has a history of fading in the second half. August has always been his worst month with a career 8.02 ERA. He typically recovers down the stretch, owning a career 2.93 ERA in September. Last year he showed signs of getting back on track, allowing only two runs in his final five regular season innings. Missing over two weeks with COVID prevented Barnes from putting it all back together before the postseason. As he stated, he simply ran out of time.
Now that he’s had an offseason to refresh, Barnes is feeling good and throwing the ball well again. The lockout has delayed the official start of spring training but Barnes has joined several of his teammates for workouts at Florida Gulf Coast University.
There’s little reason to believe that a healthy Barnes isn’t capable of regaining his All-Star form. The key to him maintaining it is to avoid overworking him.
The Red Sox need to be more cautious with his workload. Perhaps that means finding someone else to fill the closer role, or at least adding another reliable option to fill the role when Barnes needs to be rested. Boston leaned on Barnes heavily at times when they couldn’t trust many other arms in their thin bullpen. Building depth for their pitching staff is a priority to expand their circle of trust so that they won’t always need to rely on the same pitchers for every tight spot.
Barnes is going to show up for the 2022 season prepared to prove that he’s still the pitcher we saw in the first half rather than the one who crumbled down the stretch.