When you think about the Boston Red Sox bullpen, usually the first thing that comes to mind is Craig Kimbrel. He dominated last season after scuffling in his first season with the Red Sox in 2016. However, there’s someone in the Red Sox bullpen that’s pitching better than Kimbrel right now, and his name is Matt Barnes. Barnes has been a member of the Red Sox for his whole career all the way back to 2012. At first he was a starter but he was quickly converted into a reliever after a short time with the big league club. Once he was converted, he was an average reliever with a high velocity fastball that could touch 99 miles per hour.
This year, though, he’s elevated his game to the next level. His FIP and xFIP so far are both in the top ten among all qualified relievers. His WAR and strikeout rates also fall inside the top ten. Simply put, Barnes has been dominant this season. Kimbrel does have a higher average leverage index, so he’s pitching in more high pressure situations, but Barnes has still been the better pitcher thus far. In case you don’t believe me, here is a comparison of Matt Barnes this year to what Craig Kimbrel is doing.
Barnes Vs Kimbrel
It’s pretty incredible to have numbers that are almost identical with one of this generation’s best closers. The most surprising part is how Barnes remained in relative obscurity even while posting these type of numbers. A good portion of Barnes’ success comes from how well he’s locating his pitches. He mainly uses a four-seam fastball and curveball but occasionally mixes in a splitter that’s more like a changeup, as well as a slider. The location of the four-seam and curveball are basically perfect. He’s keeping the four-seamer at the edges of the strike zone and he often “climbs the ladder,” garnering a 20.7 percent whiff rate on pitches in the top two zones (in red).
Locating the four-seamer has given him a 32.5 percent non-contact strikes and allowing him to achieve a career low isolated power of .100. Having this much success with the fastball allows Barnes to utilize his curveball as a strikeout pitch. Of the 74 strikeouts Barnes has this season, 32 of them come off the curveball. He’s walked a total of 25 batters so far and only seven of those walks were on the curveball. He’s only give up two extra base hits and no home runs off the curveball. The chart below illustrates his curveball command.
Locating the curveball this well has given him a .236 wOBA against the pitch and a career high 41.32 percent whiff per swing rate. Not to mention a career low in isolated power off of the curveball at .030. The location is just part of Barnes success though, tunneling his pitches, specifically the four-seamer and curveball together is the lynchpin of Barnes’ 2018 success. From the side, the curveball tunnels right with the fastball until about 20 feet from the plate when it breaks sharply down. From the top, there is no difference between the two pitches till about 10 feet away from the plate.
By tunneling his pitches in this manner it’s incredibly hard for hitters to discern what pitch they’re seeing. Here’s a perfect example of the results of tunneling the pitches well.
Matt Barnes, high 97mph Fastball and 87mph Curveball (dirt), Overlay. pic.twitter.com/VOF6GZnWmI— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 21, 2018
Another aspect to Barnes is success is how much he’s mixing in his curveball in almost all counts. He’s using it around 38 percent of the time. The only count where more than two-thirds of the pitches thrown are four-seamers is 3-0. In every other count, the curveball is used at least 29 percent of the time, which doesn’t allow hitters to establish any pattern to Barnes’ sequencing.
Barnes received a boost this year in that his velocity has ticked back up. Originally 97.3 miles per hour in 2016, his velocity saw some regression dropping down to 95.2 miles per hour last year. This year, though, he’s sitting at a comfortable 96.3 miles per hour. The high velocity adds to the difficulty of hitters to determine whether the pitch will be in or out of the strikezone for obvious reasons.
Barnes also debuted a splitter this season after dropping his changeup back in the middle off 2016. The splitter behaves like a changeup so much that Statcast reads it as a changeup. He’s thrown 42 splitters so far this season, utilizing 2.3 percent of the time. He’s received decent results, a few strikeouts and only two singles off the pitch. His slider is utilized even less, he’s only thrown 16 of them all season. He’s tallied two strikeouts with the slider and allowed one double. Neither pitch is used very often which hasn’t hurt his performance at all.
Between the solid command of his four-seamer and curveball this season, plus above average tunneling and sequencing to prevent hitters from gauging any patterns, Barnes has become one of the best relievers in the game right now. Given how well he compares to Kimbrel, the Red Sox have a solid duo to hold down games. Once they reach the postseason, we’ll really see the effect that Barnes has on shutting down the opposition and bridging the gap between starters and Kimbrel. Barnes has definitely made a splash, and we should take notice.