When push comes to shove, Matt Barnes is easily the best choice to take over as closer for the 2021 season.
The 2020 season was undoubtedly a weird one for many, and the 30-year-old right-hander was not an exception to the rule. Though uncertainty surrounding his role plagued him in a year of regression in 2019, Barnes knew what to expect on the field this past season. However, his performance overall took another step back.
In 24 outings, Barnes posted a 4.30 ERA, a 4.84 FIP, and a career-worst 3.99 SIERA. All a step in the wrong direction, though he did top 30 percent in strikeout rate for the third straight year. He also had his strikeout-to-walk rate of above 16 percent for a fourth consecutive year.
At first glance, those numbers probably look pretty “meh” to you. But to truly understand how vulnerable to a bad outing Barnes was in 2020, you must look a little deeper.
As many others did in the 60-game shortened season, the righty started slow. In his first four outings (one-sixth of his season), Barnes went four innings and allowed four earned runs, two home runs, all while striking out as many guys as he walked (four). He had a 9.00 ERA, an 11.44 FIP, and a 6.27 SIERA.
It all came unglued in that fourth outing, where Barnes got two quick outs before the Yankees took him to the woodshed—culminating in an Aaron Judge home run that put the game away for the Yankees.
In a shortened season, Barnes could’ve folded entirely. It was clear the team was going nowhere fast and was lacking the talent to right the ship. However, he rebounded quite nicely, finishing off his season with a 3.32 ERA, a 3.45 FIP, and a strikeout-to-walk rate of 21 percent (33.3 versus 12.3). He also took the closing position’s reigns after Brandon Workman was traded to Philadelphia and shut the door on a career-high nine ballgames.
Which brings us back to the topic on hand: Matt Barnes is the best man for the job.
You might be asking why, and that’s a fair question to ask. The appeal to go with someone like Darwinzon Hernandez very well could be high, and the appeal to go out and sign someone to fill that position. Not to mention that Barnes has yet to put it together for an entire season.
But even so, the former Connecticut Husky has positioned himself as a fringe top-20 reliever in the sport. Between 2017 and 2019, he ranked 31st in FIP (3.12), 13th in xFIP (3.02), tied for 13th in xFIP- (69), tied for 27th in SIERA (3.12), and tied for 10th in strikeout rate (34.5 percent). All of this while jockeying for a consistent role in the free-for-all that is the Red Sox bullpen.
There’s also this notion that he can’t pitch the ninth inning. Which is, to put it lightly, wildly exaggerated. Barnes has faced 246 batters in the ninth inning for his career and has put up substantial numbers. His ERA is a less-than-ideal 4.03, but he has a 3.54 FIP, a 2.93 xFIP, and a strikeout rate of 32.9 percent. If you look at just the past two seasons, his ninth-inning ERA is 2.83, his FIP is 2.96, and his strikeout rate is 36.1 percent.
Not too bad for someone who has built up an unfair reputation of “not being clutch.”
The argument isn’t that Matt Barnes is equipped with the talent to be a perennial Reliever of the Year candidate. However, Barnes has numbers to back the notion that he could be one of the 20-best relievers in the sport. He is one of the best strikeout artists in the entire league, and his curveball is one of the prettiest pitches in the game when it’s on.
He deserves more than a fair crack at the job, and it’s only right that Alex Cora continues to bestow confidence in his bullpen Ace.