BOSTON -- Matt Barnes has emerged as one of the high-leverage arms from the Red Sox’ bullpen -- becoming John Farrell’s go-to guy late with runners on.
That’s a significant change from where Barnes was last season. He’s already pitched in more games than 2015 (33) and his ERA is down from 5.44 to 3.07. He has also given up four home runs in 41 innings, as opposed to nine in 43 innings all last season.
“I’m almost to the point where I almost feel more comfortable coming in with guys on than a clean inning -- which is kind of weird because it was completely reverse last year,” Barnes said. “It’s something you kind of pride yourself on -- helping somebody out and then kind of saving their runs and keeping the guys from scoring.”
Even with the turnaround and general success, there’s still something about Barnes that’s troubling.
Part of it is he averages a walk almost every other inning. Another part is he averages allowing a hit almost every inning -- which pretty much puts him in the middle of the pack among qualifying relievers.
Still, what it really comes down to is where he locates his pitches -- because all in all you can’t really argue with his results.
Barnes throws almost every fastball at the top of the strike zone -- one of the first no-no’s when you learn how to pitch in Little League because hitters can just throw their bat at it for a hit or a foul ball and are much more inclined to elevate the ball -- meaning more home runs.
The thing is -- he’s doing it deliberately.
“When you look back at the numbers I think a lot of guys tend to be more low-ball hitters now,” Barnes said. “Strictly based on the fact that the game is kind of readjusting.
“When we were coming up, pitchers were always taught down in the zone at the knees. Well at some point hitters are going to say, ‘Okay they’re teaching them to hit at the knees, I’m going to learn to hit the knees.’ So a lot of guys get to that ball now.”
And Barnes makes a fair case.
Players talk constantly about making adjustments -- so it’s only natural to assume hitters would evolve in that manner.
And Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis thinks it’s a case-by-case situation with batters -- but it’s impossible to claim the game isn’t riddled with hitters who want the ball down.
“There is a huge, huge number of hitters in the league [that are lowball hitters] -- prime example is a guy that just left here, [Mike] Trout. He is a dead lowball hitter,” Willis said. “And you hear ‘Keep the ball down, keep the ball down,’ a lot -- and certainly there are hitters that you do want to keep the ball down. But there also are hitters that [try] to be consistent on the low fastball.
“Obviously there is a swing angle, a plane, a posture that allows them to do that. More time than not that makes them susceptible to, particularly, velocity -- and the velocity Matt Barnes has -- to beat them up in the zone.”
Willis did explain it’s not every pitcher’s best interest to do that -- with a pitcher’s repertoire, in addition to fastball velocity, dictating. He also admitted there’s risk in using that approach with any hitter.
“There’s always some danger in that,” Willis said. “When pitch up in the zone you have to be up enough . . . Not always does that mean in the top portion of the strike zone. Sometimes it has to be above it.
“It’s hard for hitters to lay off of that pitch. Particularly if you taught them down -- if they’re looking down and you have their eyes trained down and they see it up they want to swing at it. But you have to get it up enough. If you’re going to get it up in the belt area in the middle they can still hang on it.”
And Barnes understands full well there are other ways to approach hitters that can be more effective -- but given how it also sets up his 12-6 curveball and has worked well to this point, he doesn’t plan on making a change any time soon.
“I mean if you paint down and away at the knees, there’s not many people who are going to hit it very well,” Barnes said with a laugh. “But that’s a tough pitch to locate consistently. As the hitters kind of learn and have been taught to handle that low ball better, that ball that’s [at the] top of the zone is becoming the pitchers best friend.
“There’s a lot of guys that you can throw heaters at the top of the zone and it looks so good, but with some velocity behind it, it’s really hard to hit. That in turn plays the curveball -- that starts right there or even a smidge lower that ends in the dirt -- that much more effective.”