Red Sox

What Alex Cora asks of Matt Barnes is insane, and how Barnes has responded is even crazier

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What Alex Cora asks of Matt Barnes is insane, and how Barnes has responded is even crazier

The life of a reliever is all about routine, or so we've been told. Know your inning, know your role, get out there and do the job.

Then there's Matt Barnes.

By far the best reliever on the Red Sox, and by every metric one of the best relievers in baseball, Barnes operates in a unique space. In the old days -- say, three years ago -- someone with Barnes' stuff and pedigree would've followed a natural career progression: seventh inning, eighth inning, closer, All-Star, multimillion dollar contract.

But a game-wide reliance on late-inning relievers combined with Red Sox manager Alex Cora's aggressive targeting of matchups has made Barnes a singular weapon.

It's no accident that the team is 14-4 in his 18 appearances, which is easily the best winning percentage (.778) on the club. Name your closer, and Barnes's numbers are every bit as eye-popping, whether it's his 1.42 ERA, 16.6 strikeouts per nine innings, or 35-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The only reliever with similar numbers is San Diego's Kirby Yates, who leads baseball with 18 saves.

The fact that Barnes has only recorded three saves shows just how worthless that statistic actually is, because his value is immeasurable. If you're wondering why the Red Sox never showed any interest in re-signing closer Craig Kimbrel, Barnes is it.

Kimbrel put himself in a small box: ninth inning or later, save situation. Barnes has embraced the idea that the most important outs of a game might not technically merit an (S) in the box score.

"We saw this coming last year, the situations he pitched in," Cora said. "Obviously we had Craig, locking him in in the ninth inning. From the get-go from early (last) season whenever all those righties, the middle of the order guys, would come up in the seventh or the eighth it was Barnes and Joe (Kelly) had the lefties. He's been good. He's been good in the clubhouse with that group as far as preparation. His routine after games he learned a lot from Craig. So far, so good. He's been amazing for us."

Thirteen of Barnes' 18 appearances have come either in tied or one-run games, and he has pitched just twice with the Red Sox trailing. He has appeared four times in the seventh, seven in the eighth, and seven in the ninth.

His usage is actually straightforward, once you know the signals. When the heart of the order is due after the sixth inning of a tight game, Barnes gets the call, which makes his numbers even more impressive.

"Part of the order," Barnes said when asked what he prepares for. "I know it's going to be narrowed down to two, maybe three innings. It will be the seventh to the ninth, and more times than not, the eighth or the ninth. I just try and focus on a specific part of the lineup. I go through an entire scouting report on my own based on what I've done against them, what we've seen this year from them, and kind of go from there."

Barnes has faced 72 batters this season, and nearly 65 percent of them have come from the heart of the order. He has faced the No. 3 hitter 11 times, the cleanup man 14 times, the fifth spot 10 times, and the sixth spot 11 times. He has only drawn the No. 9 and leadoff hitters three times each.

Compare that to a closer pitching only the ninth, who could draw the 7-8-9 hitters on a nightly basis if he's lucky. Kimbrel, for example, had nearly as many plate appearances against the ninth spot (27) as the third (29) and fourth (30) last year. Out west, Yates has seen an almost perfect distribution of batters across the order, with 10 plate appearances against every spot except first (9), second (11), and third (8). Indomitable Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman has faced the No. 9 hitter more than any other.

Barnes is afforded no such luxury, and it's too bad, because the bottom four spots are a combined 1-for-26 against him. His nights instead provide a steady diet of Khris Davis, Nolan Arenado, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, and Carlos Correa, to name a few, which makes his .149 batting average against even more ludicrous.

"It's easy now, because I've developed a routine in how I do it, what I'm looking for, and I've accumulated a lot of ABs against a lot of these guys now, so I know what works and what doesn't work," Barnes said. "Once you get into it, it's not terrible."

That's an understatement. The Red Sox have weaponized Barnes at the back of their bullpen, and the absolute best hitters in opposing lineups are paying the price.

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MLB win totals 2020: Red Sox among five teams that will go under projection

MLB win totals 2020: Red Sox among five teams that will go under projection

With spring training workouts underway, it's time to peer into our Major League Baseball crystal ball for 2020.

Boston Red Sox fans may not like what they see.

Westgate Superbook updated its projected win totals for all 30 clubs last Monday after the Red Sox (finally) traded Mookie Betts and David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Alex Verdugo and prospects Jeter Downs and Connor Wong.

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Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom admitted this trade makes his team worse in 2020, and Westgate's win totals reflect that: Boston now is projected to win 85.5 games, down from 87.5 prior to the Betts deal.

But can the Red Sox even reach that lowered bar? And which other teams are trending down, as well? Below are Westgate's win totals for five MLB teams, and why we're taking the UNDER on each total.

Boston Red Sox: UNDER 85.5

The Red Sox won 84 games last season with Betts and Price on the roster. Pitching was the primary source of their struggles, and they've done nothing to alleviate those concerns after losing Price and Rick Porcello, who combined to make 54 starts last season. The rotation will be thin even if Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi all stay healthy. If anyone gets hurt, we could be in for some long games at Fenway Park -- because Boston's 18th-ranked bullpen from 2019 remains virtually unchanged, as well.

Tampa Bay Rays: UNDER 89.5

As usual, the Rays project to be a Wild Card contender with strong pitching and a decent lineup of scrappy overachievers. But there's a lot riding on the health of top arms Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, who both dealt with arm injuries last season. If those issues crop up in 2020, Tampa Bay could have difficulty competing against the Red Sox and loaded New York Yankees in the AL East.

Washington Nationals: UNDER 90.5

I'm buying into the World Series hangover storyline, especially for a Nationals team playing in a sneaky competitive National League East, where the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets all are projected to win north of 85 games. Losing Anthony Rendon also doesn't help Washington's cause. The defending champs finish just over .500 while battling the Mets and Phillies for a Wild Card spot.

Texas Rangers: UNDER 79.5

Corey Kluber's addition helped boost Texas' win total, but the 33-year-old threw just 35 2/3 innings last season and isn't a sure bet to return to All-Star form. I'm also not convinced 34-year-old Todd Frazier will improve an offense that ranked 17th in the majors in batting average (.248) last season. Texas will make some early-season noise before fading to the middle of the AL pack.

Pittsburgh Pirates: UNDER 69.5

Pittsburgh's hire of ex-Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington signals a full-on rebuild for a club that won 69 games last season. There's little talent on this roster outside slugger Josh Bell and pitchers Chris Archer and Jamie Musgrove, and there's a very good chance the Pirates finish in the NL cellar.

MLB Rumors: Red Sox nearing deal with Jonathan Lucroy to boost catcher depth

MLB Rumors: Red Sox nearing deal with Jonathan Lucroy to boost catcher depth

The Boston Red Sox need catcher depth, and they're reportedly getting some in a former All-Star.

The Red Sox are "close" to a deal with free-agent catcher Jonathan Lucroy, Mass Live's Chris Cotillo reported Tuesday morning.

Lucroy is expected to back up starter Christian Vazquez and reserve Kevin Plawecki and could sign a minor-league deal with Boston, per Cotillo.

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The 33-year-old comes with an impressive pedigree: He's a two-time All-Star with 10 major league seasons under his belt who boasts a .274 career batting average. He tallied 24 home runs and 81 RBIs during an impressive 2016 campaign and represented the United States at the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

He spent his first six-plus seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers and played five years under Ron Roenicke, who was just named Boston's interim manager.

Lucroy has bounced between five teams over the last four seasons, however. He split time between the Los Angeles Angels and Chicago Cubs in 2019 and hit .232 with eight home runs and 36 RBIs over 101 games.

The veteran catcher still would be a decent signing as a backup, joining Kevin Pillar as Chaim Bloom's latest depth add in the wake of last week's Mookie Betts/David Price blockbuster.

That deal also netted Los Angeles Dodgers catcher prospect Connor Wong, who likely will begin the year in Double-A Portland.