Now that he’s the closer, Matt Barnes readily admits there is something different about being charged with getting the final three outs of the game and having the catcher walk out to congratulate you when the job is done.
“That’s a really cool interaction knowing you’re the guy who locked it down,” Barnes said Wednesday before the Red Sox lost, 8-4, at Miami.
It’s a prideful feeling Barnes has become familiar with since Brandon Workman was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 21. Barnes picked up his first save of the season that night and has six more in eight attempts since.
For a bad team like the Red Sox, having a good closer is like putting new rims on a rusty old car. It may look better but it doesn’t really change much.
The biggest benefit is the Sox can build more confidence in Barnes as they prepare for next season.
“I have no doubt that he can do it,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “He’s got great stuff. He’s got two plus pitches [a four-seam fastball and a curveball] that really he can throw at any time.
“Right away we saw some games where he got in a little bit of trouble with just being wild. But when he’s throwing strikes [and] getting the ball over the plate with those two pitches, he’s really tough to hit. He’s as good as anybody. No question he has the arsenal to do it. I think he’s got the makeup to do it. We’ll see how it all plays out.”
Barnes has pitched better as a closer than he did setting up Workman. His walk rate has dropped, his strikeout rate has climbed, and opposing hitters aren’t making hard contact as often.
Your first inclination would be to think Barnes is responding to the situation. But he believes it’s more a product of building up innings.
As Barnes explained, a normal spring training lasts six weeks and a late-inning reliever would typically get into nine or 10 games before the season starts.
But with the pandemic, spring training 2.0 lasted three weeks in July and consisted largely of intrasquad games.
“No matter how much effort you put into a game against your own guys it’s not going to be the same,” Barnes said.
Once the season started, Barnes gave up six earned runs on six hits, seven walks, and two hit batters over eight innings in his first eight games. The poor performances early in the season felt like hiccups that would have gone unnoticed in spring training.
“This year mentally you had to be ready a lot earlier,” Barnes said. “But it’s hard to get yourself in a position where everything is smooth and working together and arm strength is 100 percent in a situation where you can’t work on a lot of stuff.”
Barnes now feels physically like he would in late April or early May of a normal season.
“When you’re ready to rock and roll for the next five months,” he said.
Instead there are 10 games remaining. So Barnes is left hoping he can keep closing next season.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Let’s do it. I’m all in.”
Barnes, now 30, learned a lot from watching former Red Sox All-Star Craig Kimbrel, both in terms of preparing his body for the number of appearances required of a closer and the need to be accountable after poor performances.
Barnes still needs to become more efficient. He will throw curveball after curveball trying to get a hitter to chase instead of locating his 95-mile-per-hour fastball. But the ingredients to be a successful closer are there.
Given the endless roster churn that has marked Chaim Bloom’s tenure as chief baseball officer, predicting Barnes will be the closer in 2021 would be foolish.
But Barnes wasn’t traded and should be affordable. He made a prorated $3.1 million this season and will go into arbitration for a final time. The Sox also lack other internal candidates, or at least pitchers with any experience.
The Tampa Bay Rays were innovative with their use of pitchers during Bloom’s time with that organization. But they did lean on traditional closers.
Brad Boxberger had 41 saves in 2015. Alex Colome had the job from 2016-17 and piled up 84 saves. Sergio Romo took over the job in 2018 and Emilio Pagan had 20 saves last season.
The Sox wouldn’t give Barnes the job last season, trying a closer-by-committee approach before turning to Workman. Now Barnes is showing he can handle it and has the rest of the season to keep making his case.