There was a moment where Sunday’s Game 2 might’ve unraveled. David Price left the mound to a Fenway Park standing ovation, because he left the mound with a lead, but he also left the mound in the top of the fifth with two runners on in a one-run game. That meant it was up to the Red Sox bullpen to get 13 outs. It was, most immediately, up to Matt Barnes to get out of a jam. And within three pitches, the Astros got a break.
Barnes got ahead of Marwin Gonzalez with two quick strikes. At that point, Barnes came back with a breaking ball low. Gonzalez swung, and he came up empty, and that appeared to be that, but according to home-plate umpire Vic Carapazza, Gonzalez had tipped the ball before it landed in the dirt. So instead of Barnes getting out of the inning, he’d have to try again. Replays couldn’t confirm a foul tip, but a foul tip is a non-reviewable play. It was like watching a dramatic turning point in progress.
It’s not hard to interpret Barnes’ body language. He thought the inning was over, but he had to continue to pitch. Understandably, the quick sequence might’ve been emotionally draining. If Gonzalez went on to drive in a run or two, the Red Sox would have a legitimate grievance. Barnes settled himself and threw another 0-and-2 breaking ball low. Gonzalez swung and came up empty again. It took an extra pitch, but the inning was over, and the lead was preserved.
Barnes threw four pitches to Gonzalez in the fifth. All of them were curveballs. Barnes then came back out to handle the sixth. He was tasked with facing Carlos Correa, Martin Maldonado, and Josh Reddick. His first pitch to Correa was a fastball up, for a ball.
And then he went back to what he’d been doing. He threw Correa three more pitches. All of them were curveballs, and Correa grounded out. Up came Maldonado. Barnes finally got a weak pop-up after six pitches. All of them were curveballs. Then Reddick came up and slapped the first pitch to Rafael Devers. It was a curveball. Barnes recorded four outs in a row, throwing a total of 15 pitches. Here they are again, in easily digestible fashion:
That’s 14 curveballs out of 15 pitches, including ten curveballs in a row. Lance McCullers Jr. was sitting in the Astros’ bullpen, and in fact he entered in the bottom of the seventh. Last October, rather famously, McCullers closed out the ALCS against the Yankees by throwing 24 consecutive curveballs. Barnes didn’t go quite to that level, but he still did something he’d never done before. I looked at every single pitch Barnes has ever thrown in the major leagues. I split them into rolling groups of 15 pitches. Here are his career rolling-average curveball rates:
Barnes had never before thrown more than 11 curveballs in any 15-pitch sequence. Last night, he got all the way to 14. His career curveball rate is about 30%. His 2018 curveball rate has been about 40%. This is an important thing to understand about Matt Barnes — he likes his curveball, and this year it was one of the most effective curveballs in either league. Barnes’ curve ranked fifth out of all curveballs in run value per 200 innings, behind Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Will Harris, and Craig Kimbrel. It’s not like hitters don’t know about Barnes’ secondary pitch. But you never expect such usage. Barnes used his curveball like it was his fastball. The Astros’ hitters went 0-for-4.
I don’t know exactly whose idea it was. Might’ve been Barnes. Might’ve been Christian Vazquez. Might’ve been the coaching staff, or might’ve been the analysts. Might’ve been any combination. The camera didn’t hold on Barnes very often so I don’t know how often he might’ve shaken Vazquez off. It didn’t seem to happen much. Barnes threw all those curveballs willingly, and even when he missed, he didn’t get hurt. Here’s Maldonado, for example, doing nothing with a hanger:
And the explanation would be remarkably simple. Almost no one threw a higher average fastball than Barnes this season. Barnes likes to keep his heater above the belt, and as a hitter, it’s probably the first thing you learn about him. Yet based on pretty much all available evidence, Barnes’ curveball is his best pitch. It’s one of the better curveballs around. So, in a big spot, why not lean on it heavily, just as McCullers did? So many hitters continue to hunt for fastballs. Hitters *want* to hit fastballs. And they’re conditioned to expect that fastballs are going to be there eventually. Barnes kept staying away from them. He probably shouldn’t throw curveballs 93% of the time all season long, but this was clearly the idea as far as Game 2 was concerned. You don’t end up at 14 out of 15 as a fluke. Barnes McCullersed the Astros, delivering four crucial outs in a critical game. There was still more work to do after he was relieved, but sometimes the biggest outs are in the middle.
Barnes has been feeling a little bit overlooked. Over the past two weeks, so much of the conversation has revolved around how the Red Sox can’t trust their own bullpen. Because of how often that’s been repeated, an average observer would assume it’s a bullpen full of nightmares. Out of everyone this year with at least 50 innings, Barnes finished with the tenth-best strikeout rate, and the eighth-best contact rate. There was surprisingly little to separate Barnes and Craig Kimbrel, and Kimbrel’s supposed to be the solid one. Barnes has been excellent, too, but he had a few rough outings down the stretch. Those don’t always have to mean anything. Overall, Matt Barnes has been great. He’s been great, in large part because he has a great curveball. The Astros just saw it a whole bunch.
There’s no point in trying to predict how this’ll play out. That would be a waste of everyone’s time. The best starter so far in the playoffs has been Wade Miley. This is baseball’s stupid season. But if the rest of the ALCS isn’t so stupid, it stands to reason Matt Barnes is going to be important. He’s the best candidate to be the Red Sox’s bridge. Barnes just made a statement by sticking with his curveball. The Astros won’t soon forget about it.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.