Red Sox Extend One of This Season’s Best Relievers

On Sunday, the Red Sox announced that they had extended righty reliever Matt Barnes on a two-year contract. The deal, which starts next season, will pay him a $1.75 million signing bonus along with salaries of $7.25 million in 2022 and $7.5 million in ’23. It also includes a club option for the 2024 season, valued at $8 million with a $2.25 million buyout. All told, Barnes is guaranteed $18.75 million over the term of the contract, but could earn as much as $24 million if he hits all the escalators and Boston exercises the option.

In short summary of his career, Barnes has been an effective arm since his 2014 debut. Since ’14 and through last season, Barnes was solid though not otherworldly, pitching to a 4.08 ERA, 29.9% strikeout rate, and 10.9% walk rate over 337.1 innings pitched. As with most relievers, he had his personal volatility. His best season was in 2018, when he posted a 2.71 FIP in 61.2 frames, as well as a 1.04 ERA in 10 postseason appearances en route to the Red Sox’s World Series title. On the flip side of that coin, Barnes had a comparatively tough year in 2020. He still posted good strikeout numbers but faced a bit of unluckiness with the longball, as his 1.57 HR/9 and 23.5% home run-per-fly ball rate were both career-worsts, making last season was the first time since 2015 that Barnes found himself on the wrong side of replacement level.

Looking back at the full body of work, however, it’s clear that in Barnes Boston has had a reliable bullpen option for many years, something that carries value in and of itself. Including his 38 appearances so far in 2021, Barnes is eighth all-time among Red Sox pitchers in total pitching appearances, which speaks volumes about both his durability and reliability:

Most Pitching Appearances, Red Sox Franchise History
Bob Stanley 637 85 1707.0 3.64 3.68 20.9
Tim Wakefield 590 430 3006.0 4.43 4.74 26.5
Jonathan Papelbon 396 3 429.1 2.33 2.60 14.1
Mike Timlin 394 0 409.0 3.76 4.00 3.3
Derek Lowe 384 111 1037.0 3.72 3.66 18.3
Roger Clemens 383 382 2776.0 3.06 2.94 76.8
Ellis Kinder 365 89 1142.1 3.28 3.70 17.9
Matt Barnes 363 2 375.1 3.93 3.47 5.2
Cy Young 327 297 2728.1 2.00 2.01 54.8
Ike Delock 322 142 1207.2 4.01 4.17 12.1

It’s easier to rack up pitching appearances as a reliever, but for a franchise that is in the midst of its 121st season, it’s an impressive feat nonetheless.

This season, though, the story isn’t about Barnes’ durability as much as it has been about his results. While he has made the aforementioned 38 appearances and has tossed 38 innings as well, it’s his ratios that have really ticked up into elite territory. He faced 143 batters in the first half and struck out 63 of them, good for a 44.1% strikeout rate, which ranks third among all relievers and would easily set a career-high for him if sustained over a full season. You can see how Barnes’ strikeouts have increased over time before reaching new heights in 2021:

He’s doing this alongside a 7.7% walk rate, which if sustained would be the second-best mark he’s posted in any full season. All of this adds up to one of the best reliever seasons in baseball in 2021; Barnes has been worth 1.7 WAR so far, ranking fourth among all relief pitchers. Notably, he will be in the American League’s bullpen for the All-Star Game tonight, as his electric first half resulted in him being named to the Midsummer Classic for the first time in his career.

To get to this level of dominance, Barnes made an important count-based change. Ben Clemens wrote about Barnes’ “one simple trick” for success back in May, noting that Barnes’ absurdly-high 0-0 count zone rate helped yield more success on his curveball, which he has relied on more when ahead in the count than in years past. It’s seemingly simple, then: If Barnes can get ahead in the count more often, he can thus throw his curveball more often and ultimately get more hitters to whiff. That was Ben’s conclusion in a nutshell, but the more granular breakdown is an enjoyable read. Barnes has a near-70% first strike percentage this season, which is the sixth-highest rate among pitchers with 30 innings; his year-over-year increase of 9.1 percentage points is also the 18th-largest increase in baseball, minimum 20 innings pitched in 2020 and 30 in ’21. Overall, Barnes has thrown 35% of his pitches this season while ahead in the count, ranking as the 12th-highest mark among the 329 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 pitches.

Clearly, Barnes has turned this new plan of attack into quite a nice payday. He is earning $4.5 million in his final year of arbitration, so his $9.375 million annual average value over the next two years represents more than double the salary. It is possible, however, that Barnes left some money on the table by deciding to forego free agency: In the last two free agent classes, Liam Hendriks ($54 million guaranteed), Will Smith ($40 million), Drew Pomeranz ($34 million) and Will Harris ($24 million) all earned considerably larger salaries than Barnes did on this deal, even though he’s on pace to post similar, if not better, contract-year numbers when compared to that trio. (Considering Milwaukee mostly used him as a reliever, I separated out Pomeranz’s stats with the Brewers, since his numbers all ticked up in the ‘pen.)

Recent FA Relievers, Contract Seasons
Player Year Age IP ERA FIP K% BB% WAR WAR/60
Matt Barnes 2021 31 38.0 2.61 2.09 44.1% 7.7% 1.7 2.7
Liam Hendriks 2020 31 25.1 1.78 1.14 40.2% 3.3% 1.4 3.3
Will Smith 2019 29 65.1 2.76 3.23 37.4% 8.2% 1.3 1.2
Drew Pomeranz 2019 30 104.0 4.85 4.59 30.1% 9.7% 0.7 0.4
Pomeranz, MIL 2019 30 26.1 2.39 2.68 45.0% 8.0% 0.7 1.6
Will Harris 2019 34 60.0 1.50 3.15 27.1% 6.1% 1.1 1.1
Reliever guarantees of more than Barnes’ $18.75 million, last two offseasons.

To be fair, of these comparable players, only two — Hendriks and Smith — earned both larger guarantees and higher AAVs than Barnes, but it’s fair to suggest that had Barnes sustained these numbers over the course of a full season, he might have expected to earn a larger deal on the open market. But it’s also fair to wonder how much extra money Barnes has already earned from the excellent first half alone; it’s worth reiterating that he was below replacement-level last season and has only moved into truly elite territory in 2021. There may also be a point of comfort here as well; Barnes was drafted by the Red Sox, debuted with the Red Sox, won the World Series with the Red Sox, and has thrown every pitch of his career with the Red Sox. It’s not too far-fetched to think that he wanted to stay in Boston, was offered a very good deal to do so, and accepted the security over testing the open market. Indeed, according to him, that’s exactly what he did.

“I love the city of Boston, I love playing for the fans here,” Barnes told reporters on Sunday. “So when you start to add up all of these things, there really wasn’t a place I wanted to play that wasn’t Boston. I’m really happy we were able to get something done.”

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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well deserved and im happy for him. it feels like its taken forever to click and every diehard has gone through multiple periods of thinking it’s probably never going to happen for barnes. at least in boston anyway. but here we are. finally.


My thoughts exactly. Barnes has been a player I have followed closely. He is also a CT native, went to UConn and was part of the great UConn team which included Springer, Ahmed, Oberg and John Andreoli with both Springer(11) and Barnes(19) being drafted in the 1st round and Ahmed in the 2nd. Barnes was so frustrating to Sox fans. The stuff was obvious but he never was consistent but he ditched the wild high inside fastball and has been terrific.