Matt Barnes saying he felt blindsided by being designated for assignment by the Boston Red Sox sounds to me like a kid with frosting all over his face feeling blindsided when he’s accused of eating the last slice of cake.
Barnes was a guest on the Jared Carrabis podcast a few days after being DFA’d and subsequently traded to the Miami Marlins, which is either one step above or one step below coaching varsity for BC High. Barnes and Carrabis are friends, so it’s no surprise that this was a friendly, non-combative interview that mostly consisted of Jared laughing hysterically at Matt’s jokes and feigning envy for the warm winters and kickass night life that Barnes will get to enjoy in South Florida this season. Please note that I bear Jared no ill will for this whatsoever. He didn’t get to where he is by grilling and flaming the players who give him content, so it makes perfect sense that his chat with Barnes would be friendly and encouraging. I’d have been shocked if the interview was conducted in any other way.
My beef here is with Barnes acting surprised that the Red Sox have finally moved on from him, as if the writing hadn’t already been smeared all over the left field wall in neon pink spray paint for over a year now.
When Chaim Bloom called Barnes to inform him that he was being DFA’d, Barnes claims that his immediate response was, “Why? What’s the logic there? You gotta explain this to me, because I gotta know what you’re thinking.”
Really, dude? Couldn’t figure that one out on your own?
I’m not Chaim Bloom, but allow me to clarify what I believe to be his reasoning in cutting loose a relief pitcher who had been groomed to be the Red Sox’ closer since he arrived in the big leagues in 2014, but boasts a career ERA of 4.07 and a career WHIP of 1.341.
The biggest issue, as is the biggest issue with many failed closers, is his head. It’s really hard to be a late inning reliever in MLB. The job largely entails walking a tight rope without a net, facing dangerous hitters in dangerous situations with dangerous consequences if you screw up. Not only do you need electric stuff that can keep the best hitters in the game off balance, you also need ice water in your veins and the ability to mentally recover from your mistakes instantaneously. Mental toughness is half the battle when you toe the rubber late in a close game.
Quite frankly, Matt, you weren’t that dude. It’s that simple.
There’s no shame in it. 99.999% of people in the world aren’t that dude. That’s why closers, even middling ones like Gregory Soto and Seranthony Dominguez, are always in such high demand. The sad part is that, for the first half of 2021, Barnes fooled us all into thinking he really was that dude.
He was as good a closer as you could find in MLB for the first half of that magical season. For the first time in his career, he had impeccable control of both his fastball and his curveball. He racked up cookie cutter save after cookie cutter save for three months, earning himself an All-Star nod and a sweet contract extension. During the 2021 All-Star break, Chaim Bloom made a commitment to Matt Barnes as the Boston Red Sox closer to the tune of 2-years, $18.75 million with a team option for 2024.
And immediately after he signed that extension, Barnes torpedoed right back into the guy that had frustrated Red Sox fans throughout his first six years in Boston. He wasn’t that dude anymore. He went back to being this dude.
This dude who could strike out the side in order in two or three straight appearances, then walk the first two guys he faces for each of his next four appearances. This dude who could make the Mike Trouts of the league look helpless on Monday, then make the Mike Zuninos of the league look unstoppable on Tuesday. In the second half of 2021, it felt like Barnes fell behind 2-0 to every hitter that stepped into the box against him. A typical Matt Barnes outing in late 2021 would see him walk the first two hitters, then panic and start throwing slower just so he could get something in the strike zone. As we all saw firsthand, the result of this approach was laser beam doubles and home runs that either squandered leads or buried the Sox into even deeper holes than they had faced before he was summoned into the game.
Maybe it’s not fair that his newfound status as a dominant closer raised expectations to such a high degree.
Well, welcome to The Show, kid. Those are the breaks that come with the title of closer and the salary of $9.375 million per year. As a big league veteran, he knew the stakes. He’d seen guys like Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman go from heralded G.O.A.T. to hated goat in a matter of days.
That’s what makes his own meager defense of his abilities so damn frustrating. He knows better.
We endured his repeated stumbles, mental breakdowns, and IL stints that may or may not have been related to physical injuries. Through it all, we begged for his mental acuity to finally catch up with the quality of his stuff and transform him into that perennially dominant relief pitcher we’d been waiting for throughout portions of nine seasons.
It never materialized. And at age 32, there’s little reason to feel that it will all come together now.
During the Carrabis interview, Barnes alluded to feeling slighted when Bloom implied that Barnes’ solid pitching at the end of last season could be attributed to “luck.” Barnes seems to believe that his ERA of approximately 1.40 over his last 12 innings of work denoted that he had finally figured it all out. That he was now back to his old self. And by “old self,” I mean the old self that we saw for three good months in 2021. Not the “old self” that we all cringed at for the six years before 2021, or the “old self” that was left off the ALDS roster that same year. Barnes cited his performance after returning from the IL last August and September as proof that he is, in fact, that dude.
The problem with that hypothesis is the fact that the Red Sox were long out of realistic playoff contention by the time he returned from the “shoulder inflammation” that led to that 2022 IL stint. By August, Boston’s starting pitching was a beaten-down, underachieving disaster. The bullpen was a train wreck. Bogaerts and Martinez had been no-shows for two months. Story was still a month away from returning from his broken hand. There was essentially nothing on the line in any Matt Barnes appearance after he returned to the active roster last August. His insistence that he had finally turned the corner and figured it all out in late 2022 was based on solid outings that consisted of a total of zero high-leverage innings.
My question is this: What happens next time?
What happens the next time Barnes walks the first two guys he faces? What happens the next time he’s tempted to take something off his fastball to make sure he actually gets it over the plate? What happens the next time he has two or three bad appearances in a row? Are we supposed to believe that the same type of mental breakdown that has taken place over and over throughout the course of his career won’t happen again?
Mental toughness is a prerequisite for being a successful relief pitcher. It may be the toughest part of the job … perhaps even tougher than the ability to accurately throw one pitch that travels 98 mph and another pitch that starts neck high before dropping three feet to the knees.
Not many pitchers have the gumption to harness the mental and physical aspects of the job consistently for any significant length of time. Even fewer can figure out how to do it for a whole season. At his absolute best, Matt Barnes was the former. The chances of him finally morphing into the latter as he enters his mid-thirties is practically non-existent.
It’s hard to find any fault with Chaim Bloom for deciding that he’d rather not spend $9.375 million for another season of tilting at that windmill. Better to pay the guy $5 million to wrestle with his demons for some other franchise while opening a roster spot for a different reliever who may not have such a low ceiling.
But what about Ryan Brasier, you ask? Why not cast him aside instead and give Barnes the opportunity to regain that magic from 2021?
Look, we know exactly what Ryan Brasier is. In a quality bullpen, he’s the fourth or fifth option. Alex Cora used him in tight spots so often last season, quite frankly, because he had zero decent middle relievers to deploy. When not overused, Brasier is an ok pitcher who can occasionally get hot for a couple weeks at a time. As a bit player making $2 million in a revamped bullpen that should actually be a strength for the 2023 Red Sox, I can’t see him hurting the team that much.
However, when Matt Barnes is in your bullpen, there’s always the threat of falling into that incredibly dangerous trap … the trap of chasing his oh-so-elusive potential.
His stuff is so good that if he gives you a couple solid weeks of working the sixth inning, it could be very enticing to audition him as the new fireman or setup guy. If John Schreiber or Chris Martin gets injured, having Matt Barnes on your team could create some reckless pie-in-the-sky fantasy that maybe this time he can finally become that dude.
But he can’t be that dude. And by now, we all know it.
If you slide him into an important role, he could actually thrive for a time. He could even make a believer out of you once again. Until, that is, you need him to deliver in a big game. That’s when he’ll make you pay for that small modicum of trust you dared to give him.
Matt Barnes doesn’t waste his time ruining your day. Matt Barnes sets your whole monthly planner on fire.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me repeatedly for eight years, don’t you dare try to act blindsided when I finally stop allowing you to play with my emotions.
I wish Matt Barnes all the best in Miami. I won’t be surprised one bit if he notches 40 saves next year for a fledgling team that’s four years away from sniffing a chance at the playoffs. Low leverage success is his calling card.
Just ask him.