Matt Barnes: Not An Ace, And That’s Ok

Matt Barnes may “only” profile as a No. 2 starter, but that’s still a big deal.

Matt Barnes is the best pitching prospect in the Red Sox system. He was a steal as the 19th overall pick in the 2011 draft, and as a UConn product and New England native, he’s easy to root for as a Red Sox fan. He began 2011 as the minor league’s most dominant pitcher (along with Dylan Bundy), and finished his first professional season with 93 strong innings in High-A. He’s athletic with a repeatable delivery. He throws in the mid-to-upper 90s. Matt Barnes a stud.

And if you’re expecting him to be an ace, you’re going to be disappointed.

This may be a difficult concept for some Red Sox fans to understand: especially for those who don’t regularly follow the minor leagues. Barnes is the best pitcher in the system, is putting up gaudy numbers and was a high draft pick. He’s going to be hyped by the local media, he’s going to appear as a Top 50 name in just about everyone’s Top 100 prospect lists and he appears to be headed toward a good major league career.

Matt Barnes could sit near -- but not at -- the top of the Red Sox rotation for a long time. Photo by Kelly O'Connor, sittingstill.net

Matt Barnes could sit near — but not at — the top of the Red Sox rotation for a long time. Photo by Kelly O’Connor, sittingstill.net

Yet universally, by all the major national prospect websites and publications, Barnes is projected as a No. 2 or 3 starter, and not a genuine rotation-topper. In this space, we’ll explain why that’s the case, and why that’s still someone worth getting excited about.

For those of you unfamiliar with Barnes’ profile, I’ll outline here. Barnes was projected by many to be a Top 10 or 12 selection in the 2011 draft, but fell to the Red Sox at 19 overall after an excellent season at UConn. It’s not really clear why he fell, but it was pretty much universally expressed that the Sox had landed themselves a steal. 2011 was the last year of the old CBA, and so Barnes did not pitch outside of Fall Instructs after signing, making 2012 his first real year as a minor league pitcher.

Boston began Barnes’ career by starting him in Low-A Greenville – a fairly conservative assignment for a 21-year-old collegiate arm – but he didn’t stay there for long. That’s because through five starts there, he was flat out dominant. In 26.2 IP, Barnes allowed one earned run, struck out 42 batters, waked four and allowed 12 hits. For those of you who don’t want to do the math (and I’m one of you), that’s a 0.61 ERA, 14.18 K/9 and 1.35 BB/9. Barnes was simply too good for Low-A, and the Red Sox promoted him to High-A Salem in May.

That’s where Barnes spent the rest of the season, and while the results were solid they were less spectacular. After a dominating May and decent June, Barnes clearly tired as the year went on, posting an ERA of 4.98 in July and 4.35 in August.

That’s normal for a player in his first full professional season, and no one seems especially worried about it. John Sickles of Minor League Ball mentioned it in his write-up of the Red Sox Top 20 list, citing Barnes’ “wilt” as his reason for ranking him behind Jackie Bradley Jr., but he didn’t profess a tremendous amount of concern.

And as the stats below will show, Barnes’ total High-A totals forecast a promising future.

IP

K/9

BB/9

GB%

ERA

FIP

93

8.81

2.42

44.8

3.58

3.15

Like I said: not perfect, but good, and certainly good enough to mean Barnes will likely open up 2013 in Double-A, putting him a stone’s throw away from the majors.

Barnes stats also look good when you compare them to others of his age from his draft class. Look at Barnes High-A stats against those of Gerrit Cole , the first overall pick in the draft in which Barnes went at 19, and a consensus Top 10 prospect.

IP K/9 BB/9 GB% ERA FIP
M. Barnes, A+ 93 8.81 2.42 44.8 3.58 3.15
G. Cole, A+ 67 9.27 2.82 48.0 3.19 2.88

The numbers are pretty similar at first glance, with Cole having the advantage in strikeouts and Barnes demonstrating slightly better control. So why is Cole widely lauded as a future ace, and Barnes stuck with the “low” projection of a No. 2/3 starter?

Because scouting reports matter.

I have not seen Barnes in person, and many of the nuances of pitcher prospect evaluation are difficult for an amateur to perceive. So I reached out to Chris Mellen, Scouting Director of SoxProspects.com and contributor to Basball Prospectus to give me a more professional take on Barnes’ strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s start with the good. Barnes has a perfect pitching frame at his listed height of 6’4” and weight of 205 lbs, and he has a lean build with wide shoulders. He’s widely regarded as athletic, and his delivery is easy and efficient and he repeats it well. His command isn’t extraordinary but it’s good, and no one doubts he’ll be a strike-thrower at the next level.

What really gets people excited about Barnes, though, is his big fastball, a potential 70 on the traditional 20-80 scouting scale that Mellen describes below.

“Barnes presently throws one fastball, a four-seam variety. His heater typically sits 93-95 mph and he can reach back to touch 96-97 mph in a situation where he feels the need to grab for some extra. Barnes’ creates easy velocity via his loose delivery, with his fastball showing both quality late life and movement, especially when it is down in the zone,” Mellen told me. “It’s his best pitch.”

We’ve only spoken of the good with Barnes, so what limits him from projecting as a future ace? To put it simply: his lack of premium secondary offerings.

In addition to his plus fastball, Barnes throws a curveball and a changeup. One great pitch and two decent ones are enough for a starter to have success, but when you think of true, consistent No. 1 starters, they usually have two or even three pitches that can generate swings-and-misses on a consistent basis.

Mellen said Barnes is showing improvement with his curve and change – especially the later – but noted that they still need refinement for Barnes to get where he wants to go.

“Barnes’ secondary stuff, a curveball and changeup, are a bit behind the level of his fastball currently. Both pitches show solid-average-to-plus potential, with his change taking some steps forward this season in terms of the depth he creates when throwing the offering. It was a much better pitch at his disposal when I saw him in High-A this year as opposed to when after he signed at Fall Instructs in 2011,” Mellen noted.

“How much further he can progress with these offerings will have a big say as to whether he can reach his potential as a second or third starter at the big league level.”

The good news that comes with that assessment is that if Barnes struggles for a while in Double-A this year, there’s no real cause for alarm. The jump between High-A and Double-A is, in the estimation of many, the most difficult for a player to make, and if Barnes loses feel for his curve or doesn’t continue to improve on his changeup, hitters there will take advantage of his fastball, no matter how good it is. That being said, Barnes will start the year as a 22-year-old in Double-A, meaning he could spend the whole year there if necessary and not lose much in the way of his prospect status.

The bad news with reports on Barnes’ secondary stuff means his ultimate upside is limited. Even if you put on your best pair of homer glasses and assume Barnes will improve both is curve and changeup, they’re unlikely to become elite pitches, and Barnes will likely always need to rely on his plus fastball more than his accompanying arsenal.

If you’re a Red Sox fan and became discouraged reading this, I’d ask you to consider what a true No. 2 starter would mean for the Red Sox over the past few years. It could’ve prevented them from making a John Lackey-like signing or giving out a Josh Beckett-like extension. It might have saved them last year when both Lester and Buchholz underperformed. At the very least, those starts that went to the likes of Aaron Cook could’ve gone to someone with the upside to beat any lineup on any day. Number 2 starters are enormously important, and homegrown ones even more so at a time when teams are locking up their young talent like never before.

Consider, too, how rare true potential No. 1 starters are. In my opinion, only Bundy, Cole, Jose Fernandez, Taijuan Walker and perhaps Archie Bradley have that sort of upside right now, and while that’s just one man’s take it does paint a picture of how rare such pitchers are. Consider the odds that at least half of those pitchers are unlikely to live up to their full potential, and the uniqueness and excellence needed to sit atop a good MLB rotation becomes even more apparent.

I asked Mellen to expand on the rarity of ace pitching prospects, and he gave some excellent perspective.

“Ace level pitchers are rare because you are talking about the best of the best at the major league level. Elite stuff and elite level command of that arsenal, off-the charts makeup, and high pitchability are some of the ingredients that go into it as an example,” Mellen said. “Often, it isn’t until after a number of sustained seasons of high production that you can really term a pitcher an ‘ace.’ It isn’t only the elite level of physical and mental ability, but the ability to sustain that production year over year, continue to adjust to the level of competition, and for lack of a better word luck in staying healthy.”

That might not be what the Red Sox are getting with Barnes, but a projected mid-rotation starter is a valuable commodity, and one that’s going to get plenty of love this prospect season.

“You’re talking about an above-average-to-better player at the major league level when projecting a pitcher as a second or third starter,” Mellen emphasized. “It’s a huge ceiling and very productive player.”

In other words: you can set reasonable expectations for Barnes and still have plenty of reason for enthusiasm. Barnes could be manning a spot in the Red Sox rotation for a very long time.

Categories: Boston Red Sox Clay Buchholz Dylan Bundy Gerrit Cole Greenville Drive Jackie Bradley John Lackey Jon Lester Josh Beckett Matt Barnes Salem Red Sox

Ben is a graduate of Boston University with a degree in journalism and a love of all things Red Sox and minor league baseball. He has experience writing for Baseball Prospectus, NESN, RotoExperts, BU Today and other sites, and typically serves as an in-house MiLB writer. An editor for a business website by day, Ben likes to grill, sample IPAs and re-read Faulkner novels by night. He is an unabashed J.D. Drew apologist with a deep-seated fear of middle relievers. Follow Ben on Twitter here.

9 Responses to “Matt Barnes: Not An Ace, And That’s Ok” Subscribe

  1. Mr Punch January 14, 2013 at 11:09 AM #

    Seems reasonable. By this criterion Josh Beckett, a second pick in the draft who worked out, never really qualified as an ace (I agree). Apparently it's possible to win with such a pitcher as your #1, though.

    • Ben Carsley January 14, 2013 at 12:44 PM #

      I think Beckett would've classify as an ace from 2007-2009, when he averaged about 5.5 fWAR a year. But you're right in that you don't think of him as the sort of durable, consistent force of the Verlander/Halladay/Sabathia ilk.

      With Barnes, you're talking about an upside more along the likes of a Matt Garza or a Jordan Zimmermann — excellent rotation staples, but players who are mismatched against true No.1s.

  2. Dave January 14, 2013 at 8:54 PM #

    Just wondering…where would you place Ruby de La Rosa, Webster, Owens (1st rd #36 – 2011), Johnson (1st rd #31 – 2012) and Light (1st rd #37 – 2012)…and any guesses on who they might pick in 2013?

    • Ben Carsley January 15, 2013 at 6:03 PM #

      Where I'd place them within the Red Sox organization? In the exact order you listed them, actually, although RDLR is technically no longer a prospect and I would have Workman and Britton ahead of Johnson and the rest.

      I might write an in-depth piece on Webster soon, and check out of colleague Josh Cookson's piece on Owens for more info there.

      I have not started to look at 2013 prospects yet aside from knowing the obvious 20 names or so, so can't wager a guess. But if they follow the same strategy as this year, they'll take a college player who has a down year or an under-slot guy in the first round, then try for a high-upside player later.

      • Dave January 15, 2013 at 10:07 PM #

        Thanks Ben,

        What I meant was that if you feel comfortable thinking Barnes could be a solid #2 Starter in the Majors after seeing him pitch one year…where do you feel the other Sox Pitching Prospects might max out. Could RDLR also be a solid #2 Starter? How many years in the Minors or at what age do you start to feel comfortable making a prediction? Thanks again, great piece!

        • Ben Carsley January 16, 2013 at 1:01 AM #

          Thanks for clarifying, Dave. If we're talking just upside (and I can't stress that enough), I'd go

          De La Rosa: #2
          Webster #3
          Owens: #2
          Johnson: #4
          Light: TBD

          That being said, RDLR and Owens are less likely to reach those ceilings, while I think Webster is most likely to reach his. Johnson is a back-end guy taken for probability and floor. I need more information on Light and want to see him start a full season in the minors before I go on the record there.

  3. Earl Nash January 15, 2013 at 12:47 PM #

    Ben, one of the best posts ever on Barnes; you really drilled deep into his skill set.

    • Ben Carsley January 15, 2013 at 6:03 PM #

      I appreciate the kind words, Earl, and I owe a big thanks to Chris Mellen for adding depth to the piece.

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