If it looks like Matt Barnes has never been better, your eyes aren’t deceiving. The advanced statistics can’t keep up with him, either.
The Red Sox closer — it’s probably safe to call him that at this point — is mowing down hitters at such an absurd rate that one of his stats isn’t even physically possible.
FIP, or fielding independent pitching, is an ERA-like number that assesses a pitcher’s effectiveness via the three variables he most directly controls: walks, strikeouts, and home runs (and hit by pitches, technically). It’s considered a better indicator of future success than ERA, which is strongly influenced by the quality of defense behind the pitcher.
Barnes has been so good this year, his FIP has done something strange: it’s actually a negative number.
Through five appearances covering six innings, Barnes has allowed no hits while striking out 12 and walking one. His ERA is a pristine 0.00, but his FIP is actually minus-0.36, a quirk of the formula that would be impossible to maintain over a full season, but illustrates just how dominant the right-hander has been over the first two weeks.
“A lot of competitive pitches. A lot of competitive pitches,” said manager Alex Cora. “That’s something we’ve been talking about, not only this year, but it’s something that we’ve talked about in ’19, in the second half. I thought it was either a strikeout or a walk. There was no contact.”
Barnes is still limiting contact, but he’s now doing so almost exclusively in the strike zone. His fastball-up, curveball-down approach made him one of the game’s toughest relievers to hit from 2017-20, but pitching around the strike zone left him susceptible to walks, with an average of over four per nine innings lifetime.
Not this season. Barnes has thrown first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 19 batters he has faced and he’s whiffing them at an otherworldly 63.2 percent clip, throwing his 95 mph fastball two-thirds of the time, his hammer curveball the other third, and his secondary pitches not at all.
Even if those numbers don’t last, and his FIP inevitably climbs into positive territory, it’s fair to say he has never pitched better.
“We pitched a lot to the edges in ’18,” Cora said. “I think that mentality stayed with us throughout, and we walked a lot of people. In this league, when it’s tough to get three hits in a row, when you walk people, you’re giving them a chance with one swing to score three runs. We’re trying to avoid that. Matty, this is the most aggressive he’s been since I’ve managed him.”