New Boston Red Sox coach John Farrell is on record saying he wants his pitchers to be aggressive by attacking the strike zone early in counts.
Keeping that in mind, right-hander Matt Barnes is a starting pitcher who Farrell and new pitching coach Juan Nieves should have a lot of fun working with.
“I think the one thing that I’ve always done and developed throughout my years is I’ve always attacked (with) my fastball and established my fastball early in the game,” said Barnes by phone last week. “I like to go into a game and say, ‘Here’s the fastball. If I locate it well right now, I’m going to make you guys get yourself out off my fastball.’ … I love to be aggressive. I love to attack the zone.”
Boston GM Ben Cherington has stressed his intent to build the next championship team by strong drafting and minor league development. That said, Barnes is one minor leaguer certainly worth getting excited over.
The 6-4, 210-pounder, who Boston selected in the first-round (19th overall) in the 2011 draft out of the University of Connecticut, was 7-5 with a 2.86 ERA in 25 starts combined between Single-A Greenville and Single-A (high) Salem this past season.
Baseball America recently ranked him the top pitcher in the Red Sox minor league system. He also was the 13th best prospect in baseball on Baseball America’s 2012 mid-season Top 50 prospect list.
Barnes led Red Sox minor league pitchers in strikeouts (133), was third in ERA and WHIP (1.05) and fifth in batting average against (.225).
“Our pitching coach Kevin Walker in Salem preached to us ... ‘As you move up the levels, you have to be able to get outs with your fastball in the strike zone.’” Barnes said. “I really put that to heart along with what I’ve always done.”
In addition to being aggressive, Barnes showed excellent command early in the ‘12 season, his first full year of pro ball.
During his first five starts, he averaged 14.2 strikeouts per nine innings, an increase from 8.56 strikeouts per nine innings his junior year at UConn in ‘11. He averaged 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings in his 25 starts.
Barnes said he was in the best shape of his life entering this past season. He then worked with Red Sox pitching coaches during the spring to fine-tune his mechanics, learning to stay over his body and the rubber more during his delivery.
He said he never before had better command of his fastball than he did during his the first eight or nine starts of 2012.
“So I think being able to command the fastball, and attacking early with that, really helped me,” he said.
Barnes posted a 0.99 ERA in his first 13 starts. But he certainly wasn’t as effective in his final 12 starts, posting a 5.74 ERA.
“I think I learned more about myself, and I learned more about the game of baseball, and how to pitch in the second half than I did in first half,” Barnes said.
The righty spent much of the second half working to improve his change-up, a pitch he is extremely comfortable throwing now. He said it actually has become his second best pitch.
“I struggled with the curve ball during the second half of the season due in part to the fact that I put so much emphasis on developing the change-up,” Barnes said. “I think I made some strides the last couple of outings to end the season, which was nice. I think working with Kevin Walker, he really helped me a lot kind of mentally to be able to handle a little bit of failure and kind of how to pitch more when your stuff isn’t necessarily the best.”
Barnes’ change-up at the beginning of 2012 was 87-88 mph. He decreased its speed and worked on his arm slot to throw the pitch exactly like the fastball to essentially throw it off the fastball. The less he tried to throw the change-up slower, the slower it became.
“It wasn’t 80 (mph) but it was more 84, 85, 86,” he said. “The biggest thing with the change-up — obviously you want the velocity differential — but one of the biggest things is just deception..”
Barnes doesn’t attribute his tough second-half to the number of innings (119.2) he threw. After all, that’s only three more innings than he threw during his junior year at UConn.
Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said by email: “Matt did a nice job of commanding his fastball for much of the year. He got to experience playing at multiple levels and played on a big stage in the Futures Game — a great experience for any player, but especially one in his first full season. While Matt’s innings totals were on par with past workloads, the length of a full season is something most pitchers need to adjust to. I think that mental and physical fatigue was something he will be ready for next year.”
Barnes is approximately 210 pounds now and wants to get up to 220 by spring training. He is on a 4,500 calorie-per day diet.
“After going through a full season of pro ball, I kind of know what my body needs to maintain the strength throughout a seven-month season,” Barnes said.