It’s been almost exactly 10 years since the future formed in front of Matt Barnes’s eyes.
On May 7, 2011, the UConn righthander dominated the University of South Florida at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, Conn. Over eight innings, he allowed one run while striking out 10 in a 2-1 victory.
Barnes possessed a typically electric fastball that night. Red Sox area scout Ray Fagnant noted that throughout his 2011 season at UConn, Barnes almost always showed his top-end velocity of 97-98 miles per hour in his final inning of work, and that outing was no different. Moreover, against USF, Barnes flashed what Fagnant described in his report of that game as a “separator” — a power curve that locked up hitters.
“Solid all year,” Fagnant wrote in his report, “but this was the outing we waited to see.”
The Sox weren’t the only ones who saw something that game. Barnes recognized Fagnant was not alone as a Red Sox representative in the stands — that he’d been accompanied by Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.
Barnes also knew that Epstein had seen him before. The previous summer, in the Cape League, Epstein and a phalanx of Red Sox front office members made a trip to see Barnes pitch against 2010 Red Sox draftee Anthony Ranaudo — an outing in which Barnes struck out 14 over seven innings.
Barnes believed his future was pointing him in the direction of the Red Sox at the No. 19 pick of the first round in the draft.
“There’s no such thing as certainty in the draft or this line of work,” remembered Barnes, “but I felt pretty certain that for the Red Sox, if I got there I was going to get taken.”
Thirty days later, on June 6, 2011, Fagnant — representing the Red Sox at the MLB Draft in Secaucus, N.J. — sat on a bus outside his hotel, surrounded by Hall of Fame players waiting to head to MLB Network Studios for the event.
He received a call from Red Sox amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye, who asked him to find a place where he could speak privately to those in the team’s draft room.
“The area guy is not going to determine who we take up high, but I potentially determine who we don’t take,” explained Fagnant. “[Sawdaye] said, ‘Matt Barnes — speak now or forever hold your peace. Are you on board?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. Ability is one thing. That’s the easy part to scout. But the character, absolutely — I’m completely on board.’”
In a way, that night — in which UConn was playing Clemson for the right to advance to an NCAA Super Regional — offered another fitting harbinger of Barnes’ future. The righthander had been a starter all season, but wasn’t slated to pitch that night given that he’d started a few days earlier.
But before that game, he approached UConn coach Jim Penders.
“I said, ‘If this game is close in the eighth or ninth, give me the ball,’” Barnes said.
The offer proved unnecessary, as the Huskies won in a blowout, but it served as a fitting prelude for the career that has followed. Barnes found out mid-game that he’d been taken by the Sox, and took a moment both to appreciate and find amusement in the development.
“It was kind of crazy to me, having grown up a Yankees fan,” said the Bethel, Conn., native. “I found out I’d been drafted by the Red Sox and thought, ‘Well, isn’t that funny?’ But it’s been incredible here.”
A full circle decade
Barnes has been many things to the Red Sox over the past decade. He is the last member of that franchise-changing draft class of 2011 — from which nine big leaguers have emerged, including Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Travis Shaw — to remain with the Sox, a status that serves as a testament to the way the organization has valued his contributions.
Foremost, Barnes has been ready whenever asked to pitch in the late innings, typically unassuming and often overshadowed yet steadily valuable over the course of 344 big league regular season appearances (eighth most all time by a Sox pitcher) that have mostly come against the heart of opposing teams’ lineups. He was also the team’s most reliable reliever in the 2018 October championship run.
“You almost take him for granted,” said Fagnant. “But he’s etched himself as a lifelong Red Sox and a huge part of this franchise.”
In 2021, however, he’s gone from solid contributor to late-innings dominator. Even with his loss against the Angels on Sunday, Barnes has been elite, holding opponents to a .118 average and .376 OPS while striking out nearly half of the hitters he’s faced (49.3 percent) and slashing his walk rate from a career standard of 10.9 percent entering the year to 4.2 percent this season.
Embracing a plan
In some ways, Barnes this year is fulfilling what many believed he could become early in his minor league career. At the start of his pro career in 2012 with the Single-A Greenville Drive and High-A Salem Red Sox, Barnes took an old school approach to success, as when he struck out 12 batters in a start right after his promotion to Salem — all on swing-and-miss fastballs.
But even as he finally found a curveball grip that allowed him to command the pitch, he never developed a third pitch to round out a starter’s mix. Still, a National League scout surmised that Barnes had a special fastball that could beat hitters in different parts of the strike zone in a way reminiscent of former Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon.
Until 2021, Barnes hadn’t embraced such a plan of attack.
“My philosophy had been I can punch out three before I walk four —especially as the home run rate increased,” he said.
But he recognized that the walks made him too vulnerable to an inning getting out of hand on the strength of events he might not be able to control — a run-scoring blooper, for instance.
So Barnes recalibrated this year and went on the attack. He’s thrown 72.4 percent strikes this year — up from 61.6 percent entering the year — while increasing his first-pitch strike rate from 57.9 percent to 74.6 percent.
In so doing, Barnes has been more dominant than at any other time in his career. It is not lost on him that he’s doing so in his final season before his eligibility for free agency, but he’s found a mindset to avoid getting lost in the uncertainty of his future.
“I’m not worrying about numbers, not worrying about, ‘OK, I’m a free agent after this year and have to play well to get the contract I want,’” said Barnes. “When you’re younger, you worry about getting sent down, making money, all these things. But I’m at the point now where I’m just going to go out there, attack with my stuff, execute with my pitches, and I’m going to trust that it’s going to work out.”
Such a hakuna matata approach, after all, served Barnes well a decade ago, as he thought about the possibility of his professional future. Even as he viewed the Red Sox as a likely landing spot, it would have been hard for him to anticipate that 10 years later, he’d still be with them — and performing at the highest level of his career.
“It’s been a wild ride,” said Barnes. “I’ve experienced a lot of really special moments through the 10 years. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have played this long in the big leagues and hopefully I can continue to play longer.”