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How the Red Sox Convinced Matt Barnes to Change With Eye-Opening Stat

Tomase: How Sox convinced Barnes to change with eye-opening stat originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Matt Barnes' second pitch of the ninth inning on Tuesday left Mets slugger Pete Alonso taking a late hack and shaking his head in disapproval.

The quick-pitched fastball caught the former home run champ by surprise, but it shouldn't have. It's a weapon Barnes has deployed frequently this young season as a means of varying his tempo while dominating hitters with a two-pitch arsenal.

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Alonso didn't get a long look at said arsenal, because that's been a pattern this year, too. One buried curveball later, Barnes had his first of two strikeouts in a perfect ninth to secure a 2-1 victory and continue a breakout season about seven years in the making.

It's amazing to think that not even a month ago, we were asking manager Alex Cora who'd be closing games. Cora wouldn't officially commit to Barnes over veteran right-hander Adam Ottavino even after the season started.

It took nearly two weeks for Barnes to finally earn a save opportunity, which he converted with a perfect ninth against the Twins. All he has done since is fine-tune an overhauled approach that leaves no doubt where the ball is going with the game on the line.

"What he's doing so far is impressive," Cora said. "You can see him developing into this guy."

The pitcher Barnes is now bears little resemblance to the one that helped the Red Sox win a World Series in 2018 as a key setup man. That Barnes was pretty good, and didn't necessarily need to change. But change he did, with some help from the analytics department, and the difference was apparent against Alonso.

The old Barnes nibbled around the strike zone. The new Barnes attacks it relentlessly.

Even at his best, Barnes could be frustrating to watch. He threw fastballs at the eyes and curveballs in the dirt, and joked with one writer that he trusted he could strike out three hitters before he walked four.

He often put that theory to the test, because even while posting eye-popping strikeout rates of 14 or 15 per nine innings, Barnes walked anywhere from four to six. The fact that he was also one of the slowest workers on the team made him a perplexing combination of unhittable and unwatchable.

But that changed this spring when the Red Sox introduced a new staff-wide philosophy. They wanted to attack the zone, limit walks, and be the aggressors. This approach flew in the face of Barnes' prior seasons, but the 30-year-old became convinced when presented with one tantalizing piece of data.

The analytics department told him that if he threw 100 first-pitch fastballs right down the middle, he'd experience a positive result on 92 of them.

"I'm going to take those odds all day every day," Barnes said.

And just like that, a new pitcher was born.

"I would kind of nibble around the zone a little bit, try to force guys to expand before they were ever engaged," he said. "Getting guys to expand drastically before they've engaged is a tough thing to do. You're trying to get guys engaged, get them moving, get them active in the zone, and then that allows you to expand and have better success."

The results speak for themselves. Throwing his 95-98 mph four-seam fastball, his hammer curve, and nothing else, Barnes continues making opponents look as silly as Alonso whining in the box.

He earned his fifth save on Tuesday while lowering his ERA to 2.77. He has struck out 22 in just 13 innings, but even more impressively, he has only walked three. Take away a garbage three-run homer vs. the Mariners, and he has only allowed one other run all season.

"Walks have killed me in the past," Barnes said. "Let's just be frank. The number of times that teams have strung together multiple hits in an inning are a lot fewer than when I walk a guy or I walk two guys and then a hit kills me. I might give up a solo homer -- I gave up a homer the other night, and of course I walked the leadoff guy.

"I might give up a solo homer here and there, but based off of those numbers and what I've seen from the first three weeks of the season, I'll be successful a lot more than I won't be on this game plan of quick tempo and attacking the zone."

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It's hard to overstate Barnes' importance to a surprising 15-9 start. With the ninth inning in good hands, Cora simply needs to identify the various bridges that lead there.

That Barnes has made such radical changes in his eighth season when he could easily be set in his ways speaks to his open-mindedness. There's a reason he was always the most sought-after name among his fellow relievers in trade talks, and there's a reason both Dave Dombrowski and Chaim Bloom said no.

"We've been able to put together a really good game plan," Barnes said. "We looked at some of the analytical stuff on attacking the strike zone and working quick and forcing guys to make some decisions at the plate. I've taken that wholeheartedly and really tried to use that to my advantage. It's about working quick, it's about attacking guys, it's about being confident in my stuff and being aggressive in the zone."

It's also paying off.

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