Matt Barnes has had quite a run of success since we last spoke before he opened the 2012 season with the Low-A Greenville Drive on April 8. The 19th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Barnes is currently 4-1 with a 0.71 ERA for the season, with 70 strikeouts and just 6 walks in 50.2 innings. Opposing batters are hitting .161 against him.
He lasted just five games in Low-A before proving to outclass South Atlantic League competition. One of those outings was on April 24, when Barnes faced off against Delmarva and opposing pitcher Dylan Bundy, the top pitching prospect in the Orioles' organization. Neither pitcher allowed a run, with Bundy striking out 6 in a perfect four innings, and Barnes giving up 3 hits and 2 walks and striking out 9 in 5 innings. One scout called the matchup of these two top pitching prospects “the best-pitched A-Ball game" he’d ever seen.
Barnes recently commented on the difference between the competition he faced during his time at the University of Connecticut (where he went 11-4 with a 1.62 ERA in 2011) and the South Atlantic League, perhaps explaining why the pitcher breezed through Low-A.
"The main difference in competition is that you’re consistently facing older guys at UConn," said Barnes, referencing the fact that many players in the SAL are right out of high school. "We faced some of the best college players in the county in preseason and in the NCAA tourney at UConn. But both competition levels are high. I’d say another obvious factor is metal bats vs. wood bats."
Barnes’ next start for Greenville was against Lakewood on April 29. Having not allowed an earned run through his first 21 innings as a professional, the right-hander began his fifth start with 5 shutout innings, facing just two batters more than the minimum, allowing only a single and one batter to reach by error. He then allowed a single to start the sixth inning, retired the next two batters in order, and was pulled from the game after he hit his pitch count. Reliever Hunter Cervenka (since traded to the Cubs as the player to be named later in the Marlon Byrd deal) allowed the inherited runner to score, charging the starter with his first earned run as a professional. Barnes was promoted to High-A Salem after the game, ending his time in Greenville with a 0.34 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 26.2 innings.
He has largely continued his string of success with Salem. Through four games with the Salem Sox, Barnes is 2-1 with a 1.13 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 28 strikeouts, and 2 walks in 24.0 innings. In his High-A debut against Winston-Salem on May 5, the 21-year-old struck out 12 in 6 innings, while allowing only 1 run and taking home the win.
Barnes later made his home debut for Salem on May 24, again facing Winston-Salem. In what has been his “worst” outing of the year to date, the right-hander took his first pro loss, after allowing 1 earned run on 5 hits and 0 walks over 6 innings, striking out 3.
"The biggest difference between Low-A and High-A is that [High-A] guys can hit fastballs more, especially if they’re over the plate," said Barnes. "So you have to mix pitches more, hit your spots, and you can’t make as many mistakes."
Overall, Barnes' “stuff” has been better than advertised, even considering his status as a mid-first-round pick. He has demonstrated a smooth, easy delivery, which he’s been able to repeat into the fifth and sixth innings of games -- not always a given for a first-year pro. His fastball has generally sat at 93-95 mph, and he has regularly dialed it up to 98 mph when needed. Meanwhile, his fastball command -- initially considered to be a primary developmental need -- has been impeccable early on. He’s also shown a deep-breaking high-70s curveball with plus potential and an average 86-87 mph changeup.
When asked what has contributed most to his success in 2012, Barnes responded, "Not one particular thing, but my fastball command has been where I want it to be, I’ve been able to get ahead in the count, go after hitters, and not try to do too much, which was my goal from the beginning."
If Barnes continues his present success at High-A, a promotion to Portland could be in the cards by season’s end. If so, he’d be the first Red Sox draftee to reach Double-A in his debut professional season (Barnes did not pitch professionally in 2011 after signing on Aug. 15) since reliever Craig Hansen in 2005. Hansen has been the only Red Sox draftee to make that jump under the current ownership regime, and the front office has been somewhat reluctant to make such quick promotions after Hansen proved to have been rushed too quickly up the ladder.
Similarly, Barnes would be one of only a handful of Red Sox draftees to make it to Portland in the year after being drafted, among a group that includes Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Justin Masterson, Aaron Bates, Abe Alvarez, Cla Meredith, Bryce Cox, Adam Mills and current PawSox reliever Alex Wilson.
The next steps in Barnes' development include refining his curveball command, working on the deception and consistency of his changeup, and learning how to deal with adversity (which he hasn’t faced much of so far in 2012).
"I’m working on my secondary pitches -- keeping my curveball consistent, getting my changeup to a more dominant level. That’s still a pitch I’m working on," said Barnes regarding his current areas of focus. "I’m trying to perfect those pitches, trying to keep spotting my fastball, just trying to stay as consistent as possible to help the team win."
Barnes' next start is slated for tonight against Lynchburg.