I will be running a new interview with one of the best MLB draft prospects 2011 has to offer each Sunday and Wednesday up until June, and you can click here to find an up to date archive of them all.
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Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Are you still 6’4”, 203 lbs?
Matt Barnes: I’m still 6’4”, but my weight’s gone up a little bit. I’m anywhere from 207-211 lbs now, so I just say I’m 210 lbs to make it easy. We changed our workouts this fall and I’ve made a conscious effort to put some weight on, so that combined with just getting older has allowed me to put on a few pounds.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Growing up did you play any other sports besides baseball?
Matt Barnes: Oh yeah, I’ve played sports my entire life. I started baseball around age four or five, I played soccer from 4th or 5th grade up into middle school, and starting in 6th grade I played basketball all the way up to my senior year in high school. The crazy thing about that team was that when I started in 6th grade, we had the same starting five guys all the way up through the last game we played our senior year in high school. Freshman year I tried football, but it wasn’t for me so I stopped.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: What position did you play in basketball?
Matt Barnes: I was a three point specialist in middle school, but by the time I had gotten to high school and grown a bit, I usually played anywhere from small forward to center.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Do you remember the first time you realized that you had a chance to do something significant with baseball?
Matt Barnes: I think it hit me my junior year. Growing up and playing in Little League up through middle school I was always a good player, but I was never the best. My junior year we lost a pitcher so I ended up starting, and by the end of the year I was the best pitcher on the staff so I started to get some looks from colleges. The summer going into my senior year I played for Team Connecticut and they did a really good job of exposing us, and that was when I really started getting attention and improving as a player. Then senior year came around and I played well, so I’d say that spring of my junior year into the summer before my senior year was when I really felt that baseball wasn’t just a dream anymore; that it was starting to turn into a reality. It started to feel like something I could do and hopefully make a career out of.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Do you remember the first time you hit 90 MPH?
Matt Barnes: I do remember it – I know exactly where it was. I was at one of those Perfect Game showcases, the one that used to be held up at Wareham, Massachusetts. It was junior year of high school, and that was the first time anyone ever told me I had hit 90 MPH – I was pretty jacked up!
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Your first time around through the draft was a lot different than it is now, because you weren’t even selected. What did that do to you? Pissed off? Annoyed? Couldn’t care less?
Matt Barnes: I don’t know, I wouldn’t say it pissed me off. I knew there were some teams following me, and they would send people to the games who would tell me “everybody thinks you’re projected to go in this spot,” so they did plant the seed that I would be drafted, but at the end of the day it really didn’t piss me off, I just thought it would have been really cool. Obviously I knew I wasn’t going on the first day, or probably even the second day, but the second or third day of the draft that year was the same night as my senior prom, so I just thought it was one of those things that would have been really cool – to be at my senior prom having found out I got drafted. When it didn’t happen I was just like “ok, I’m going to college, and we’ll see where things go.” It’s funny because I kind of went through a similar thing this past year as I did in my junior year of high school, and here comes the draft again.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Now that you are one of the top pitching prospects in the entire 2011 draft, how much do you think about it?
Matt Barnes: I think if anybody tells you that they don’t think about the draft, when they’re somebody that people know about and have the potential to go pretty highly, they’re lying straight to your face [laughs]. It’s literally impossible not to think that, in six months, your dream could becoming true. I’m fortunate to have George on my team [Kevin’s Note: OF George Springer, Matt’s teammate, is the top positional prospect in this year’s draft], so I have someone to talk to about this stuff, and who can relate 100% to what I’m going through. It’s good to have him, but also we have good coaches and great teammates who are also prospects and have the potential to be drafted. With that combination of our players and coaches, everybody looks out for one another and we keep each other grounded. I think it’s easier not to think as much about the draft when you have such a good team like we do because there is so much that I’m looking forward to this season, whereas if we weren’t good the draft becomes more of a focus. I can honestly tell you that I’m more interested and excited about winning championships right now than I am about where I’m going to be drafted.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Have you heard from basically every team at this point?
Matt Barnes: Yeah.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Pre-draft I cover the entire draft, but afterwards I focus on the Yankees, so I have to ask – does that include them?
Matt Barnes: It does. I’ve met Matt Hyde and spoken with him. I’m a die-hard Yankee fan.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Oh really?
Matt Barnes: Oh yeah. I’ve grown up on the Yankees – my uncle’s a die-hard Yankee fan, I’m a die-hard Yankee fan, my dad’s work has season tickets, so I’ve been to a lot of games. I was at Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS when Damon hit two dingers and they lost to the Red Sox, I was at Game 2 of the ALDS last year, I was at the 2009 ALCS when A-Rod hit the homerun off Fuentes in the 9th inning in the rain, I was at Game 2 of the World Series that year, so I’ve been to a lot of Yankee games in my life. I’m a die-hard Yankee fan.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Awesome. It kind of sucks that you had to go and get so good that the odds of you reaching them in the draft are non-existent now.
Matt Barnes: [laughs] Hey, things happen.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Can you describe your arsenal in detail for me?
Matt Barnes: Well, I think my favorite pitch, and my best pitch, is probably my fastball. It usually sits anywhere from 92-95 MPH, maybe 93-96 MPH, and will usually get up to 97 MPH a couple of times on a good day. It’s not a two-seam like Roy Halladay’s – it doesn’t run like that, but I’ve been told it has a little tail at the end. It’s minor enough that I can’t see it, but I guess it moves enough because I don’t have to throw any two-seams – I throw all four-seams. But that’s my fastball and it’s my favorite pitch; I just love to throw the fastball. Then I throw a curveball, which is probably more of an 11-to-5 break, and it’s usually sitting in the mid to high 70s – maybe around 77 MPH. I use it mostly as a 2-0 or 0-0 breaker to get a strike when I need one, but still want to keep the hitter off balance. I throw another breaking ball that’s a slider, it’s usually around 81-83 MPH, and this year I’m trying to increase the velocity on it a little bit to create more deception, give it more of a fastball look, and throw hitters off a little more. Now I’m not saying my slider is as good as Billy Wagner’s, but it’s the same type of sweeping breaker that moves across the plate at this point, rather than the tight, three inch slider. One of my favorite pitches that’s coming along right now is the two-seam circle changeup. I did a lot of work on it this past summer with my coaches in Cape Cod and one of my buddies from Team USA, Noe Ramirez. It usually sits around the mid-80s, and the movement is sometimes inconsistent, but the velocity and my ability to repeat the delivery is pretty consistent. Sometimes it will stay kind of flat and other times it will just drop off the table, and I haven’t decided if that’s good or not right yet [laughs]. If I could figure out how to have two different changeups within the same delivery and grip, it might help me because it will give the hitters another option to have to worry about…or it could just be bad. I haven’t decided if it’s good or not yet - we’ll see what happens when the season plays out [laughs].
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Are you throwing a traditional curve or a knucklecurve?
Matt Barnes: Traditional curve. I throw it across the laces on the horseshoe.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: If you’re not going to the fastball, which pitch are you calling on for the big strikeout?
Matt Barnes: I don’t know, I think it depends on the hitter, but more often than not I’ll throw the fastball, and if not it will be a slider. It still will depend on the hitter and how the at bat has gone though.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: What is your outward expression on the mound like? Are you more calm and collected like a Mariano Rivera, or do you let it out like a Joba Chamberlain?
Matt Barnes: Oh, the Joba type, Joba is my favorite player! I think when I’m on the mound I try to stay calm and collected, and not get rattled, but if somebody does something to piss me off and then I get them back, that’s when I turn into Joba Chamberlain, if that makes sense.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Absolutely.
Matt Barnes: For example, last year we were playing Villanova and we were up maybe six or eight runs, and it was around the 4th inning, and this kid hits a two-run homer off me and pimps the trot. I’m watching him and thinking, “alright, cool kid. You hit a two-run homer but you’re still down six. Awesome. There’s three innings left in the game. You’re not going to win.” So the kid pimps the homerun, and later in the game before I take the mound in the 6th or 7th Coach told me that it was going to be my last inning. I get the first two batters out and then up comes the kid who pimped the homerun, and that’s when I started to get pissed off and say to myself that I’m getting this kid back. I throw a fastball for a strike, a curveball that he fouls off, then a slider that he looks at for strike three, and I just screamed at the kid to the point where everyone in the stands heard me… and then just walked to the dugout. So when I start the game off I’m pretty calm and collected, but if somebody says or does something that ticks me off, I turn into a guy that you don’t want to see as a hitter. I use those incidents to fuel me.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Normally when I speak to guys that played for Team USA they mention two things that they appreciate more than anything: first the camaraderie that they developed with the rest of the team, and second the experience of getting to travel internationally. Were those the things that you took away from your time representing your country?
Matt Barnes: [laughs] Honestly, those would have been the exact two things I would have said if you had asked me about it. It’s kind of cool to play with the guys that you hear and read about playing for storied programs in the CWS, drafted very high out of high school, and you finally get to put a name to a face and see what they’re like as people, not just players on TV. It no longer is about how good their stuff is or how they can hit, because when you’re traveling with these guys for three weeks in Asia they’re the only people you know. You become a pretty close knit group of guys who get to know each other for who they actually are away from the field, so that is definitely something cool about it. The other thing was the traveling, going to Japan and Taiwan, which are two places I don’t think I ever would have gone in my life if not for being on the team. It was pretty interesting to see the different culture and how different baseball is over there. You know, as different as it is, it’s still pretty similar for the most part. It’s kind of cool to see how much the fans and the players both appreciate the game.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Were the crowds that different than here?
Matt Barnes: Kind of, it was interesting. I had the opportunity to go to a Tokyo Giants game in the Tokyo Dome, and it’s a lot different than it is here. The biggest stadiums there hold about 35,000, and it almost feels like a soccer game the way they have groups of people in the outfield with flags, chanting all game. It’s crazy. At our games we didn’t get that many people - our biggest attendance was probably against Japan and that was 6,000-7,000, but they respect the game a lot. Regardless of who wins the fans respect baseball and they enjoy the game rather than a specific team.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: What was the craziest thing you ate while on the trip? A group of college guys in the Far East had to encounter something strange…
Matt Barnes: Nope. I don’t eat seafood, so me and Springer were at Chilli’s, Ruby Tuesdays, ordering Domino’s or Pizza Hut, and going to McDonalds. Yep. I lost 10 lbs in two and a half weeks! It got to the point where we went to GNC and got protein shakes to mix into our water just so we’d have something in our stomachs.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Bringing it back to the Major Leagues, who are the pitchers you look up to for their skills or the way they play the game?
Matt Barnes: Like I was saying earlier, Joba Chamberlain is my favorite player – I like the intensity he brings and the way he goes about his business. I like the Joba Chamberlain from the first year when he came up and was relieving. I think he’s a different person now, but the way he went about himself that first year was just awesome, I loved it. In terms of a guy who I admire in terms of stuff? It’s got to be Roy Halladay. I mean, I don’t get how he does what he does, and against the best hitters in the world. He makes guys look like they’re swinging a waffle ball bat. If you can do it like him I think you’re going to be alright.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: If you could steal one pitch from any other college pitcher, whose would you take and why?
Matt Barnes: Hmm, who would I want a pitch from? That’s a tough one. Well, I can tell you one thing – the pitch that I would want would be a splitter. I can’t think of anyone right now that I know throws a splitter, but one guy I played with my freshman year here at UCONN, Dusty Odenbach threw an unbelievable splitter. I wish I had that pitch.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: Who is the toughest hitter you have faced on a team other than your own? What made him so tough?
Matt Barnes: Probably Alex Dickerson from Indiana. I had played with him on Cape Cod after my freshman year, we went to Cape Cod together a couple of weeks before Team USA, then we went to Team USA together, and we’ve played Indiana the past couple of years, so we’ve become pretty good friends. Because of all this I think he knows what I throw and has an idea of how I pitch, not to mention the kid won the Big Ten triple crown, led Team USA, and can absolutely swing it for both average and power.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: I’m sure the answer would have been Springer if I hadn’t put the qualification of not being able to select a teammate in there, right?
Matt Barnes: [laughs] Probably, but Springer’s not fair because he has sat in centerfield for every single one of my starts for the last three years, so he literally has seen every single pitch from me and knows everything I throw. He knows how it moves, what it does, how I pitch, so he’s really not fair.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: What are you hoping for this season for the Huskies, as well as for yourself as an individual?
Matt Barnes: As a team I think I’m hoping for what every team is: trying to win the regular season, win the Big East tournament, host a regional, get out of the regional to the super regional, hopefully make it to Omaha and then win it. I think we have the talent and the experience, the coaches, and the drive to do it. We want to prove people wrong, and I think coming in second a few times over the past couple of years is really driving our team this year and is going to make us work hard for it. As an individual I want to give myself the opportunity for a win every time out, be consistent and somebody that my teammates can count on, and the one thing I do want this year is to be Big East pitcher of the year. I think that would be a great honor and hopefully I can work hard enough to reach that goal.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: What have you been tinkering with to reach that goal – to get even better?
Matt Barnes: I think mechanically I’m not messing with anything physically, but the one thing I’m working on is to make sure that I am consistently doing what I do when I’m at my best. I’ve had good success up to this point so I don’t think I need to change any major things, but I do think that I can have little mechanical tweaks in the games that throw me off and keep me from performing my best. Other than that I want to make sure that I can keep my body strong, my core, my legs, and my shoulder healthy so I can finish as strong as I start.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: True or false: Pepe’s is the best pizza in Connecticut.
Matt Barnes: Pepe’s? False. There are a lot of other good pizza places.
Kevin Levine-Flandrup: With all the attention you have gotten after the showing with Team USA and the draft talk starting to heat up, how do you stay focused and grounded?
Matt Barnes: Well, before I came to college, and even up until this past year I was never really the guy that everyone pointed to and said “he’s really good, he’s going to get drafted high.” I’ve never really had that hype or been talked about a lot, so I know what it’s like to be on the backburner and in the shadow of all the top college pitchers. By working hard, maturing, and encountering a little bit of luck, I’ve gotten to the position I’m in now, and because I know what it’s like to not be at the top of the heap, I don’t want to go back now. I think getting caught up in the hype and what everyone else is saying would just be a big distraction that would take away from my ability to perform. You just have to tune it all out, hang with your teammates, talk with them, and don’t really worry about it.