It’s no secret that Darwin Barney is a little light with the stick. His .267/.307/.358 career line and 81 OPS+ leave a lot to be desired. And there’s very little in his .287/.335/.376 career minor league line (over 1711 plate appearances) to suggest that a big step forward offensively is coming.
Indeed, it would be easy to look at those numbers and question whether Barney merits being a starting second baseman at all. I did, repeatedly, last year.
In the Spring, when it was clear that Barney was locked in as the starter at second, I resigned myself to that reality, and offered up that I could envision the possibility – however remote – that Barney could transform himself into such a good defensive second baseman that his offensive futility would be sufficiently mitigated for me to call him, overall, a league average second baseman (particularly when you consider that he makes near the league minimum). I didn’t actually expect it to happen.
But, here we are, months later, and I’m there. I’m totally and completely there. Barney is that good defensively. His D has gotten love this week from ESPNChicago, Cubs.com, and even the New York Times. From the latter:
On pace to break Jose Oquendo’s 1990 record of three errors by a full-time second baseman, matched by Cano in 2010, Barney has taken part in 68 double plays, 3 more than in his 135 games last season. His average of 5.23 plays per nine innings entering the weekend was far above the league average, 4.79.
But the reason Barney is ranked so high in the WAR standings is his ability to prevent other teams from scoring.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, a company that has tracked every play since 2003, Barney has made a mistake (regardless of whether an error was recorded) just 18 times after committing 30 defensive misplays last season.
The company tallies the runs a defensive player saves over a league-average replacement, and Barney is leading the majors with 29 — one short of the highest recorded score of 30, set by Craig Counsell in 2005 and tied by Chase Utley in 2008.
For comparison, Cano had 29 defensive misplays in 2010 and Utley had 35 in 2008.
In other words, Barney’s season doesn’t merely make him the best defensive second baseman this year – it gives him one of the best defensive seasons by a second baseman ever.
I’ll take that.
Yes, improved defensive positioning has helped, but, in reality, if you’re talking about the massive shifts, those represent a small fraction of the total possible plays out there (especially when you consider how frequently Cubs opponents have base runners on). Dale Sveum is certainly putting Barney in a position to succeed, but Barney is doing so swimmingly.
I’m not going to get into where Barney lands in WAR, as the continued inability of defensive statistics to capture true value and then be properly incorporated into a WAR formula has led to one calculation (Baseball Reference) that has Barney among the top 10 most valuable players in baseball, and another (FanGraphs) that has him around 80th among position players. (Though, it’s worth pointing out that, for all his offensive woes, even on FanGraphs, Barney’s WAR is equal to that of guys like Jay Bruce, Dan Uggla, and Corey Hart (and is a spot higher than Starlin Castro).)
So, when I say that Barney is probably “average” overall, I’ll confess I’m basing that on little more than my own observation. When you pair the decline in offensive production from second base across baseball with the increased value we place on defense, it’s hard to argue that Barney – who is solidly in the bottom quartile offensively, but is likewise solidly in the top decile defensively – is not at least average overall, even considering that offense is worth four or five times what defense is worth.
At least until Barney’s salary starts to escalate in arbitration (he’s first eligible in 2014), he’s clearly worth a starting spot on the Cubs. And, who knows? Maybe his OBP and SLG tick up just slightly, and he becomes even more valuable. It’s not impossible.
In the interim, I have no issue with the Cubs exploring possible upgrades – or shopping Barney to a team who understands his value. But, if Barney is manning second in 2013, I won’t be grousing this time around.