Darwin Barney played 156 games at second base for the 2012 Chicago Cubs, took the plate 588 times, and had a .299 on-base percentage. Of his 37 extra-base hits, only seven cleared the fence. He did show good contact skills, but with no plate discipline: 33 walks in those 588 plate appearances.
Yet, Barney had a long errorless streak at second base, and the range-based defensive measurement systems all rated him very well. Reading his stat sheet, one might think he was not only the best defensive second baseman in baseball, but one of the most valuable defensive middle infielders anywhere, more so than many shortstops. Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA had Barney at 11.9 runs better than average. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) credited him with 13 runs over average. Total Zone gave him 18 runs, and Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved wandered in late to the bidding, misheard or misunderstood the auctioneer, and handed Barney 28 runs saved.
The result of this unanimous enthusiasm was that Barney led the Cubs in both Baseball-Reference’s and FanGraphs’ formulations of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). When the Cubs executed their summer sell-off, teams inquired about Barney, but the Cubs felt the offers were insufficient, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports. The industry clearly values this guy highly, and so do the stat geeks Mitch Albom squashed this week with his witty jabs.
To be sure, Barney has terrific instincts, light feet and good hands. He moves ahead of the delivery of the pitch, so his range can be tremendous. His arm isn’t quite good enough to allow him to fully tap his talent at shortstop, but he genuinely is a very strong defensive second baseman.
You know all that, though. The central inquiries of this post are: How strong is that defense, really, and can that strength offset his poor offense? The short answers, respectively, are about 73 percent real, and (surprisingly) yes. Here’s how I got there:
Firstly, in estimating Barney’s perceived defensive value, I took the average of the four run values mentioned above. That result was 17.7 runs. For two reasons I’ll explain shortly, I threw out the Defensive Runs Saved estimate of 28 runs above average, dropping the mean of the estimates to 14.3 runs. Then, as a regression factor, I took 10 percent off that number, dropping our estimated true defensive value to 12.9 runs saved versus an average second baseman. That’s still very good, but it’s not the nearly 18 runs saved we started out thinking Barney might be worth with the glove.
I tossed the DRS value assigned to Barney, as I said, for two reasons. The first is sample size, and the distorting effect of an outlier that large when we’re using only four (and four somewhat subjectively derived) data points to estimate Barney’s skill. The second is internal consistency.
During the week in which the Gold Glove awards were bestowed, Keith Law of ESPN tweeted the following:
NL Gold Glove 2b: Darwin Barney. Numbers benefited way too much from overshifts. I would have given it to Danny Espinosa.
That made me scratch my head. I didn’t seem to remember the Cubs shifting much, and anyway, didn’t the better defensive systems capture and adjust for such things? Sure enough, Ben Jedlovec of Baseball Info Solutions pushed back:
@keithlaw overshifts are completely removed from Defensive Runs Saved.
Still, I looked into it a bit further, and while the system may see through over-shifters, Barney benefited from consistently excellent positioning. Not only did Barney say as much in a feature in The New York Times, but the numbers say it at a granular level. Baseball Info Solutions tracks how infielders do not only at getting to balls and recording outs generally, but at how well they do so on balls to the right, to the left and straight at a typically-positioned fielder at their position. Barney made 18 plays more than average second baseman on balls to the left of that standard position in 2012, and eight plays more than the average going to his right. On balls ostensibly right at him, though, Barney was four plays worse than average. This from a second baseman who committed just two errors there all year. The clear conclusion is that some percentage of Barney’s apparently supernal range was actually the result of aggressive positioning, careful advance scouting and good coaching. While Barney’s instincts matter (good coaching has fallen on deaf ears before, Lord knows) and he is a solid defender, I feel very comfortable saying he was less than the best second baseman in baseball this year, let alone a transcendent defensive talent to put Ryne Sandberg to shame. Defense is equal parts teamwork, coaching and athleticism, but the first two elements are not to be credited on an individual basis. You can teach a guy where to stand much more easily than you can teach him to have the speed, agility, body control and arm strength to truly steal hits. Barney’s stats seem to have been inflated by the advanced defensive metrics’ inability to extract the effects of good preparation from actual performance.
Turning, then, to the critical second half of the key issue, we need to determine whether Barney’s defensive skills (no one is saying, after all, that he is less than a plus defensive middle infielder) make tolerable his somewhat lame offensive profile. As it turns out, it’s breathtakingly close.
The average second baseman hit .257/.318/.383 in 2012. Giving away 20 points of OBP hurts Barney badly, obviously, but so does his lack of power. Even if his .273 BABIP rebounds a bit in 2013, he will not be an average hitter. It should be noted that his contact ability has less marginal value at middle infield than anywhere else. In 2012, shortstops struck out just 16.40 percent of the time, second basemen 16.46 percent. No other position sent up hitters more contact-friendly than an 18.52 percent strikeout, from third basemen. Still, in fanning under 10 percent of the time, Barney provided real value by creating possibilities for himself.
Barney profiles at the position, in other words. His skill set is the right shape. It isn’t an ideal size, but what you come up with when totaling his contributions at the plate–would you believe me if I told you it’s 12.9 runs below average at the position? Baseball-Reference has him at -12. FanGraphs, his harshest critic offensively, takes away 14.9 runs. Baseball Prospectus sees him at -14.6. StatCorner goes easy, at -10.2 runs. For now, at least, while his base-running holds up and for the year (no more than two) during which he should be able to retain this defensive prowess, Darwin Barney is a solidly average big-league regular.Next post: The B.J. Upton Question(s): Outfielder will hit it big in MLB free agency, but what kind of player will his new team get?
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