Darwin Barney: O for D an age-old debate

CINCINNATI -- It’s a baseball debate that has been around forever: How much offense can a team sacrifice in order to play a superior defensive player?

The question continues to apply to Chicago Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney. As in 2012, Barney has been stellar on defense in 2013, but his batting average has hovered around .215 after he hit .254 last season. It’s hard to find a silver lining in that number.

“It’s just been a year where nothing has come together,” Barney said Tuesday afternoon before a 1-for-2 night against the Cincinnati Reds. “If there is a bright side, it’s better [happening] now than next year or the year after, when we have a chance to contend.

“It’s not my batting average I’m worried about,” he said. “I want to find ways to get on base and hit situationally. That’s what I’m most upset about, my situational hitting numbers. That can be fixed with an approach tweak.”

He’ll have a lot of work ahead of him if he wants to raise his .198 batting average with runners in scoring position.

However, Barney isn’t exactly an easy out. He battles with the best of them; he just doesn’t always end up with the best results, although he did walk twice in Tuesday’s 9-1 victory.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Barney is first in the National League in foul ball percentage at 43.8 percent. It means that when he swings, he fouls the ball off more than any other player. With two strikes, that percentage goes up to 48.2, tops in all of baseball. He battles with the best of them. There’s good and bad in those statistics.

“You can look back at guys that struggle in a season; for whatever reason, you’ve missed your pitches all year long,” manager Dale Sveum said. “You’ve fouled them off and put yourself in tougher counts because you’ve fouled off pitches that day. People having good seasons just don’t foul off those pitches.

“You don’t want that reputation of fouling off really good pitches that you could drive.”

That’s the crux of Barney’s problems: Good pitches are getting fouled off instead of being driven into the outfield.

“We’re trying to turn that into a strength,” Barney said. “How you do that is you hone your approach; you hone your mechanics and keep things simple so you can repeat it every day.”

It worked Tuesday, when Barney drove a pitch deep enough to center field to drive in a runner from third base on a sacrifice fly. That’s the situational hitting he’d like to have success with all season.

“Offensively, I know I’m better than what I've shown this year,” Barney said. “I’m going to learn from it and apply it to the offseason. Try to simplify my swing and just make consistent contact.”

It was a similar thought he had for last offseason, but the changes he tried didn’t take hold. He started the year on the disabled list and has tried to play catch-up ever since. He does have seven home runs and 40 RBIs, so there have been some good moments.

“It’s definitely been a learning experience this year on a team that guys are getting shuffled around,” he said. “When you’re on a winning team, your outlook is different. Your numbers take care of themselves. When you go into a game with that attitude, you’re going to be a better player.”

Winning or not, the question of offense for defense is still relevant. Barney might be that throwback who keeps his job because of what he does in the field. He ranks 652 out of 657 players in oWAR (offensive wins above replacement) at minus-1.2, but he’s 16th in dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) at 1.4. And once again he ranks first among second basemen in the NL in defensive runs saved with 10. Last season he led all positions with 28.

“I’m going to look at the video and become an even better player defensively,” he said. “I want to take that confidence defensively up to the plate. It doesn't happen overnight. Confidence is No. 1 in this game. Defensively I feel confident in making all the plays.”

Is Barney’s defense worth the lack of offense? It just might be.