Barney's 'D' quickly becoming second to none
You know the old adage: Defense wins championships.
If anyone can vouch for that, it's Chicago Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney, known in baseball circles for his defensive prowess.
"I think that's what baseball's gone back to for a long time -- pitching and defense wins games and championships," Barney said. "Offense can get you so far, but ultimately the team with the better pitching, the better bullpen, the better defense, is going to come out on top most of the time."
Barney said the defensive gems he produces on the field today are the byproduct of years of fielding work.
"Growing up, offense came very naturally for me. Defense is one of those things that I ended up taking a lot of pride in," he said. "I had to put a lot of work into it, and it became one of those things that I realized that I had an opportunity to be pretty good at.
"I always looked at it in the most natural state, where if I didn't have a glove on my hand and someone rolled me a ball, I should be able to catch it. And when I started thinking [about] it that way, and thinking it naturally, that it should be pretty easy, I started to get better and work harder, and develop a routine that would get me ready to play every day."
As a kid, Barney went the extra mile on his defensive practice. He said that's an example budding baseball players would do well to follow.
"If you want to be the best player you can be and you want to play at the big league level, you've got to be a well-rounded player," Barney said. "There are only 15 teams starting next year that have a DH, a position for someone that doesn't necessarily have to play defense. You can't get away with not playing defense at the level [you should be]. It doesn't matter how good of an offensive player that you are, it's going to hurt your team on the defensive side if you can't do it. So you try to make it fun, try to find drills that make it fun."
To watch Barney now, you might not guess that baseball wasn't always his sport of choice.
"I grew up playing soccer, golf, a little bit of basketball, and I played a couple of years of football," Barney said. "I was always busy and doing a lot of different things. And I think that was important, because I didn't burn out on baseball."
Although the Portland, Ore., native had offers to play soccer at the collegiate level, he said he dedicated himself to baseball earlier than that.
"After my sophomore year of high school, I didn't play basketball my junior year, and I took the winter off to prepare for the baseball season," Barney said. "It's the first time I didn't play a sport to dedicate more time to another sport. I think that was a turning point for me in deciding that baseball is what I wanted to do."
Barney debated whether to play baseball, soccer or both in college. Baseball won: in Barney's words, "A lot less running and a little bit more fun. I like the choice I made."
As well Barney should. He is now the Cubs' everyday second baseman, thanks to some quick adaptation on his part after Chicago promoted Starlin Castro to shortstop at the big league level. Barney, previously a shortstop, learned to play second base.
"I didn't think it was going to be as tough as it was," Barney admitted. "But it ended up being tougher than I imagined, just because a lot of the plays are different. A lot of the angles are different.
"Primarily, at shortstop, you're working towards the ball. You're working forward, in one direction, at these types of angles. At second base, you tend to work backwards; you tend to work at a backwards angle where you can make your hop moving backwards, whereas at shortstop you want to make your hop going forwards."
Nowadays, the 26-year-old is "most definitely" comfortable at second.
"I think that playing a whole season there and working my way into an offseason and having an opportunity to look back and decide what I wanted to work on and get better on at second base," Barney said. "I'm doing a lot more work around the bag, and I feel a lot more comfortable there. Up until the end of last year, I still felt more comfortable moving back to shortstop on the days that I still played there. But this year is a little different; I feel more comfortable at second base. It's good and bad. You miss shortstop. You miss the position you played your whole life."
But like any other baseball player (or human, for that matter), Barney knows he's still got things to work on.
"You can always get better," he said. "Get better reads ... there have been a few ground balls here and there where I feel like I've picked out the wrong hop and luckily made a play on it. Just being more consistent at the plate. Every player can be more disciplined in the way they go about their business, the way they take their at bats. As a player and growing in the game, I can be more disciplined in a lot of ways."
Sure, Darwin, but I'd say that leading National League second basemen with a .998 fielding percentage is pretty darn disciplined.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.