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September 10, 2007
After a solid rookie campaign last season, Josh Barfield has struggled as a sophomore for his new club, the Indians, despite moving away from the spaciousness of Petco Park. American League pitching has been unforgiving, and Barfield hitting just .245/.273/.326 against it. What is the cause of these struggles, and should we have seen this coming over the winter?
Joshua LaRoy Barfield is the son of former All-Star and Gold Glove right fielders Jesse Barfield. Josh was born in Venezuela and attended high school in Texas before the Padres made him selection number 120 overall in the 2001 amateur entry draft. The fourth rounder signed soon thereafter, and he was sent to the Pioneer League for his debut season:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2001 IdahoFalls(Rk) 277 .310/.350/.437 27% .127 19 5.3% 18.0%
Barfield played a little shortstop for Idaho Falls along with second base, but that was a temporary 23-game experiment. He showed some decent doubles power and some quality running on the basepaths (going 12-for-16 on stolen base attempts), but his walk rate was pretty low. Barfield was just 18 years old, so there was plenty of time to develop further. After that initial effort, Baseball America ranked Barfield 12th in what was, looking back, a solid Padres farm system. Jake Peavy, Xavier Nady, Oliver Perez, Jason Bartlett, and Justin Germano are the highlights, though some of them never starred for the Pads themselves. Back to Barfield, BA commented:
He recognizes pitches, makes adjustments and is fundamentally sound. He's athletic and getting stronger, so his ceiling with the bat is very high. He hit two monster blasts over the center field batting eye during instructional league, a sign of his power potential…He runs well and has soft hands and average range. If he gets as big as his father, he'll probably move to third base or perhaps a corner outfield spot.
Barfield's success at Idaho Falls came as a surprise, given the relative age of the pitchers he was facing. Hindsight allows us to see that his .374 BABIP was high for the level, by about 25 points or so; lopping that off gives you a less impressive .285/.325/.412 debut.
Barfield would play for Low-A and High-A during the 2002 season, with some measure of success in his first stop:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2002 FortWayne(A) 536 .306/.340/.403 20% .097 25 4.5% 18.3%
This season is basically propped up by a .369 BABIP, since Barfield's power was almost nonexistent, and he walked even less. He managed to steal 26 bases with a 77 percent success rate though, and the Pads moved him up to Lake Elsinore where he struggled in just 23 at-bats, hitting a weak .087 with four strikeouts. Nevertheless, Baseball America was impressed, moving Barfield up to #7 in the organizational prospect rankings:
Unlike his father, who was more of a dead-pull hitter, Barfield already uses the entire field. He makes consistently hard contact and started making adjustments against breaking balls in 2002. He should develop average to plus power as he gets stronger and more experienced. A good athlete, he has soft hands and average speed. Barfield might outgrow second base, though he should have enough bat to play elsewhere. He needs to address his footwork and double-play pivot. Offensively, his swing can get loopy at times, and he needs a tighter strike zone.
For the sake of comparison, Josh Barfield is now listed at six feet tall and 190 pounds, while Jesse Barfield is listed at 6'1", 205 pounds. Baseball Prospectus 2003 was a bit more reserved in regards to Barfield's future:
Barfield has lots to learn. He's not going to have his dad's arm or power, but looks like he has a knack for hitting for average, and he's expected to be a good glove man at second base. Obviously, he's got a long way to go in terms of plate discipline, but he's got some physical tools, and he's showing some ability. Let's see how he does in a full season in the Cal League.
Now, the ability to go over your expected BABIP can be a skill of sorts, as some players are capable of hitting lots of liners or hitting groundballs with eyes on a consistent basis, using their speed to help them nab some extra singles. This is all well and good, but in the years when those grounders don't find the hole, you need to have some power or ability to get on base another way at your disposal. Barfield's swing and genetics made many hopeful that he would, at the least, develop the power, but it wasn't there for his first two seasons. Some of that would change at his first full campaign for Lake Elsinore, a pitcher's park:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2003 LakeElsinore(A+) 549 .337/.389/.530 37% .193 52 8.1% 19.8%
This was an impressive season for the 20-year-old Barfield, as he increased his plate discipline to the point of usefulness while keeping his strikeout rate around the same level he'd shown in previous years. His power showed up with 68 extra-base hits and a .193 ISO as well. Although I hate to sound repetitive, his .411 BABIP is bothersome, even with the new dash of power. Barfield is usually around the league average with his liner rates, so you should expect his BABIP to be about .320 in the majors. Adjusting this season for that .411 BABIP makes everything look less impressive, although given the nature of the home park, his age, and the fact that he displayed plenty of power for a middle infielder, you still have to like what you were seeing up to this point.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barfield took over the top spot in Baseball America's Padre rankings:
Barfield is a rare second baseman who's capable of batting third in the order. He uses his quick stroke to smoke line drives all over the field. Not only is he the best hitter in the system, but he's also the best at making adjustments. Some of his doubles will carry over the fence once he gains more strength and experience, giving him 25-homer power. Barfield isn't a speedster or a future Gold Glover, but he's a better runner and defender than most people realize…Nevertheless, Barfield isn't a sure-fire second baseman. He shows a solid-average arm when he only has time to react, but he often makes tentative throws on routine ground balls. He's still smoothing out his footwork and his double play pivot…At the plate, he tends to dive into pitches and will have to learn to turn on balls when pitchers work him inside. He could stand to draw a few more walks, though he nearly doubled his total from 27 in 2002 to 50 last year.
In contrast, Baseball Prospectus 2004 was nowhere nearly as optimistic about Josh's future:
Bad news first: Barfield had surgery on his right wrist after last season. In addition, reading between the lines, you can already see his path to the outfield being smoothed, with questions being raised about his defense at second base and his eventual size. The good news is just about everything else, including his Cal League MVP season while playing most of the year with ligament damage in that wrist. Barfield improved most aspects of his game in 2003, in particular his plate discipline. The jump in power is what got people's attention, however, so know this: the Padres have had a bunch of guys go through Lake Elsinore and do much the same. Until Barfield does something at Mobile or Portland, be skeptical.
At the time everyone was expecting Barfield to fill out like his father, he was 6', 185 pounds, and as you know from earlier he has only put on five pounds since then; the extra size never came, and Barfield stayed the size of a second baseman. He hit more like one at Mobile in 2004 as well, his first taste of the upper levels:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 Mobile(AA) 521 .248/.313/.417 38% .169 31 8.3% 20.5%
I'll give you three guesses as to why Barfield's Triple Crown rate stats fell across the board, but you should only need to use one-his .289 BABIP fell to something in the realm of realistic than his .411 figure from 2003, and the rest of his stats suffered for it. Most of the power was still there, although it's nowhere as impressive without a .340ish batting average. Barfield lost the power hitter numbers but kept the power hitter strikeouts, posting a career high 20.5 percent rate by getting punched out 119 times on the year. The one high note was that his plate patience stayed at roughly the same level, even increasing slightly.
As far as additional factors worth considering, there was a pulled hamstring in spring training that apparently never fully healed, helping to cause Barfield's offensive woes. Barfield was also one of the youngest players in his league, though he played in a neutral run environment. Kevin Goldstein discussed his issues within Baseball America's 2005 prospect book:
Barfield became frustrated by his inability to find a groove in 2004 and pressed at times. That led to a long swing and a pull-happy approach. He's guilty of guessing on pitches too often. He has a bit of a late trigger in his swing, so he can be neutralized with good fastballs when he's looking for something else. Barfield has problems with righthanders-he hit .196 against them last year-particularly with diving after breaking pitches that finish outside of the plate. Defensively, he still needs to work on his lateral movement and his double-play pivot.
That double-play pivot item is bothersome, considering it's been mentioned every year of his professional career. Perhaps perversely, Baseball Prospectus 2005 was more optimistic than they had been in the past about Barfield, although PECOTA was more pessimistic:
Barfield impresses scouts with his all-field gap power and smooth athleticism, and impresses statheads with his run-creating prowess. You'd think both sides would fret over his 2004 season, which saw his batting average plummet nearly 100 points while his ability to make contact remained shaky. In recent years both sides have come to realize the importance of age and park factors in evaluating a player's future; Barfield held his own as one of the youngest everyday players in the Southern League, a run-scoring wasteland compared to Barfield's previous stop in the California League. The knock on Barfield is his erratic defense and his stubbornness in not working harder to improve afield. Meanwhile PECOTA frets that much of his value is tied up in batting average, an erratic, unpredictable skill. He needs to stick at second to really make an impact.
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2005 Portland(AAA) 516 .310/.370/.450 26% .140 26 9.0% 18.7%
Things remained relatively static at Portland. The only real difference in Barfield's numbers was-you guessed it-his BABIP, which jumped to .369 and allowed him to keep his batting average up. Barfield's ability to hit the ball to all fields helped him keep his batting average up, but when he struggles against righthanders or gets that loopy movement in his swing, he can't make contact. Given that he strikes out a bunch in the best of times, his stat lines start to look a little ugly. This was still an impressive campaign for a 22-year-old, but you have to keep the how and why in mind when evaluating it.
The Padres brought him to the majors in 2006, where Barfield enjoyed a solid rookie campaign. PECOTA forecasted a .260/.322/.416 line for him, which was pretty accurate-outside of the batting average. The Indians traded one of their better prospects, Kevin Kouzmanoff, in exchange for the Pads former top guy during the offseason, and Barfield has struggled for the Indians:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2006 San Diego(MLB) 539 .280/.318/.423 31% .143 35 5.3% 15.0% 2007 Cleveland(MLB) 408 .245/.273/.326 24% .081 21 3.3% 21.1%
Switching to the American League but out of Petco was supposed to be somewhat of an even exchange for Barfield's environmental difficulty, but he has tanked so far this year. He hit just .241/.279/.361 in home games last year, and .319/.355/.484 on the road. If you're looking for reasons why the disparity is that great, look no further than his line drives. Thanks to Jason Pare's digging, we can see that at PETCO, 29 of his 44 line drives landed for hits, an average of .659. Liners correlate with hits better than any other batted-ball type, so a high average like that is normal. What isn't normal is his road figure for the same stat: Barfield was 40 for 46 on liners on the road, an .870 batting average. That's only about nine percent of his total batted-balls, but a high average like that can skew things in small samples.
Looking back at his 2006, that's just what happened. Throw in that he abused lefties to the tune of .331/.378/.587 but hit just .266/.299/.376 against right-handers-that's terrible hitting three or four nights a week, with positive production only once or twice during that same span-and you have yourself some evidence as to why Barfield's stock plummeted so quickly.
Right now, Barfield is around his 10th-percentile PECOTA forecast of .235/.277/.348. He's still only 23 years old, and still shows a lot of green in certain aspects of his game-he still doesn't hit right-handers (.256/.282/.330 against them this year) and has even struggled against the Junior Circuit's southpaws, hitting just .216/.248/.315 in 111 at-bats. His defense hasn't improved either, with many defensive measurements seeing him in the bottom quarter or worse at his position.
This isn't to say that Josh Barfield is going to be a non-factor at the plate forever. Although his production in 2006 was obviously helped along by some luck on balls in play, given more time to develop properly, Barfield could turn himself into an average bat for the position. He's always hit lefties well, so this year's struggles against them may reverse itself next year to help boost his overall rate stats. If he can figure out how to hit outside pitches, he would be much more effective at the plate. Take a look at this chart from ESPN.com:
He can't hit outside pitches to save his life, and he has trouble with balls inside too. He chases a ton of pitches off the plate, highlighting the discipline problems that were a source of worry during his entire minor league career. He hasn't shown much power either this year, with many of his flyballs ending up in the middle of the outfield (chart via MLB.com):
He pulls the ball on the ground to the shortstop/third base side about 34 percent of the time, and has hit .279 in that situation. He hits for high averages on balls to the outfield, but he doesn't get there often enough; balls to the outfield combine for just under half of all of his batted balls, with the rest infield popups and grounders that don't always find a hole. Toss in his high strikeout rates, and you see why his numbers have suffered this year.
It's possible that the Indians can help fix Barfield's problems and move his development along-Jhonny Peralta looks much better this year, after all-but the idea that Barfield is going to fill out and develop a bat that plays anywhere should be put on hold until he can start to produce at even a league-average level.