“Hard work truly does pay off.”
That was the first thought that went through Brandon Barnes’ mind, along with the anticipation and excitement of calling his wife, when he got the news he was heading to Houston last season. Barnes certainly earned that call up, and he is a name Astros fans should have on their radar as we get closer to Spring Training.
Last season was, without debate, the best professional season for Brandon Barnes since his debut in 2006. After struggling in AAA to close out the 2011 season (more on that shortly), Barnes started the 2012 season in AA. Admittedly, at this point I was aware of Barnes, but he was not on my radar of prospects entering 2012 in the outfield. The 26 year old outfielder then proceeded to make a believer out of me as he rose up through the Astros system last season.
Statistically the one thing that has either held Barnes back, or he has exceeded in spite of it, is strikeouts. At this point it seems that you can expect Barnes to strike out about 20%-25% of the time (the league average is about 20%), but that has not held back his batting average. A perfect example of this is the 44 games that Barnes spent in AA to start last season. He struck out 23% of the time but also had a .311 average. In this promotion to AAA that followed, Barnes hit .319 and reduced his strikeout percentage to 18.6% which resulted in getting promoted to the big leagues on August 7th.
In the 43 games that Barnes spent with Houston he had 105 plate appearances and his batting average was .205. The easy explanation for this is simply that Barnes does not have the bat to be a major league player and is typecast as a 4A player. However aside from the fact that there is more to Barnes’ game than his offense, I would say that is not true. It was a small sample size and Barnes was the victim of some bad luck.
.376 and .383. Those were Barnes’ BABIP in AA and AAA respectively last season. If you put that in context with his major league BABIP of .279 then the corresponding decrease in batting average makes a lot more sense. There is not enough in Barnes’ statistical history to support a BABIP at such high levels (.330-.340 seems more reasonable), and there is no reason why he cannot hit between .260 and .270 with some room for upside.
Barnes’ performance in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason gives credence to that belief along with some upside. In 106 at bats Barnes struck out 27.3% of the time (pretty close to the 27.6% in Houston) but instead of hitting .205 he hit .292. Barnes also added 4 HR and 20 RBI. Not bad production at all if you extrapolate that to give Barnes 500 at bats (20 HR, 100 RBI).
However, that is not to suggest that Barnes suddenly become a power threat. Between all levels last season, he hit 13 HR, drove in 76 runs, and stole 22 bases which he did in 497 at bats. Adjusting for the different levels of competition Barnes faced in the 3 different leagues he played in, I think you get a decent idea of what he would do with 500 at bats. Hitting fly balls at a rate of 29.4% as he did in Houston this season, will not result in him hitting more than 12-15 home runs, but a line drive rate of 22.1% is certainly a positive. A .265 average with 12 HR and 65 RBI while stealing 20 bases is within the realm of possibility.
More telling to me from his winter league performance this fall, is that Barnes walked 11 times which is welcome development as prior to last season, he did not frequently walk. Playing in Venezuela and this offseason in general will go a long way for Barnes because he now has major league experience. When asked about this offseason, Barnes said, “I have approached this offseason differently because I know what I need to do to succeed in the majors. I went down to Venezuela to refine my approach and become a better more patient hitter.”
Barnes is fully aware, “that this is the same game I have always played and not to be too hard on myself when I struggle but to go and make those little adjustments that you have to make to succeed.” This is the perfect attitude to have as he enters 2013 at a different point in his career that ever before. “I think it will be a little different just because I have that confidence knowing that I have been there before and I know I belong there,” Barnes said.
It would be selling Barnes short if we talked about his potential for next season without including his defense. Last season he made a few highlight reel catches while showing good instincts in the outfield along with a good arm. It is hard to measure defense just with statistics, and while Barnes passes the “eye test”, the statistics accentuate that point. He can play all three outfield positions, and per Fangraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating, he is 5.3 runs above average and 30.3 runs above average per 150 games.
Especially now with the flexibility of the DH position, combined with the uncertainty of the outfield and Barnes defensive ability, if he continues the positive momentum from Winter Ball, he could win himself regular playing time and be a solid contributor for the 2013 Astros. As Barnes said, “I need to just play my game and not try to be someone I am not.” And what he is, is a very good defensive outfielder with some power and speed and the ability to drive in runs. Outfielders like this are hard to come by, and the Astros just might have found themselves one.