The play of Clint Barmes has become a somewhat heated point of contention over the last month--more so than at any point in his Pirates tenure it seems--largely I assume because Jordy Mercer has finally received some playing time and hit a bit. Not Troy Tulowitzki numbers or even JJ Hardy numbers but better than Barmes, low as that bar may be.
In 77 plate appearances Mercer has a 257/276/486 line. He has more extra base hits (10) than Barmes (7) in about half the PA. He's seen increased playing time at SS over the last month, garnering 2-3 starts a week (as noted by David Todd and WTM in yesterdays game recap). From what we can tell from afar it seems that if he continues to perform as he has thus far his playing time is likely to increase. Although it should be noted his 23.4% K rate and 2.6% BB rate, Barmes-esque actually, will probably have to improve if he's going to continue to hit even as he has thus far.
In the meantime a Clint Barmes AB remains for the most part a frustrating affair. I get that, I'm sure everyone does and that's something we probably can all agree on. The point of divergence seems to occur when the topic shifts to how much value Barmes brings to the club defensively. Some of the Barmes frustration seems to not consider defense as a factor. An equal amount seem to contend that Barmes is in fact not that good defensively, regardless of what UZR or other metrics might say. I'll acknowledge of course that UZR, etc is far from perfect and we still have a ways to go when it comes to measuring defensive value--at least in terms of what's available to the public. But the fact of the matter is the Pirates pitchers have the lowest BABIP in baseball and the second highest ground ball percentage. So somehow those balls are turning into outs, whether it's luck, defense, or some combination of both, and Barmes plays the most important defensive position on the team that's inducing more ground balls than any team except St. Louis.
There's also the contention that Mercer's defense is underrated and while he might provide less value with the glove than Barmes the difference is small enough to be made up with the bat. I've not seen nearly enough of him at the ML level to form an opinion but I'm open to that possibility.
It would seem fair to assume that the Pirates are equally aware of Barmes's offensive debits. Huntington, Hurdle, etc see it every day. He's not a younger player who keeps getting run out there because he has some sort of unrealized upside. So I can only assume the determination at this point as from watching he and Mercer every day as well whatever additional proprietary metrics they utilize is that he saves enough runs to keep giving him at least 60% of the starts at SS. Just because the Pirates have made a decision of that nature (although in this case given Mercer's increased playing time it seems a fluid decision) doesn't mean it's the right one. We certainly all know that, but what would be the motivation for playing Barmes at the current rate, particularly this season when there's more pressure than every before in the NH tenture to actually win at the major level, if he wasn't making an important defensive contribution? Relative at least to recent history the Pirates are otherwise giving the 'appropriate playing time' to the 'right guys,' (platooning Sanchez and Jones as well Tabata and Snider when the former is healthy, etc), so why would Barmes be an anomaly at this point?