FanPost

Daric Barton: Earning My Respect

 

I’ll admit it; I have not been a Daric Barton supporter.  I’ve actually been pretty vocal with my opinion that I do not want him to be the A’s starting 1st baseman.  Rarely the naysayer, I decided to investigate why the A’s were so high on him.

Barton came to the A’s, along with Dan Haren and Kiko Calero, as part of the Mark Mulder trade in 2004.  While Haren appeared to be the prize of the deal, helping to anchor the pitching staff each of his three seasons in Oakland, Barton actually drew the most attention and praise at the time.  He was touted as a hitter with excellent plate discipline that was rarely seen in a player so young.  At 18, he finished his second minor league season at Class-A Peoria with a .313 batting average, more walks (69) than strikeouts (44), and 13 home runs.  The trend of walking more than he struck out would continue for his next five minor league seasons until he became the A’s everyday first baseman.

In 2005 while Barton was playing first for the Stockton Ports’ I spoke with then Manager Todd Steverson, (now the hitting coach for the Sacramento River Cats’).  He nearly ran out of superlatives when talking about Barton’s maturity at the plate.  He noted that Barton possessed an eye for pitches that very few hitters do and he confirmed the reports that it was rare to see it in a player Barton’s age (then 19).  "He always has an idea of what to do at the plate and he’s good at distinguishing between what’s a good pitch and what’s a bad pitch."

At that time, like most minor leaguers, Barton’s power was still developing.  During his 79-game stint with the Ports in 2005, Barton hit only eight home runs.  The Ports play their home games at Banner Island Ballpark which is known to be a hitter’s park, especially for left-handed hitters.  He finished that season with 13 total homers between Stockton and Double-A Midland.  In 2006 he was named the A’s #1 prospect by Baseball America.  Despite all the praise, he never hit more than 10 home runs in a season for the rest of his minor league career. 

To his credit, one thing he was doing was cranking out doubles.  In 2007 he finished 6th in the PCL with 38.  After a disappointing rookie season in 2008, he was demoted back to Triple-A for 2009 and roped 21 doubles in only 70 games.  The adage about young hitters is that doubles will turn into home runs as their bodies mature and they build more muscle.  This has yet to be the case with Barton, but his gap power has continued.  Last season he led the A’s in doubles with 33.  All of that being said, Barton is only 25-years-old and just finished his second full major league season.  He has plenty of time for growth.

Barton has continued to display his keen eye at the plate.  Last season he was second in the majors in walks and again had more walks than strike outs (110:102).  The only other players in the top 50 to accomplish this feat: some guys named Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer.  That is elite company and is one of the stats that opened my eyes to Barton’s value.  I admit to initially being stuck in the mindset that first baseman should be power hitters.  That may be a best-case scenario, but there are other ways that a first baseman can be valuable at the plate.  Barton batted second in the lineup in 149 of 159 games last season.  In players with at least 250 plate appearances in the 2-hole, his .402 OBP led the majors.  As did his 4.4 pitches per plate appearance.  Being on base 40% of the time when the middle of the order comes up is not something to overlook and I was very surprised to discover this.  I knew that it was probably his greatest asset, but again I had it stuck in my head that he had to hit balls out of the park because he was a first baseman.  If power comes from other positions, this is a fallacy.

I’m a firm believer in Sabermetrics and their accuracy/validity in player evaluation.  Fangraphs.com has become my newest resource for finding this information.  According to their data, Barton had a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) value of 4.9 last season, leading the A’s.  (For the explanation of this stat, see this link: http://saberlibrary.com/misc/war/)  That alone proves Barton’s value to the team and it was a higher rating than several power-hitting first basemen including: Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, Adam LaRoche, and Ryan Howard.  Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Barton is better than any of these players, only that he is an integral part of Oakland’s lineup. 

Next, I decided to look at some comparable first baseman to Barton over the last 30 years. Looking at the top 10 similarity scores on Baseball-Reference.com didn’t produce any recognizable names, most likely because of Barton’s short time in the majors.  I decided to go off of memory and looked up Mark Grace; another left-handed hitting first baseman not known for his power, but who enjoyed a productive major league career.  His list of top 10 comparables included: John Olerud, Keith Hernandez, and Wally Joyner: all left-handed, all first baseman, and all averaged fewer than 20 home runs per 162 games.  The similarities were uncanny. (Figure 1)


Figure 1:

2nd Full/Near-Full season

Year

Age

HRs

K:BB

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS

Mark Grace

1989

25

13

42:80

.314

.405

.457

.862

Keith Hernandez

1977

23

15

88:79

.291

.379

.459

.838

Wally Joyner

1987

25

34*

64:72

.285

.366

.528

.894

John Olerud

1991

22

17

84:68

.256

.353

.438

.791

Averages

24

20

69:75

.287

.376

.471

.846

Daric Barton

2010

24

10

102:110

.273

.393

.405

.798

         *Joyner never hit more than 22 home runs or slugged over .500 in any other season.

The obvious difference that jumps out at you is the home runs and the Slugging percentage, but they are very skewed by Joyner’s career year.  If you substitute Joyner’s second highest career total in home runs and his Slugging percentage from that same season (1986, his rookie year) the averages in those categories change to 17 and .411.  These are much closer to Barton’s numbers.  He still trails in home runs, but his other numbers are very similar.  This group of four comparable players all played at least 16 seasons, with at least 12 near-full seasons, and had very productive careers.  They each also went to at least one World Series (Joyner is the only one without a ring).  The point is that even if Barton never hits 20 home runs in a season, he can still be an asset by consistently hitting in the teens.

Another factor that makes Barton so valuable is money.  He made $400,000 last season, or roughly 9% of what Adam LaRoche and his WAR of 2 made.  Barton isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2012 and won’t be a free agent until 2015.  If he hasn’t started hitting more home runs once his arbitration years begin, it could actually work in the A’s favor.  It’s hard to win big money in an arbitration case if you’re not a slugger.  I’m confident that by that time, unless he’s somehow pushed aside by Chris Carter (unlikely) or involved in a trade (possible, but still unlikely), the A’s will have signed him to a multi-year deal.  Either way, he’s under team control until he’s almost 30.

I have to admit that by digging deeper and seeing the big picture, I have been swayed.  I now believe that Barton is actually a very valuable asset.  Even if he doesn’t turn more of his doubles into home runs I am glad that he seems to be locked in as the A’s first baseman for the foreseeable future.  I’m confident that he will continue to make a name for himself around the league as a batter that pitchers don’t enjoy facing.  Who knows, maybe he will end up hitting 20 or more home runs for a few seasons.  Either way, I’ll take it.  

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