FanPost

Why the A's Should Not Extend Daric Barton

As anyone who is a frequent reader of my blog The Todd Van Poppel Rookie Card Retirement Plan would know, I love Daric Barton. He is my favorite position player member of the team and I think he is a great ballplayer and love him for how he is so great at taking pitches and playing a mean defensive first base. Barton is the kind of player Moneyball fans love to love, high on-base percentage but more to so what I feel is the true point of Moneyball's thesis which is that he is an undervalued commodity - in his case, a first baseman lacking power but who really is far more valuable than a lot of those guys who did possess the ability to hit twenty-plus home runs.

Earlier this week, Susan Slusser in an article for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about Barton saying,

"There's another candidate for a multi-year extension who might beat [Trevor]  Cahill to the punch, however: First baseman Daric Barton, who like Cahill would be arbitration-eligible after the season, is a strong possibility to be signed through at least 2014, according to a source. The A's value his ability to get on base, his defensive ability at first base and his durability; Barton, 25, played in 159 games last season."

Earlier this year MLBTradeRumors.com had a great piece that didn't explain the process of arbitration which is well known but about what really matters. One of the key takeaways, especially as it will relate to Daric Barton's arbitration years is this:

"At least one thing is simple about arbitration - the statistics. Sabermetricians have developed stats for just about everything, but teams and agents don't want to risk alienating arbitrators with wOBA, xFIP or UZR, so they stick to the basics. Wins don't necessarily indicate how effective a pitcher has been, but they will impact how much he gets paid. Innings pitched, ERA, RBI, runs, homers and doubles figure in, along with other back-of-the-baseball-card stats like batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage."

I like Daric Barton - a lot - and don't want him to be skimped on pay, but what does Billy Beane's interest in extending Daric Barton signal? Could it signal that arbitration hearings are showing a better understanding of sabermetrics? Remember the first win of this offseason for players was Ross Ohlendorf of the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose W-L record had him feature an uninspiring 1-11 (though it should be noted Ohlendorf's sabermetric stats weren't stellar, 0.9 WAR, 6.6 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 4.44 FIP, and a 7.7% HR/FB and could have won the arbitration hearing on the basis of a lack of many comparable players and serviceable ERA (4.07), WHIP (1.38) and K/BB (1.80) numbers). Conversely does it mean that Beane is expecting Barton to hit more doubles, home runs and drive in more runs with a more potent A's offense top to bottom?

So who is Daric Barton comparable to? Last year, of the 23 players with more than 75 walks last season, only two finished with more walks than strikeouts, him and Albert Pujols. If Barton were Pujols I'd say lets extend him now, but let's be straight here, he isn't. In an MLBTradeRumors.com piece about the possibility of extending Barton they say two players in particular are worth comparing to Barton, Kansas City's Billy Butler and Cleveland's Nick Johnson and I am also going to throw in James Loney. If we look at what the arbiters will look at, let's break them down at and through their 3+ years (for Barton we will look at the PECOTA projection for 2011 as this coming season is his 3+ year).

Player (Car. Pre-Arb) R HR RBI BA OBP SLG
D. Barton 266 41 203 .262 .370 .411
B. Butler 237 55 278 .299 .359 .457
N. Johnson 122 31 113 .256 .376 .424
J. Loney 200 45 265 .295 .354 .451

That MLBTradeRumors.com article mentioned above had this specific comment to make regarding first time arbitration eligible players, saying,

"When a player is arbitration eligible for the first time, the 'the length and consistency of his career contribution' matters a whole lot. It's the first opportunity for the player to reap the benefits of his first few major league seasons, so his entire career matters, not just the platform [his most recent] year."

So as we can see, Daric Barton matches up quite well with these players, getting more playing time than the oft-injured Nick Johnson (Johnson's rate stats are better), not being as solid an all-round hitter like Billy Butler and lacking the extra-bases and run driving in opportunities of James Loney. So at this point we can say safely Barton is sort of average for this group of players. How did they do in arbitration (adjusting values for Nick Johnson as he is older than the others), Billy Butler avoided arbitration signing a deal with the Royals (the numbers they exchanged were $4.3M and $3.4M) and was signed to a deal worth $30M over four years, Nick Johnson had just been traded from the Yankees to the Expos, they clubs exchanged numbers of $1.68M and $1.25M and Johnson lost his arbitration case, which is roughly $1.515M in today's climate, and finally James Loney avoided arbitration agreeing to a $3.1M contract with the Dodgers. Let's look at the platform numbers and see if they will have any bearing on the outcome:

Player (Plat Yr) R HR RBI BA OBP SLG
D. Barton 79 15 67 .264 .370 .421
B. Butler 77 15 78 .318 .388 .469
N. Johnson 60 14 47 .284 .422 .472
J. Loney 73 13 73 .281 .357 .399

You can easily see how Johnson got burned for both his career and his platform year numbers being suppressed simply due to a lack of action. Despite having some very impressive sabermetric numbers like 17.2 BB% to a 17.6 K%, a .393 wOBA and 2.2 WAR he got no love from the arbiters who felt that Montreal's offer was the better of the two. Butler, like Johnson not fleet in the field, posted a 10.2 BB%, 13.1 K% and a .372 wOBA as he accounted for 3.4 WAR. James Loney who is the sabermetric worst of this bunch, despite his high RBI totals (I do get a kick out of that line...), posted a career best 10.7 BB% in 2009, 11.8 K% and a .332 wOBA good for 1.6 WAR, playing a slightly above average first base.

This is where Barton gets really interesting, PECOTA has Barton as a 1.3 WAR player next season as his offense slightly regresses with his and walks being replaced by home runs it appears, they clearly expect (as do many) a regression in the very high fielding numbers he posted in 2010. If he gets only 1.3 WAR next year he is the worst of this bunch, but I don't see him sinking that low as after all he was a 4.9 WAR player last year, better than any of these guys, so let's split the difference and say he is a 3.1 WAR player which I think is a good guess (for reference's sake the Fans on Fangraphs have him pegged at a 3.5). This makes him now better than all these players.

Whats interesting is, the sabermetrics make him a better player than the numbers the arbiters will use. Whereas he is unimpressive with the traditional baseball card stats, he is amazing using advanced metrics like WAR (for Barton I show the range from PECOTA's calculation to my split-the-difference guess - point is regardless he is ahead of everyone already as he has 7.0 with one pre-arbitration season left):

Player WAR (Thru Arb Year)
D. Barton 8.3 - 10.1
B. Butler 6.4
N. Johnson 3.3
J. Loney 5.4

Which brings me back to my initial question: What does Beane's interest in extending Barton signal? Because to me, it'd seem that the A's should go into arbitration saying look, here's the kid James Loney in Los Angeles who is hitting home runs like our guy but driving in so many runs, and there's Billy Butler who hits so many more home runs that our guy and though he doesn't score so much he sure can drive them in and hit with power, and in 2004 there was a guy sort of like Daric, Nick Johnson and he had that great on base percentage but really he had more than Daric does too.

Until the arbiters start to recognize Barton's value he is the perfect Moneyball player, a completely undervalued commodity, a first baseman with no power, but whose glove work and walks and on base numbers make him valuable to us. Why do we want to risk the arbiters learning this trick? This seems like a situation where the club could really easily win. Barton is worth far more than all these guys, but arbiters don't know it. There is a group of people who do get it though, general managers. Why is Beane willing to throw out talking about these numbers with what have proven to be highly ignorant arbiters when we could benefit yet only wants to buy out Barton through his arbitration years. Any deal for Barton should buy out a free-agent year or two. The truth is, Barton won't ever find his value in an arbitration hearing, but he will find it on the open market with a pool of general managers. I do not endorse extending Barton if we're only getting cost control, until arbiters demonstrate an understanding of advanced statistics - and therefore Barton's true worth - they won't give him the pay bump he deserves. Let's buy out his free-agent years and receive some true cost savings, there is no value in just extending him through arbitration.

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