Moneyball's Forgotten Star: The Odyssey of Daric Barton
Reviled. Unwanted. Stuck in baseball purgatory since 2007, bouncing between the Majors and Triple A. Such is the plight of Oakland Athletic first baseman Daric Barton, whose latest call up from the minors came last week to take an injured Josh Reddick's spot in the lineup.
At first glance, one could point to Barton’s .248 average, his penchant for errors at first base and his lack of any significant power as obvious reasons why the guy doesn’t deserve a permanent spot in the Majors.
But dig a little deeper. You’ll see a guy with a higher career on base percentage than Matt Kemp, Josh Hamilton, or Robinson Cano. You’ll find a player with better advanced fielding metrics than Mark Teixiera.
None of this is to say that Barton belongs in the same category as the above players. His weaknesses, most especially that glaring lack of power, prevent him from joining ranks of baseball’s good players, let alone its superstars. But how does a player do several things as well as Barton does and still get rejected? Now there’s a question.
The End in the Beginning
Barton’s saga began nearly 10 years ago when the St. Louis Cardinals made him their first round pick of the 2003 draft a few months shy of his 18th birthday. He lived up to the hype that accompanies first round picks, tearing through the minor leagues quickly. By the close of the 2004 season, his stock was so high that he was the key piece that the Cardinals used to pry Mark Mulder from the A's.
Barton’s ascent through the ranks continued, and he eventually made his debut at the close of the 2007 season. The A’s weren’t a contender that year, but even in meaningless contests, Barton wowed fans. In just 18 games, he walloped four home runs and nine doubles, drew 10 walks and scored 16 runs, all while hitting .347.
Right then, at the age of 22 and with only 84 Major League plate appearances, Daric Barton had set the bar insurmountably high for himself.
The Moneyball Prototype
In hindsight, the sample size was so small that fans should have known Barton might never replicate what he did in that 2007 season. He failed to live up to the hype in 2008, hitting just .226 with a slugging percentage of .348. Still, he started to do what would become his hallmark, draw walks. His .327 OBP, though not great, was fourth-best on the team.
But it wasn’t enough to keep his job safe, and he began 2009 back in Triple A. He accumulated only 192 plate appearances that season, losing opportunities to old men Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Giambi and some guy named Tommy Everidge. He continued to draw walks and finished with a .372 OBP.
Barton’s first couple of seasons largely ended in disappointment, but in 2010, he experienced something akin to a breakout year. His .273 batting average and 10 homers didn’t jump off the stat page, but his .393 OBP and 5.4 Wins Above Replacement certainly did. Barton led the team in both categories.
In the field, he committed the second-most errors of any second baseman in the American League, but he was also second in total zone runs among AL first baseman (5) and tops in range factor per nine innings at his position (10.00). Those advanced metrics indicated a prowess in the field that his fielding percentage did not, and he was voted the 2010 Fielding Bible award as the game’s top defensive first baseman.
2010 Daric Barton was the quintessential “Moneyball” player – an undervalued asset whose true merit couldn’t be assessed through traditional stats. He wasn’t a superstar, but Barton had shown that he had the ability to be a competent player, especially for a franchise that was painfully short on skilled hitters.
Patient Hitter, Impatient Franchise
It still wasn’t enough. In brutal irony, the team that is credited with popularizing “Moneyball” couldn’t wait to dump Barton in 2011. He wasn’t off to a great start when the team eventually relegated him to the minors a couple months into the season, but his OBP was still .325, one of the better percentages on the team.
Yet the A’s stuck everybody else they could think of at first rather than give the job outright to Barton. Seven other players saw time at first. The most notable of these was Brandon Allen, whose WAR was -0.3 in 41 games.
The 2012 strategy remained the same, with the A’s throwing everyone at first base, hoping that someone would stick. Barton got fewer opportunities, and his power was all but nonexistent. He hit only one home run in 136 plate appearances, mitigating that pitiful performance by walking in 16.2 percent of those trips to the plate, once again helping him achieve a decent .338 OBP.
You can't necessarily blame the A's for looking elsewhere (who wants a first baseman who cant hit homers?), and their strategy seems justified by the discovery of Brandon Moss, a first baseman who can both get on base and drive the ball. Moss had a .954 OPS last year and sits at .775 this year.
Of course, things didn’t turn out so well for Barton. With Moss having assumed the starting first base role and the A’s tapping several other players to be his primary backups, Barton was designated for assignment before the start of this season and placed on waivers.
Nobody claimed him. And so Barton remains in purgatory.
Currently, only eight first basemen in the game have OBPs above .360. Last year, only four did. But drawing walks isn't sexy. Hitting doubles and home runs is. Furthermore, there is a perception that first basemen must be big powerful hitters capable of driving baseballs, not just taking pitches.
The problem for Barton is that there is a whole lot of substance to back up that perception. The batting runs stat calculates the number of runs above or below the major league average that a hitter contributes. Barton is at 15.0 in this category for his career, indicating that he's about average as a big league hitter. Sounds good, right?
Not so much. Runs from positional scarcity takes into account the average production at position to determine how many runs below or above average a player is worth. First basemen take a penalty because their production is better than other positions on average and in this stat Barton is -25 for his career, indicating that he's below average at his position.
Major League Baseball teams are smart. Any one of them could have claimed Barton off of waivers this year and didn't. That's probably a sign that Barton isn't a player any clubs think can help them win. He's above average on the whole, but he's below average at his position. And without positional versatility his value as a backup is limited.
If Barton played shortstop or catcher or second, he probably would have a much better shot to be a valued member of a number of organizations. As it is, he's a man that no one really wants.
It's a shame that a player with Barton's ability to draw walks and with his defensive skills keeps getting sent to the minors. It's unlikely he'll improve his power, but maybe he can. Or maybe one of the teams trotting out first baseman who can't get on base or hit for power (Giants? Marlins?) will eventually seek out a guy like Barton.
Until then, Daric Barton's odyssey through the baseball world will likely continue.
Matt Keith covers the Oakland A's weekly for numberFire. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mattlkeith.