Daric Barton is one of the best first-basemen in the game.
Now that I've caught your attention, I can assure you I am serious. Barton deserves to be considered a top 10 first baseman over the next several seasons. In fact, I'd rank Barton ahead of players such as Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard.
Barton is only just beginning his age-25 season in the majors and already has 1,485 career plate appearances to his name. He might not have the power many projected him to have, but Barton has more than held his own at the plate with a career .260/.369/.399 mark -- that .399 mark is dragged down by a .348 slugging percentage over 523 PA in 2008.
Barton will never be confused with his predecessors of Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi, but posting a .359 wOBA (Think OPS, but better: Weighted On-Base Average, scaled to OBP) was enough to place him 12th among all qualifying first baseman, just behind Teixeira and Howard. And I like Barton's chances of sustaining and improving his offensive production over the next three seasons a whole lot more than I like Howard -- who appears to have already entered his decline phase -- and Teixeira, who is fast developing a reputation for being dinged up and streaky over in New York.
Oh, and we haven't even talked about the contracts that made Howard and Teixeira very rich men. Both have contracts that will bring in well north of $100 million while Barton is just entering his final season at league-minimum salary. The ability for the A's to control Barton for the next four seasons at minimal dollars is a major, major mark in Barton's favor.
But even that's not enough to justify ranking Barton ahead of these players. That's where defense comes in. Barton had a staggering 14.2 UZR/150 (I prefer using UZR/150 to UZR as it allows for across-the-board comparisons) and 20 defensive runs saved (otherwise known as John Dewan's plus/minus rankings).
The Mets’ Ike Davis came in second at 13, but he's the only other one in double-digits ... and only seven first basemen have done better than Davis over the past eight years ... and just one has beaten Barton out. That's Albert Pujols, with 29 DRS in 2007.
How about UZR/150? Barton's 14.2 figure was in front of Davis again, who checked in at 11.9. No other first baseman ranked higher than 4.8. And of the past eight seasons, only five first baseman bettered that figure, led by Pujols again in '07 with a 21.7 mark.
Barton's defense and overall offensive game is exactly why he placed sixth in all first baseman in WAR with 4.2, and that mark is what first caught my attention on how underrated Barton's season was.
Now, a caveat: it's generally accepted that one season is not enough to judge a player on defensive merits. You need more than that as defense can vary wildly from year to year. (Barton is no exception: he had 2 DRS in 2009 with a 6.3 UZR/150, which is still very good.) Three seasons of data appear to be what is necessary. Pujols bookended his sublime 2007 season with 17 DRS in 2006 and 15 in 2008. His UZR/150 were 10.5 and 11.9, respectively. That gives a pretty good picture that his defensive prowess in those years was for real, but he's been on the decline since. His 2009 totals were 12 DRS, 2.3 UZR.150. 2010? Exactly zero DRS and 1.1 UZR/150. Oh, and Pujols was 30.
Why do I mention Pujols' age? Because Bill James wrote the other day that "defensive value peaks earlier and fades MUCH younger than offensive value." (Hat tip to SweetSpot founder Rob Neyer for turning me onto that article.) James contends that defensive peak is reached at ages 22-25 and "many players are fading defensively by the age of 27, long before 30."
And that's why I bring up Pujols' age. Yes, it's cherry-picking, but it's a relevant example, and that's why I also feel Barton's a pretty good bet to hang onto his defensive value over the next three seasons, given he's beginning his age 25 season.
Tie it all together and Barton is one of the best first basemen in the game.
Evan Brunell runs the SweetSpot Red Sox blog at Fire Brand of the American League.