A good first baseman with a slugging percentage around .400 is like a good shortstop with bad range and an iffy arm. They just don't really exist, and the ones that do seem to get by on a truly odd skill set. A first baseman without power needs to be good at essentially everything else, while a good shortstop with lacking physical traits needs to have truly special instincts and a big-time bat in order to make up for such limitations.
There really aren't many players like this in the majors right now, guys getting by with skill sets that generally don't match their peers. Oakland's Daric Barton is certainly one of those players, though.
Just go check out the home run totals for the top ten first baseman on the WAR leaderboard: 29, 31, 32, 18, 21, 25, 19, 25, 31, 31. Guess who's 11th, with just 5 home runs? Yup, Daric Barton.
When essentially every first baseman in baseball, from the cream of the crop to the guys bordering on Quadruple-A, is providing some nice power from the position, a guy like Barton really stands out. Not only is Barton holding his own despite showing power that wouldn't even be that impressive for a second baseman, but he's proving to be an above-average all-around first baseman and a very valuable long-term asset for the A's.
A lot of people will see Barton's ugly traditional stat line and assume that he's been a liability for Oakland. I mean, a first baseman who's batting .279 with 5 homers and 42 RBI in 120 games just sounds like somebody in need of being replaced. But the thing is, outside of doing the things to put up strong BA/HR/RBI numbers, Barton's done pretty much everything that you could ask for from a top-flight first baseman.
Yeah, he's got only 5 homers, but his isolated power isn't nearly as embarrassing with 29 doubles and 4 triples to add to his docket. Obviously a first baseman with a .400 slugging percentage is going to need to be an on-base machine, and Barton is exactly that. After constantly putting up strong walk rates throughout his professional career both in the minors and the majors, he's walked 77 times in 120 games compared to only 78 strikeouts. His .389 OBP is tied for 7th among all first baseman qualified for the batting title, and his walk rate is tied for the third-highest among that same group. This is just a guy who knows how to take pitches and work the count.
While some will point to regression in his .328 BABIP, which is likely given that both his career BABIP and 2010 xBABIP are identical .303 marks, most projection systems seem to believe that Barton will hit for more power in the future. Such a power increase in the future would likely offset any decline in his BA/OBP caused by a hit in BABIP. And we haven't even gotten into the fact that Barton's numbers are really hurt by the Oakland Coliseum, and the fact that his .356 wOBA is still 25% superior than the league-average despite a slugging percentage that would disappoint many middle infielders.
And of course we can't forget defense, either, as Barton's routinely considered a plus defender at first base. This is something that the metrics have backed up so far: in 323 games with Oakland, UZR has Barton at 13 runs above average while DRS has Barton at 26 runs above average. If we use the data provided by DRS instead of the data provided by UZR, Barton's 3.1 WAR only improves.
I know that most people see a first baseman with 5 homers, 42 RBI, a .279 batting average and a .400 slugging percentage and assume that he can't possibly be that good of a player. But even a first baseman with those numbers can be awfully good if he's merely a high-quality defender with excellent on-base skills. At first glance Daric Barton might look like a pretty underwhelming player, but in reality he's simply a very good player providing his value in a unique way.