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February 17, 2012

The BP First Take

Friday, February 17

by Daniel Rathman

Remember when we all thought the Tigers were crazy for moving Miguel Cabrera back to third base? Well, here is a possibly even crazier idea: Brandon Inge, second base.

To be sure, the Tigers caught themselves in a bit of a bind with Inge as soon as they signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million deal. Inge is owed $5.5 million for the 2012 season—pricey for a bench player, and even pricier for someone who hit .196/.265/.283 in 303 plate appearances last year. The converted catcher was once a very useful player, but Inge will turn 35 in May, and a significant portion of his value was tied to his defense at the hot corner. Now Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski are determined to take that away, too.

The problem here is not Inge, it is the Tigers’ pitching staff. Their rotation remains Justin Verlander and four question marks. Is Doug Fister’s breakout sustainable? Can Max Scherzer develop more consistency? Is Rick Porcello’s sub-15 percent K/PA going to eat into his success? Can one of Jacob Turner, Drew Smyly, or Andrew Oliver blossom into a passable number-five starter?

To be more precise, the problem is that moving Cabrera to third, inserting Fielder at first, and perhaps shuffling Inge over to second could make the answers to questions one and three a resounding “no.” Fister and Porcello rely on stellar control and quality sinkers to overcome their lack of swing-and-miss stuff. They are ground-ball pitchers, first and foremost. The Tigers ranked 18th in the league in defensive efficiency last season, and they are likely to drop well into the bottom 10 with the infield playing musical chairs. That could put Fister in line for a rude correction to his .272 BABIP.

As the battle for the keystone is waged at Tigers camp in Lakeland, Florida, the team should make its decision almost exclusively on defense. Of the four players currently in contention—Ryan Raburn, Ramon Santiago, Danny Worth, and Inge—Santiago is likely the best bet to provide some stability to an infield in flux. Inge has not played an inning at second in his big-league career, and learning a complex position in a month is a lot to ask of any player, even a baseball rat.

If the Tigers go with a bat-first player at second instead, their team defense may quash the impact of Fielder’s addition to the offense. And they had better make sure that player’s shoulders are in good shape—because Fister and Porcello will need something to cry on.

This week in Sabermetrics 101
During my final semester at Tufts, I am serving as a T.A. for Andy Andres’ Sabermetrics 101 course. The class meets once a week on Thursday nights, and each Friday morning, I will recap the previous evening’s class at the bottom of the First Take.

The first few weeks of Sabermetrics 101 are intended to be a crash course in the statistics that can be used to objectively analyze the game of baseball. After a general introduction in week one, the class discussed the merits of wOBA, TAv, OPS+, and the myriad other metrics available for the evaluation of hitters in week two. Along the way, the class debated the usefulness of statistics that compare players to the league average versus those that use replacement level as a benchmark.  Last night’s class included a similar analysis of pitching statistics.

Students were then asked to use their preferred statistics to make an argument for the 2012 Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards. Matt Kemp and Joey Votto emerged as the favorites in the National League, while Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera were favored in the American League. There were few surprises in the Cy Young predictions as well, with 2011 hopefuls Roy Halladay and Clayton Kershaw back on top in the senior circuit, and Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia doing the same in the AL. The most daring predictions made were Hanley Ramirez in a bounce-back campaign for National League MVP, and Stephen Strasburg returning to form after Tommy John surgery to capture the Cy.

Next week’s class will focus on fielding sabermetrics, and for homework, students have been asked to defend their choice for a Gold Glove winner at any position. 

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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