January 27, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Heavyweight Infield
It's no hyperbole to say Prince Fielder's nine-year, $214 million deal with the Tigers shocked the baseball world. The Tigers certainly weren’t on the list of likely suitors given their sizable commitment to the sizable player occupying his position: Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera was the AL's most valuable first baseman in 2010 and 2011 according to WARP, and is under contract for another $86 million through 2015. Even with the designated hitter slot open due to Victor Martinez's season-ending torn ACL—the catastrophe that triggered Fielder’s signing—the team plans to play the new guy at first base and shift the incumbent to third base. It’s a position Cabrera hasn't played regularly since 2007, but one that he nonetheless calls "his natural position." Paired with Ryan Raburn at second base and Jhonny Peralta at shortstop—two players moved to less demanding defensive positions years ago, only to shift back to harder ones—the Tigers are threatening to field one of the more terrifying infields in recent memory.
Cabrera's most recent hot corner experience coincided with his arrival in Detroit. He opened the 2008 season by playing 14 of his first 18 games there and made five errors, four of them on throws, then swapped positions with first baseman Carlos Guillen and hasn't looked back. He likely weighs a great deal more than his listed 240 pounds; last spring, he reported to camp at a self-estimated 270 pounds and spoke of wanting to trim down to 255-260 pounds. Despite the excess baggage—both literally and figuratively, given his off-field alcohol troubles—his hitting wasn't affected, and neither was his durability: he tied for the league lead in games (161), led in batting average (.344) and on-base percentage (.448), and ranked second in slugging percentage (.586). In that regard, he’s quite similar to Fielder, listed at an even weightier 275 pounds and likely more than that; the former Brewer played 162 games and ranked second in the NL in on-base percentage (.415) and third in slugging percentage (.566).
Both sluggers have histories of below-average defense, Cabrera at −72.1 Fielding Runs Above Average, and Fielder at −22.5. But the former's figure is a mélange of values at four different positions (first base, third base, left field, and right field) spread out over nine seasons. Raburn (+4.4) and Peralta (+16.8) have both been above average during their careers while splitting time at various positions. Some of that is ancient history and irrelevant to the discussion, and some of the relevant performances have come in small fragments of seasons. To get a better feel for the historical value (or lack of it) generated by these players at each position, I looked at FRAA in conjunction with three other defensive measures—Total Zone, Defensive Runs Saved (Plus/Minus), and Ultimate Zone Rating—going back to 2008. I averaged each player's performance at each position over the four seasons, prorating to 1,350 innings, the equivalent of 150 games:
I didn’t use any weighting in calculating these values, though it really doesn't make a ton of difference; using a 5-4-3-2 system, with the most recent years valued the most highly, doesn't change any of the first four values by more than half a run. One reason to avoid using weighting is because I don't know how to properly account for Cabrera's time beyond first base, for which I had to go back further than 2008. For third base, I used his 2006-2008 data, two seasons of 1,300-plus innings and another 116 innings with the Tigers, while for left field, the data comes from 2003-2005, with two seasons of around 500 innings and another of just over 1,100.
Note that the player who rates by far as the worst at his position, Raburn, is also the one with the smallest sample there, just 713 innings, the equivalent of about 79 games. He was drafted by the Tigers as a third baseman back in 2001, but shifted off the hot corner within a few years. He played mostly second base in 2004-2005, with some in 2006 before shifting to the outfield that year. Excluding his brief major-league cameo in 2004, he has since played about three times as many innings in the outfield (2,034) as at the keystone. Given the ugliness of those prorated numbers, and the possibility that he can’t shake the offensive downturn that sank him to a .256/.297/.423 line (a .261 TAv) in 2011, it's hardly unreasonable to suggest that the Tigers will rely at least equally upon the offensively inferior but defensively sound Ramon Santiago (+4.5 runs per 150 games), which would lessen the per-150 hit from 17.7 runs to 6.6. At the other end of the spectrum, Peralta scores as surprisingly average, at least compared to my own eyeball test and the general perception of his defense. His 2011 numbers are all over the map: +9.9 UZR, −4 TZ, −4 DRS, and +2.0 FRAA, for an average of 1.0. Nothing I saw during the playoffs led me to believe he was anywhere near average, but the numbers see more than I do.
Fielder and Cabrera are virtually even at first base, while Cabrera is about twice as many runs below average at third as he is at first, assuming no attrition of his "skills" since 2007, which is probably a stretch. Still, it's important to understand that the baseline value of playing those positions, even badly, is different. In WARP, we account for this with a positional adjustment that's based on a rolling average of offensive production by the hitters at each position using RPA+ (True Average expressed on a scale where 100 is league average). At a level of 150 games, the positional adjustment for first base is −11.5 runs, −2.9 runs for left field, −0.3 runs for third base, and −11.3 runs for DH. That’s basically equivalent to first base, via a much smaller pool of players, so it’s not surprising it doesn’t line up perfectly. Part of the adjustment comes with the offensive decline that players moved from their positions to the DH slot typically experience, perhaps because some are playing at less than 100 percent health.
Cabrera's total defensive value at each position per 150 games would be his fielding runs (FRAA, or in this case my multisystem average) plus his positional adjustment, or:
1B: (−4.9) + (−11.5) = −16.4 runs
Even playing the position badly enough to match his 2006-2008 “form,” Cabrera would have more total defensive value at third base than at first base. In fact, he would have a cushion of a half-dozen runs by which he could decline before the move becomes a wash; this is where the attrition of his skills comes in. The same is more or less true of left field, as unlikely as it is to envision him scampering around Comerica Park’s spacious outfield. Of course, playing those more difficult positions could increase his injury risk, though that may pertain more to the extra legwork required for the outfield than the switch across the diamond.
Even if Cabrera were to decline by those six runs, he’d be nowhere near the worst third baseman of the play-by-play era (1951 onward), at least according to FRAA (alas, I could not query using the other systems to come up with similar multisystem averages):
Chipper Jones’ multiple appearances on the list do suggest that having an utterly awful third baseman isn’t an impediment to winning; even as a Hall of Fame-caliber bat, he wasn’t as good a hitter, maxing out at a .344 True Average, where Cabrera’s done back-to-back seasons above .350. Bobby Bonilla sucked it up at the hot corner and helped the Marlins win an unlikely world championship in 1997. Just missing the cut are Pete Rose (−17 for the 1975 Reds), Wade Boggs (−16.3 for the 1990 Red Sox) and Cey (−16.0 for the 1984 Cubs) among other teams that made the postseason despite frigid performances at the hot corner.
If the Tigers go with an alignment that includes Fielder at first base, a job share at second, Peralta at short, and Cabrera at third, based upon the numbers above, that infield grades out at 21.1 runs below average per 150 games, or 22.8 for a full 162-game season. Were they to hit that mark, they would tie for the 13th-worst showing of any post-1950 team according to FRAA. They would hardly be the worst infield Cabrera has been a part of; the 2007 Marlins rank fourth, with Cabrera’s swan song at third base (−9.5) accompanied by the clanking sounds of second baseman Dan Uggla (−8.6) and shortstop Hanley Ramirez (−11.8); their backups and team’s various first basemen were net positives, preventing them from making a run at the top of the list. Fielder was part of a rather lousy unit that same year (−17.2), with his −2.5 showing joining those of Ryan Braun (-14.8) and Rickie Weeks (-4.9), though J.J. Hardy (+1.8) and Craig Counsell (+2.8) prevented them from cracking the bottom 20.
All of which raises the question: How much does having a bad infield defense matter? At first it appears as though such a porous unit isn't a huge hindrance to winning...
…but only if you’re the Yankees, blessed with one of the league's highest-scoring teams. No fewer than six Yankees teams of the past 12 seasons make the list, all of which made the playoffs and three of which won pennants. Between Jason Giambi, Chuck Knoblauch, Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter, and even Alex Rodriguez, they've had their share of subpar defenders—all have at least one season in double-digit negatives here, with Captain Clutch at least 12 runs below average in all six seasons, and Soriano and Knoblauch both at least 15 runs below average once. Those teams had two things in common. First, all were in the upper half of the AL in scoring; in fact, all except for the 2000 and 2001 teams were in the top three. Second, five of the six (all except for 2007) were in the upper half of the league in strikeout rate, with three of them in the top three. Pummeling your opponents into submission is a good way to get around a bad infield defense, as is missing a lot of bats.
With the Yankees included, the collective record of the bottom 20 teams is 1593-1577, for a .503 winning percentage. Take them away, though, and the collective winning percentage falls to .463, with none of the remaining teams making the playoffs, and only four of the 14 reaching .500, one by a mere half game. Of the three strongest non-Yankees teams represented above, two of them, the 1960 Braves and the 1980 Reds, ranked in their league's top three in scoring, while the third, the 2002 Mariners, ranked sixth in scoring but third in True Average, accounting for their pitcher-friendly park. Meanwhile, the Mariners, Reds and barely-.500 1979 Indians were the only three non-Yankees teams to rank in the upper half of their leagues in strikeout rate. Once you adjust for league size, teams in this lot averaged a ranking of 7.6 (out of 16) in run scoring, and 10.4 in run prevention, perhaps because they privileged offense instead of defense in making their infield choices. With or without the Yankees, the teams' overall won-loss performances were almost inextricably tied to their offenses, with correlations in the −0.9 range (the lower the ranking, the higher the winning percentage), compared to −0.8 or −0.6 for run prevention.
Which isn't the worst news for the Tigers, given that they ranked fourth in the AL in scoring and eighth in strikeout rate in 2011. Their offense has improved by effectively swapping Martinez for Fielder, and—if Cabrera can hold on at third—by replacing an assortment of players who delivered a .222/.286/.331 line during their time at third base. Of course, to maintain that level of scoring, they'll need supporting players like Peralta, Alex Avila, and Brennan Boesch to remain productive with the lumber, and for Austin Jackson to get on base more often than last year's .317 clip. If they insist upon trying Cabrera at third, the least they can do is get Delmon Young (-9.4 runs per 150 games) the hell out of the outfield to see if that can jump-start his bat, or see if a low-cost DH like Johnny Damon or Hideki Matsui wants to come along for a one-year ride. Detroit’s rotation isn’t tremendously strikeout-oriented besides Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, but they’ve essentially ditched Brad Penny (3.7 K/9) for a full season of Doug Fister (6.1 K/9, 7.3 with Detroit), a move that would project to an extra 49 strikeouts over Penny’s 181
While I do think it becomes likely that either Cabrera or Fielder winds up spending a good amount of time at DH in 2012, I can’t fault the team for entertaining the possibility of playing both in the field for several reasons. One of the lessons of a two-part study I did last year is that at a team level, there’s little correlation with fielding ability, at least to the extent that we can measure it with one year of data, and winning—nowhere near the correlation that there is with offense and winning. There is literally no correlation—.00, folks—between corner infield FRAA and winning percentage.
Beyond, that, there are some clear advantages to trying this: not losing one of the two big bats for the 18 interleague games on their schedule, or being forced into an unfamiliar alignment on the chance they make the World Series. If the Tigers don’t satisfactorily fill the DH slot by Opening Day, they surely will by July 31, and could, in fact, improve at any one of a number of positions. They could trade for a slick-fielding third baseman, or a slick-fielding shortstop and move Peralta (+0.7 runs per 150 games) to third, shake loose another bat from somewhere else regardless of position, or welcome Martinez back with open arms late in the year if his rehab goes particularly well.
As to where the Tigers go beyond that, I suspect they’ll wind up eating a good chunk of Martinez’s salary to move him to another team next year if they can’t find a way to shoehorn both heavyweights into the lineup to everyone’s satisfaction. However, that’s a problem for another day. For the moment, it certainly bears watching how the Tigers fare in the heavyweight division.