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January 27, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Heavyweight Infield

by Jay Jaffe

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:

Fielder, 1B: −4.6 runs
Cabrera, 1B: −4.9 runs
Raburn, 2B: −17.7 runs
Peralta, SS: −0.2 runs
Cabrera, 3B: −9.7 runs
Cabrera, LF: −6.7 runs

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
3B: (−9.7) + (−0.3) = −10.0 runs
LF: (−6.7) + (−2.9) = −9.6 runs
DH: 0 + (-11.3) = −11.3 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):

Rk

Player

Year

Team

FRAA

1

Chipper Jones

1999

Braves

-27.5

2

Joe Torre

1971

Cardinals

-27.0

3

Toby Harrah

1979

Indians

-25.9

4

Chipper Jones

2001

Braves

-22.5

5

Ron Cey

1983

Cubs

-21.9

6

Enos Cabell

1979

Astros

-21.7

7

Dean Palmer

1998

Royals

-21.5

8

Garrett Atkins

2007

Rockies

-21.1

9

Ken Reitz

1975

Cardinals

-20.9

10

Chipper Jones

1996

Braves

-20.5

11

Aramis Ramirez

2006

Cubs

-20.2

12

Carney Lansford

1985

A’s

-19.9

13

Ray Jablonski

1954

Cardinals

-19.3

14

Eddie Yost

1952

Senators

-19.0

15

Bobby Bonilla

1997

Marlins

-18.8

16

Ken Reitz

1980

Cardinals

-18.5

17

Frank Thomas

1958

Pirates

-18.3

18

Howard Johnson

1989

Mets

-18.2

19

Ray Jablonski

1956

Reds

-17.9

20

Eddie Yost

1960

Tigers

-17.6

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...

Year

Team

FRAA

W

L

WPCT

Finish

2006

Yankees

-33.1

97

65

.599

1

2001

Yankees

-31.1

95

65

.594

1

2000

Rangers

-29.1

71

91

.438

4

2007

Marlins

-28.8

71

91

.438

5

2002

Mariners

-26.2

93

69

.574

3

1960

Twins

-25.9

88

66

.571

2

1951

Senators

-24.8

62

92

.403

7

1997

White Sox

-24.5

80

81

.497

2

2003

Yankees

-24.5

101

61

.623

1

1994

Twins

-24.5

53

60

.469

4

2010

Pirates

-24.3

57

105

.352

6

2004

Yankees

-23.9

101

61

.623

1

1979

Indians

-22.8

81

80

.503

6

2000

Yankees

-22.7

87

74

.540

1

1999

Marlins

-22.4

64

98

.395

5

1985

A's

-22.3

77

85

.475

4

1980

Reds

-22.0

89

73

.549

3

2010

Marlins

-21.3

80

82

.494

3

2007

Yankees

-20.9

94

68

.580

2

1969

Padres

-20.8

52

110

.321

6

…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 2/3 innings—enough to vault them to fifth in the league in K rate.

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.

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

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

fawcettb

Excellent stuff, Jay,

Thanks.

Jan 27, 2012 05:10 AM
rating: 2
 
Brandon R. Warne

Pretty typical. Always good.

Jan 27, 2012 10:09 AM
rating: 0
 
marshaja

Not that the Tigers have the prototypical team to do this, but doesn't this make sense if you have a K heavy fly ball staff. Verlander and Scherzer definitely will be hurt less by this and it's probably a good tradeoff when they are on the mound.

Pity Rick Porcello. If Santiago doesn't start somewhere during his starts, his stats could look uglier than they have been.

Jan 27, 2012 05:31 AM
rating: -1
 
Eddie

Despite the numbers indicating otherwise, Peralta's 'poor' defense was mentioned over and over in the article, even suggesting at the end that he be moved to 3B.

An average fielding SS with his bat is huge asset at the position, and I can't imagine why any team would want to negate the value of such an asset.

Jan 27, 2012 06:13 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Jeez, I pointed out that the numbers assert that isn't as bad as I thought he was - a good lesson in the value of faulty perception - and that his versatility increased the number of trade scenarios the Tigers could entertain. You want I should build him a bronze statue in front of Comerica too?

Jan 27, 2012 09:46 AM
 
DetroitDale

Great Article, Jay, Love to see my boys get some solid balanced analysis.

Obviously we need to stop telling Porcello to pitch to contact and start going after guys agressively like Verlander and Scherzer.

Fister doesn't replace Penny but Phil Coke. Penny's replacement is yet to be determined (likely Jake Turner or one of the lesser pitching prospects)

Delmon Young's bat was just find during his brief time with detroit while playing LF. Granted the high k-rate, small sample size and bad numbers over longer period in Minnesota makes one wonder if that will continue. (especially if he's move from in front of Miggy and Fielder to behind them).

The full move of Cabrera to third need not happen yet. I suspect this year it will be largely limited to the 18 interleague games. The real issue comes next year, but even then, there are other things that might happen. Vmart may not come back from the injury even next year. If he does, Delmon may crater they way you'd expect a guy with his plate disclipline and history to crater. And we haven't at all covered how Miggy at third could block Nick Castellanos.

Jan 27, 2012 07:12 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Glad you enjoyed the piece. Agree that it's time to take the training wheels of of Porcello and see if he can miss more bats.

Fister replaces Penny only in the sense that the team is likely to have the former in the rotation wire-to-wire instead of the latter. We don't really know who will be the fifth starter, and it's a safe assumption that it might take more than one pitcher to make it through (a la Coke/whomever/Fister last year).

Castellanos is 19 and just finished in A-ball. The Cabrera-at-3B show will probably be a distant memory by the time he's ready, and one or the other sluggers will be DHing even if he moves aggressively. VMart will be the odd man out by then if he isn't already.

Jan 27, 2012 07:51 AM
 
timber

I'm no Brandon Inge fan, but I asked this over on Steven's column and I'll ask it here too: If the Tigers decide they can't take the defense, why would they need to trade for a slick-fielding third baseman when they have Brandon Inge? I realize he can no longer hit his way out of a paper bag, but the glove is still pretty good, and with the lack of good third basemen out there these days he might be their best option.

Jan 27, 2012 08:56 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

slick-fielding is probably an overstatement as to what the Tigers could use as an upgrade. Anybody who can field decently and outhit Inge - who's now the definition of a Replacement-Level Killer - would be be workable.

Jan 27, 2012 09:16 AM
 
Richie

Yes, very good research. Thank you.

Jan 27, 2012 09:49 AM
rating: 0
 
pschoenke

Off subject .. but seeing Chipper Jones as the worst fielder ever at 3B seems out of place. He's had positive WAR fielding and UZR most of his seasons at 3B. Although his FRAA are all negative. What's the quick summary of the differences?

Jan 27, 2012 09:59 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

The main thing is that there's almost no overlap between Chipper's worst stretch in the field (1996-2003) and the availability of DRS or UZR (2004 onward). Total Zone and FRAA don't really agree on how bad he was, but he has years in the former where he's more than a full win (10 runs) below average and they line up pretty well with his worst years in FRAA.

Oddly, one of his worst defensive years comes when he played LF, in 2003, we have him at -24.8, and TZ has him at -1.1 WAR. That's massive for an outfielder.

Jan 27, 2012 12:09 PM
 
eighteen

Teams say all kinds of things about what they plan to do.

Sometimes, they're serious.

Starting Cabrera at 3B isn't one of those times.

Jan 27, 2012 11:08 AM
rating: 0
 
andrews

I I think they'll give him a go at 3rd but if he struggles they can then dh him. That way it won't cause a problem if he can't cut it and then has to dh.
They can always start Inge and Santiago when porcello pitches.

Jan 27, 2012 11:56 AM
rating: 0
 
thatfnmb

Great article. Shouldn't we be saying 9 interleague games not 18? Miggy/Prince can still DH the 9 games at Comerica.

Jan 27, 2012 15:23 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Oops, my bad on that.

Jan 27, 2012 15:28 PM
 
dianagram

Surprised that Butch Hobson's 1978 season didn't make the list of bad news at the hot corner years.

Great article Jay (as always).

Jan 27, 2012 15:55 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Thanks, Diane.

Hobson's 1978 terror afield (43 errors, .899 fielding percentage) wasn't nearly as bad as you'd expect in terms of FRAA (-1.8), because he apparently made most of the plays he should have made. His 1977 (-13.3) and 1979 (-6.8) were worse, and he was at -30.7 for his career.

Jan 28, 2012 09:37 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Doesn't an error imply that the play should have been made?

Jan 28, 2012 20:15 PM
rating: 0
 
rumscroft

The two worst FRAA were by MVPs? I guess I knew award voters don't count defense for much, but wow.

Jan 27, 2012 16:50 PM
rating: 0
 
BarryR

I am trying to understand something here and failing miserably. The positional adjustment is based on "a rolling average of offensive production by the hitters at each position" and said positional adjustment is subtracted from a player's fielding runs to get his defensive value. So a player's DEFENSIVE value is affected by the OFFENSIVE abilities of players at his position. Say what? And because of this, an average defensive 1B has LESS defensive value than a DH who may well be utterly incapable of playing 1B at all. And everybody accepts this like it makes sense. Holy crap.

Jan 27, 2012 22:50 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Let me see if I can explain this more clearly.

Positional scarcity matters. At any easy-to-play defensive position (DH, 1B, LF being the easiest), the pool of players capable of doing the job defensively at a minimum level of competence is several times larger than at the more difficult positions (C, SS, CF, 2B, 3B). Thus, teams tend to wind up employing the ones who can hit the best, even if they're not good fielders. There's an opportunity cost to employing a relatively weak-hitting DH/1B/lF like Lyle Overbay or Juan Pierre because you can almost invariably find a much better hitter.

Rather than employ a strictly theoretical model to explain this phenomenon within our value metric, Colin Wyers is basing it upon the actual level of production at each position (he uses a multiyear average). Basically what it's saying is that the average 1B is 11 or 12 runs better than the average overall hitter over the course of a full season, while the average third baseman is pretty close to the average hitter. Our metrics account for that.

Now, the fact that the DH adjustment is slightly LOWER than 1B at the moment is something of a fluke, even with a multiyear average taken into account. That probably has to do with the fact that fewer teams are employing true mashers at the DH spot, the Ortizes and Hafners, and settling for crappy production there. Last year, 12 DHs had 300+ plate appearances, and four of them were downright crappy, with sub-700 OPS (see http://es.pn/yGyDom). Go back to, say, 2007, and you'll see that no DH had an OPS below 746 (http://es.pn/wKqB2K). Go back to 2003, and nobody was below 797 (http://es.pn/AbJz8K). It's an inefficiency, basically, as is the one where center fielders outhit left fielders in 2011 (http://bit.ly/y36BRn). Over time we'd expect it to be corrected, but we have to acknowledge that it currently exists if we want our accounting for value to be accurate.

Jan 28, 2012 09:34 AM
 
Jack Thomas

Great article -- I did not realize Chipper was such a poor defender. I had always considered hin slightly below average.
Will this hurt his HOF chances?

Jan 28, 2012 02:24 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I highly, highly doubt it. His traditional merits - 2,615 hits, 454 HR, "Golden Ratio" batting line (.304/.402/.533), MVP, 7 All-Stars, 11 postseasons, 3 pennants, 1 championship - are outstanding, and his JAWS score (69.7/42.1/55.9) passes muster even with the big defensive hits, of which the MSM is much less aware than, say, Derek Jeter.

Depending upon what the PED-related logjam looks like on the post-2018 ballots, he could go in on the first try, and if he doesn't, the sabermetric cavalry will start to gain HOF votes early in his candidacy.

Jan 28, 2012 09:13 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

I think Larkin getting in so quickly can help Chipper's chances of a quick induction.

Jan 28, 2012 09:29 AM
rating: 0
 
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