Let's just be honest with ourselves, and we don't need a single stat to back us up on this: The Tigers infield defense probably won't be pretty this season. For that matter, the outfield defense may not be beautiful, either. We're not going to see a lot of web gems on ESPN, and the ones we do will almost exclusively come from Austin Jackson.
I'm fine with that.
One reason for feeling that way is that I think -- as I've expressed -- people exaggerate when talking about sports. Shocking, I know. In a world of nuance, in sports, like in politics, people have a "bring it strong" mentality. If it's not the completely mindless shouting on ESPN (or CNN, or Fox, or wherever) -- as perfected by the completely pointless Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless -- then it's otherwise intelligent people with just as breathless proclamations, only with more numbers. We've had intelligent writers and people I respect tell us that bullpens don't matter and that the Tigers made all kinds of mistakes in signing Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit. Bullpens don't matter? I shudder to think what the Tigers would have looked like with Ryan Perry as the closer. But I guess you don't get to shout on ESPN or land a big-time gig by looking for shades of gray.
Can I blame them? I don't know. Maybe. There was a time when I would have been the one standing behind numbers and theories with certainty -- long time readers going back to my original Tigers blog can vouch for that. They've probably noticed the over-time transition that comes with experience -- watching as what we "know" doesn't always work out nearly as well as we'd like or ends up to be just plain wrong. I like to think I've learned from my mistake over time and have gained maturity and experience along the way.
This is what makes me such a fan of Lee Panas's sabermetric work. He wrote recently: "If you have read my blog before, you probably guessed what I think -- that the truth is in between the two extremes." Lee is the kind of guy who admits that there isn't one perfect defensive stat out there and looks at a range; that there isn't one perfect offense stat that sums it up, so he provides a couple that answer the specific question being asked. This is a terrific philosophy. It turns out, baseball is a lot like the weather. You can forecast all sorts of different models, but teasing out the one that comes closest to what actually occurs is as much an art as a science. And even then, you stand a good chance at being wrong.
So when I read opinions seemingly ranging from the Tigers infield defense will be the worst baseball has ever seen to the Tigers infield defense will be the worst baseball will ever see, I get a bit skeptical. Then I wonder if it even matters. Obviously, I cannot debate that the Tigers infield might resemble a softball team. You're not going to turn a pumpkin into a carriage here. Prince Fielder will still be below average at first base, whoever plays second isn't going to play particularly great, Jhonny Peralta has limitations in range as a shortstop, and Miguel Cabrera will doubtlessly remain below average at fielding third base.
So I think we can agree if an extra-innings game is decided by a ground-ball fielding competition when still tied after the 10th inning, the Tigers are almost certainly not going to pick up the extra point. Fortunately baseball, unlike another sport I enjoy, does not employ an All-Star Game skills competition to decide a winner of a tied game.
ESPN researcher Mark Simon, as cited by ESPN.com's Buster Olney today, writes that an infield of Fielder, Raburn, Peralta and Cabrera will be roughly 40 runs worse than average -- about 20 runs worse than Detroit's infield last year.
That's certainly not good -- especially if you're Rick Porcello.
You know what else isn't good? A combination of Brandon Inge and Don Kelly at third base. They combined for -26 batting runs last year. Or if you want to go in another direction, they were -0.5 offensive wins above replacement. Or if you prefer traditional stats, Kelly was the better batter of the two while hitting .245 with few walks and no power. Cabrera, meanwhile, came in at 71 batting runs or 7.8 oWAR. I don't need to do the math for you. That's a huge difference.
Balls will get by Cabrera, and he's going to make errors. But please put away the cartoonish view that Cabrera will stand at third base, let every ball go by, shrug his shoulders and smile like Alfred E. Newman. Let's realize Cabrera will make most plays and throw the ball to first base accurately most of the time -- where it should be noted, his first baseman is a damn good sight better than Carlos Guillen trying to field throws while literally standing in the base path like he did in 2008. In the end, what you lose in defense you're going to more than make up for in offense.
How big of a difference could this be? According to Panas' numbers, Detroit might have expected to get 7.5 WAR this year with Cabrera at first base and an Inge/Kelly platoon at third. Now with Fielder at first and Cabrera at third (below average defense factored in), Detroit might get 12 WAR from the corner infield positions. But I guess we don't need sabermetrics to tell us Cabrera is better than Inge and Kelly.
We'll see how a slimmed-down Cabrera looks at the hot corner when the full team reports for spring training in less than a month. So will his coaching staff. Then there will be more than 30 spring training games to get a feel for how the Cabrera-Fielder thing works out. If he's completely awful, can't make any plays and a total detriment to the team, he's probably not going to be playing there long. The Tigers will have to sort out a DH problem next year, but they've got 12 months to plan for that.
Me, I'm going to wait for actual baseball to be played before saying what Cabrera can't do. He's had a knack for proving the pundits wrong. In Detroit, it's in everyone's best interest that his experiment at third base works out.