Tigers' defense better than you think with Miguel Cabrera at third

Much attention has been given to the Tigers’ decision to begin the 2012 season with Miguel Cabrera returning to his former position at third base to make room for Prince Fielder at first base. There seems to be a consensus in the national media, and among unnamed baseball executives that the national press talks to, that there is no way Miggy can pull it off at the hot corner. I disagree.

I’ve done a little math and my calculations say that the Tigers will be better off defensively with Miguel Cabrera at third base, Delmon Young at DH, Ramon Santiago at second base and Ryan Raburn in left field, than they would be if Cabrera were to DH. Feel free to poke holes in this theory, or the math, and I won’t take offense, but I submit that reports of Cabrera’s demise as a third baseman have been greatly exaggerated.

Let's run a comparison of the alternatives that the Tigers have using the players on their current roster. In the first scenario, Cabrera is at third base, Santiago at second, Raburn in left, and Delmon is the DH. Call that scenario "Team Miggy". In the alternative scenario, Cabrera is the DH, Brandon Inge is at third, Young is in left field, and Raburn is at second base. Call that alignment "Team Inge." We're not even considering offense in this analysis. We’re just talking about the overall team defense right now.

I’m going to use UZR/ 150 for comparison purposes. No defensive metrics are perfect, but I think this is the most reliable measure that can be used, that takes into account the impact of a player’s defense in terms of runs saved or allowed over the course of a season. UZR by itself won’t work because it is a cumulative statistic that is dependent upon varying number of innings played. When doing comparisons between players with different inning totals, UZR/ 150 is the only way to go because it equalizes out when projected over 150 games.

A complete explanation of UZR can be found at Fangraphs.com. To summarize, a player with a UZR/ 150 of plus 6.0 would allow six fewer runs than the average player at his position over 150 games of play, while a player with a negative 3.0 allows three more runs at his position than the average player. The larger the number of innings in the sample size, the more accurate the result will be, so I have taken two seasons of work, from 2010 and 2011, and combined them using Fangraphs' tools.

These are the numbers used for our comparison, from fangraphs.com:
3B -- Inge + 3.3, Cabrera TBD (we’ll come back to him), (Kelly + 7.1)
2B -- Santiago + 9.2, Raburn - 18.8
LF -- Young -7.8, Raburn + 9.1, (Boesch - 2.8)

Now, let’s add them up. Team Miggy has Santiago plus 9.2, plus Raburn at positive 9.1, plus Cabrera to be determined. That’s a total of plus 18.3 without Cabrera’s number, which is certain to be a negative something. Team Inge has Inge + 3.3, Raburn - 18.8, and Young - 7.8. That’s a total of negative 23.3. Swap Kelly for Inge at third base and the negative falls to 19.5 runs..

Now for Cabrera’s number. The truth is that we don’t know how well, or how poorly Cabrera will play defensively at third base. He hasn’t played the position in four years. We can’t assume that he will be the same guy defensively, but it’s a starting point. Lee Panas broke down Cabrera's numbers here, using the various advanced metrics from Cabrera’s two full seasons at third base. These numbers show Cabrera's defense to range from three runs to sixteen runs below average for a season, and four to twelve runs below average over two years averaged.

Taking Cabrera’s UZR numbers from his time at third base previously in 2006 and 2007, he posted a negative 3.4 UZR/ 150 in 2006, and negative 4.4 in 2007. Over those two years, he averaged out at minus 4.0. By comparison, Inge was putting up a plus 12.2 for the Tigers over the same period, and Guillen posted a negative 8.1. Inge is no longer the same player defensively, as shown in his current numbers, but his defense is still above average.

This is an imperfect science, using UZR/150, but I think it’s the best we’ve got. You can cry "small samples" for some of the numbers, and you'd have a valid point. You can assume that Raburn will improve his defense in the infield, but know that his defense from 2010 to 2011 actually declined slightly (-21.0 in 2011), and his error rates have been horrid going back to his days in the minor leagues. You can replace Inge with Don Kelly, and narrow the gap by a few points more. You can say that Delmon improved a bit in 2011, which is also true. You can assume that Inge is better, or Santiago is worse than their numbers show for the past two seasons. Have at it, but let’s set some parameters.

So far, we have a positive 18.3 runs for Team Miggy vs a negative 23.3 runs for team Inge, a difference of 41.6 runs. That’s quite a gap. Cabrera would have to be just about the worst third baseman in the history of the game to even it up. So, let’s look for the worst case scenario. The worst third baseman in MLB last year with a minimum of 500 innings was the AstrosChris Johnson at negative 20.1 runs. Wilson Betemit was the worst in the AL with a negative 18.1.

If Cabrera was a negative 20, equal to the worst in MLB the last two years, with a minimum of 500 innings, that would cut the gap down to 21.6 runs in favor of Team Miggy. The worst qualified third baseman was Mark Reynolds with a negative 12.5 over those two seasons, and negative 30.3 in just 2011. His team just signed Betemit, so Mark might move to first base. Even using Reynolds worst case scenario, the Tigers are still 11.3 runs to the good with Cabrera at third base.This really isn't a close call.

A big part of the gap here is Ryan Raburn in left field vs Raburn at second base. As we all know, Raburn is either very good or very bad at the plate. If he hits, his bat needs to be in the lineup. If not, he needs to be elsewhere, and certainly not at second base. Just pulling Raburn from the lineup completely would begin to narrow the gap defensively, as his - 18.8 UZR/ 150 is taken out of the equation. However, you would still lose Raburn’s plus 9 in the outfield and take on Delmon’s negative defense, which together would almost offset that gain. There is a swing of 27.8 runs by moving Raburn from the infield to the outfield. To do that, Delmon needs to DH.

Assuming that Raburn hits like second half Raburn and not like he has in the first half of the past two seasons, the obvious solution is to leave Cabrera at third base, put Delmon Young at DH, and Raburn in left field. There may be a temptation to put both Raburn and Delmon in the outfield against lefties, but let’s not forget that Brennan Boesch has hit lefties even better than he has hit righties in his first two years with Detroit. Team Miggy's lineup is not the greatest defensive team, but it's the best alternative that the Tigers have using current personnel.

The Tigers were prepared to put Cabrera at third if they made it to the World Series last fall. They will put Cabrera at third base to start the 2012 season. Unless he is a total disaster at the position, expect him to play the vast majority of games at the hot corner. When Victor Martinez returns in 2013, he will fit right into the DH position where he was. That is not to say that Cabrera won’t occasionally DH or play first base, but the point here is that the Tigers are doing the right thing by starting Cabrera out at third base. Give it some time, even if it doesn’t start out well.

It’s a long season and we are sure to see many lineups used by Jim Leyland over the course of 162 games. Many fans will have many problems with these many lineups. But before complaining about Cabrera’s defense at third base, let’s just realize exactly how bad he would have to be in order to justify an alignment with Raburn in the infield and Delmon Young in the outfield.

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