Revisiting Prince 1B and Cabrera 3B
Was it too much of a [bat-first] good thing?


At BJOL, John Dewan revists the Tigers' super-aggressive plan to move Miguel Cabrera to 3B:


The White Sox hold a two-game lead over the Tigers today in the race for the AL Central Division title. One of the key reasons the Sox are on top is defense. Not because theirs is so good, but because the Tigers’ is so bad. Detroit has the worst defense in the American League. Compared to the average team, they have lost 39 runs on defense. The White Sox’s defense has saved five runs, which makes them an average defense.

That's a difference of 44 runs, a difference of four games in the standings.

When the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to team up with Miguel Cabrera, the plan was to supercharge their offense. While both players are having excellent seasons, it hasn't worked as well as planned. In 2011, the Tigers scored 4.9 runs per game. This year, they are down to 4.5 runs. Defensively, both Fielder and Cabrera are hurting the team. Ten of the 39 runs lost on defense are from those two, five apiece at their respective positions.

I am somewhat surprised that Cabrera hasn’t been worse at third base. In playing third base with Florida in 2006 and 2007, he lost 29 runs defensively. He was moved to first base with good reason. Returning to third base this year, we projected him to lose about 15 runs for the Tigers this year, and he’s only lost 5 so far. Here are the defensive performances of some of the other players on contenders that have changed positions this year:

Notable Players with New Positions
Player 2011 Pos Runs Saved 2012 Pos Runs Saved Change
Mark Reynolds, BAL 3B -22 1B -3 19
Alex Rios, CWS CF -9 RF 6 15
Hanley Ramirez, LAD SS -13 3B -11 2
Miguel Cabrera, DET 1B -3 3B -5 -2
Brennan Boesch, DET LF 5 RF -8 -13


Atop the list is a player that has never been synonymous with good defense, Mark Reynolds. This season, Reynolds has moved from third base to first and held his own. His defensive improvement has been a major part of the Orioles’ late-season success and helped him consistently remain in the lineup.


Dr. D has maintained, over the last 10 years, that the "hidden value of defense" fad was way over the top.  As HR's and K% rise, and as the differences between elite athletes become more subtle, a player's opportunity to win games with his glove logically decreases over time.  Defense at one time was 20, 22% of the game, meaning 40 to 45% of run prevention, with pitching being 55 to 60%.  James now estimates that to be about 12-15% of the game -- of which each defender is only one of nine players.
To Dr. D, this "New Discovery" of John McGraw defense reached its height of silliness when Endy Chavez was touted over Bobby Abreu -- equal WAR, we just realized, comparing a 4th outfielder and a near-HOF three hole hitter.  The M's paid for their lineups full of Chavezes and Kotchmans with 513-run Deadball Era seasons.  Somehow the extra outs on defense didn't quiiiiiittttte add up.
We might calculate on paper, using newfangled formulas, that a team full of Brendan Ryans and Michael Bourns and Ozzie Smiths would beat a team full of Prince Fielders and Rickie Weekses and Ted Williamses.  But Bill James called this the Johnny Bench test:  if you've got a formula that tells you that Johnny Bench is mediocre, throw out the formula.  You can't let your ability to perform differential equations ruin your sense of proportion.
So Dr. D leans towards bats first, but even he got wide-eyed with alarm at this Youkilis 3B + AGone 1B, Cabrera 3B + Prince 1B trend.  Stuffing the lineup is great, but you've got to keep an eye on Critical Mass within each system of the organism.  His intuition was that the Red Sox and Tigers had taken a good thing too far.  Miguel Cabrera took a horrific face shot early in the year and, from an M's point of view, Dr. D hoped that this would presage the comeuppance of the greedy Tigers for tapping up Prince Fielder on us.
Hasn't worked out that way.  The Tigers' ERA+ actually improved this year, from 103 to 109.  The Cabrera-to-3B move has worked great; Miggy is slugging .612, reasonable defense, and is driving for a Triple Crown.  He's actually much more aggressive at the plate, with his EYE down but his HR's up.  Amazing that he's so comfortable in such a tough position.
Prince Fielder has also delivered, with a 300/400/500 batting line and 103 RBI already.  Miggy and Prince and Verlander give the Tigers what are perhaps the best Stars constellation in baseball; you're talking about a 170 OPS+, a 150 OPS+, two .400 OBP's one right and one left, and the best starter in baseball.
Alex Avila is wayyyyy off (from 142 to 104!), Peralta is way off (from 122 to 86) and Victor Martinez is out for the year.  Rather than saying that Prince didn't work out, you've got to say that he and Miggy have saved the Tigers' keisters from what should have been a lost season.
How about the Red Sox?  They swapped out a 142+ OPS, Gold Glove nice guy (Adrian Beltre) for Adrian Gonzalez, moving Youkilis over to accommodate.  They scored almost 900 runs in 2011, but there were lizards in the cellar.  In this case, the system that fell below Critical Mass might have been the egos in the clubhouse, especially when you added Bobby V to the mix.
That's not an indictment of going bat-first, as such, but it does bring up a point that is about 10 degrees off subject:  there comes a point when you're too much Stars and not enough Scrubs.  From a psychological point of view.  A ballclub takes its natural psychic form when it has a couple of RBI men, a couple of glove specialists, a scrappy team captain, etc. etc.  For 100 years they've been talking about "balanced ballclubs" and that balance takes pretty much the same form in every decade.  Did the Red Sox unbalance their ballclub?  It's worth serious consideration.
From the Seattle Mariners' point of view, they are not within shouting distance of worrying about being too bat-heavy or too Stars-and-Scrubs.
They have already moved several players to challenging defensive positions -- Dustin Ackley to 2B, Jesus Montero to C*, Kyle Seager playing the hot corner, Michael Saunders used to be laughed about in CF.  There's John Jaso, promoted from DH/3rd Catcher to Felix' personal catcher.  Mike Carp played a lot of LF.  Eric Thames is an adventure in RF.  Zduriencik has glued the defense together by playing the game's greatest shortstop in between them all.
We've seen the M's go from the glove-first extreme to the bat-first extreme.  But wherever they can bring in a .550 slugger, the rest of their lineup can now easily morph around him.


bsr's picture

Not sure if there is still a faction in the M's blogosphere arguing that the concept of big bats providing lineup protection is a make believe one that we don't need to bother with, but here's what the best hitter in the league has to say about it, FWIW:
"His average has dropped this year, and so have his walks, to 64. But he says he gets more pitches to hit with Fielder behind him in the lineup, and that means more chances to do damage."

ghost's picture

Avila was NEVER a real 142 OPS+ hitter, Peralta Ks way too often to hit for the average he carried in 2011 and Boesch was the flukiest fluke the ever fluked. Their line-up regressed while getting worse defensively (the bad defense hurts ERA+ less than it hurts RA since many of their bad defense runs are on errors) and their pitching got a little better with more depth.
You forgot the other 3B experiment - Trumbo the Jumbo Dumbo. Thankfully, trhe Angels shook themselves and realized he was going to die a terrible death at third...and moved him into the OF.


The cyber-M's almost became the 4th AL club in the club.  With Carp.
It's asking a whale of a lot for a vet slugger to move from 1B to 3B.  Cabrera's move back to 3B has been remarkable, and might have saved the Tigers' season.

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