Miguel Cabrera

There’s an article by Joe Sheehan on SI.com* deriding the Tigers in their attempt to pass Miguel Cabrera off as a third baseman for the upcoming season. At best, I would say the entire article is misguided, I pretty much disagree with all of his main points, but I really take exception to his use (or misuse) of advanced defensive metrics.

*Best I can tell the article was posted several days ago, but I just recently stumbled across it; I hope I’m not too late to the party on this one.

Here’s the quote:

"[Cabrera] was the Marlins' regular third baseman in 2006 and 2007, and has a total of 387 career appearances at the position. He wasn't good there; all three primary measures of defensive performance (+/-, UZR and Total Zone) agreed that he was below average; by +/-, he rated as one of the worst third basemen in the game, costing the Marlins 20 runs a year on defense."

20 runs a year? Really?

(more after the jump)

 

 

I did a little bit of digging and found that either (A) Sheehan didn’t pass fourth grade math or (B) he completely made that number up. According to Baseball Reference, here’s what Cabrera has done at third base (using the +/- system that Sheehan is allegedly citing):


Year

Innings

+/-

2003

275

-2

2005

238

-1

2006

1334

-9

2007

1310.2

-18

2008

116

-3

Total

3273.2

-33


As Sheehan mentions, Cabrera’s only seasons as a full-time third baseman were in 2006 and 2007, and in neither of those seasons was he 20 runs below average. He approached that mark in 2007, but it’s immediately obvious that the quoted claim is absolutely false. As a full-time third sacker (2006 and 2007) he averaged 13.5 runs below average. For his career as a whole, he’s been about -13.8 per season (per 1,350 innings or so).

The only way you could possibly get 20 runs from the above table was if you rounded -18 up to -20 in 2007 and ignored the rest of the data, but even then you’d have to change the original statement to something like “nearly cost the team 20 runs one season.” As you can see, no such qualifications were made.

It’s OK to argue the opinion that moving Miguel to third base in 2012 is a mistake. It’s OK to quote any defensive metric you wish to support your argument**. IT IS NOT OK to make up numbers and pass them off as truth. As former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

**I also find it more than a little bit convenient that Sheehan quoted three defensive metrics and then chose to harp on the one that makes Cabrera look the worst without giving any numbers with the other two (until he goes on to riff on UZR/150, which is a completely different animal, as if we could learn anything from 116 innings in 2008).

Cabrera’s body has changed since 2007, and there’s more than a decent chance that he’s a worse defender at the hot corner now than he was in his heyday at the position, but let’s get the baseline starting point correct. We’re not talking about a guy that was -20 runs at the position four and five years ago, not even close really. Much better estimates would put his history at the position somewhere between -12 and -14 runs per season. Here’s the same table I showed before with UZR***, Defensive Runs Saved, and Total Zone added.

***For what it’s worth, the experts over at FanGraphs believe UZR to be the most reliable of the defensive metrics.

Year

Innings

+/-

UZR

DRS

TZL

2003

275

-2

-1.3

-2

n/a

2005

238

-1

2.2

0

-1.7

2006

1334

-9

-3.4

-9

-9.4

2007

1310.2

-18

-4.2

-16

-17.7

2008

116

-3

-4.2

-3

-3.7

Total

3273.2

-33

-10.9

-30

-32.5

Per 1350 Innings

-13.6

-4.5

-12.4

-14.6


This paints a completely different picture than the one Sheehan was attempting to construe. The numbers are still all solidly below average, obviously, but not necessarily terrible by historic proportions. I expected better from Sports Illustrated, but apparently “massaging” statistics to fit an overall storyline is more important to them than conveying the truth.

Matt Snyder is the editor of The Tigers Den. He can be reached on Twitter @snyder_matthew.