If you are a Tigers fan, you probably felt the room start to spin in the second inning of yesterday’s game when Miguel Cabrera was taken out of the game with an ankle injury. Cabrera is – this year and every year – a legitimate candidate for the MVP and that about sums it up: few if any players are more valuable to their respective teams than is Mr. Cabrera.
News since then has been more positive. Cabrera is day-to-day, not headed to the DL. If he isn’t able to play in the field, he may instead spend an extended stint as the DH while that ankle soreness subsides. Nonetheless – given just how important Miguel Cabrera is to this team: 5.2 wins above replacement level thus far in 2012 and 3.75 wins above average by WPA (despite leading the league in WPA-killing double plays) – it bears a look at just what the Tigers will become should Miguel Cabrera miss games or need to move from 3rd to DH over the next few weeks.
Reports don’t suggest that there is any chance of putting Cabrera on the DL – which would mean no call-ups to fill in or add to depth, at least until rosters expand in a week. And now for how the lineup would be affected… First: the Tigers don’t really have a slick-fielding spare third baseman any more. Inge is in Oakland, Kelly in Toledo. If Cabrera needs to DH or needs a week off, we’ll be seeing Ramon Santiago, Jeff Baker or (possibly) Jhonny Peralta at 3rd. The numbers suggest that Baker is no better a defensive third baseman than Cabrera – and obviously lacks the bat. It seems – strange as it may sound – that both Baker, Cabrera and Peralta might be better defensive options at third base than Ramon Santiago. The reason? Despite having a lot of plus tools defensively, Santiago is a little guy and little guys aren’t really ideal for the hot corner. A strong arm and reach matter almost as much as quick feet and hands. Santiago has played a total of 49 and 1/3 innings at 3rd but has atrocious numbers according to any and all of those advanced defensive metrics. In a nutshell: don’t expect the Tigers infield defensive to improve if Cabrera can’t play in the field.
As for the offense… Cabrera is, of course, one of the best pure hitters in baseball. If he is forced to miss games as opposed to DHing the Tigers will be replacing a near-1.000 OPS with an OPS under .700. Ramon Santiago has a .575 OPS this season – and while he is undoubtedly capable of hitting better than that – the difference between a .575 OPS and a .976 OPS is huge. Runs Created (RC) is the best tool we have for relating aggregate batting stats to aggregate team scoring – and if we look at RC/27 (Runs Created per 27 outs) we get a number that estimates (somewhat crudely) how many runs per game a team made up of nothing but that guy would score. A team made up of 9 Ramon Santiagos would score an estimated 2.55 runs per game. A team made up of 9 Miguel Cabreras would score an estimated 7.69 runs per game. Cabrera has gotten 11.5% of Tiger plate appearances so if we replace his 7.69 RC/27 with Santiagos we reduce Tiger runs per game from the current 4.59 to an estimated 4.00. That would give the Tigers the second worst offense in the American League, above only Seattle. With park factors considered (as the Ms do play in an extreme pitchers park while the Tigers play on only a ‘slight’ one) they might actually be the worst.
If he can DH – there is still a cause for concern, but not quite the same level. In 31 career games as a DH Cabrera has only a .713 OPS – they say he doesn’t like it and that it takes his head out of the game. That may or may not be the reason why he hasn’t hit well as a DH. It could be simply small sample size. It could be that Cabrera hasn’t hit well because he has typically been the DH only when dealing with nagging injuries… but how exactly is that different than the situation we see unfolding now? There is reason to worry that Cabrera – as DH – may not be providing the same offense as we have been used to. Somebody will still need to play third, which means that it will be Delmon Young (or one of the corner outfielders) that Cabrera’s bat replaces in the lineup. Still bad.