When discussing Miguel Cabrera’s defensive value at third base it’s important to keep in mind the frame of reference. Compared with other real, actual major league third basemen he was quite bad. His -11.2 UZR/150 ranked him last among the 13 qualified third basemen and 27th out of the 30 players with at least 600 innings at the position. Compared to most expectations, however, he was quite good.
Miguel Cabrera hadn’t played third base since 2008 – and only a few games then – and had spent the meantime being a below-average first baseman (and gaining mass). Most of the projections were of the “historically bad” magnitude, and many Tigers fans were just hoping he could stay north of the minus 20 runs mark. Thankfully he wasn’t historically bad. 21 qualified third basemen have put up a single-season UZR/150 worse than Cabrera’s 2012 mark in the 11-year history of UZR. There are small sample size caveats to deal with here, of course, but this is all to say that teams routinely trot out defenders of this caliber all the time (especially if they can slug) – roughly two third basemen are allowed to reach the qualified innings minimum each year while performing as bad, or worse, than Miguel Cabrera did this past year.
But it didn’t always seem that Cabrera was that bad at the position. His -10 UZR was terrible, but he was dinged just over 15 runs due to his lack of range. Range is sometimes hard to judge when watching the game on television, but what Tigers fans saw was Cabrera making solid plays when he was able to come up with the baseball. In fact, UZR credits him as being 5.7 runs above average when it came to turning double plays and not making errors – his strong, accurate throwing arm which was hidden at first base was able to shine.
But, even considering his well-below average fielding ability at third base, Cabrera is more valuable to the Tigers defensively at third base than his was at first. For his three years as a full-time first baseman (2009-2011), FanGraphs reports his average defensive value (UZR + positional adjustment) to be 13.9 runs below average. This past year at third base he was 8.5 runs below average. So even if it wasn’t for Prince Fielder’s need to be in the lineup, it would still be more valuable for the Tigers to play Cabrera at third base than first base (about a half a win better).
That isn’t to say this trend will last – Cabrera will turn 30 in April and his physical skill will continue to decline – or that they shouldn’t eventually move him back to first (and Fielder to DH) when Victor Martinez’s contract is up, but it IS true that the Tigers’ experiment worked out better than they could have hoped. Miguel Cabrera actually increased his own value (as calculated by WAR with UZR) by moving over to third base. Few are the first baseman who would have been able to do that.