Oct 17, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) reacts during a pitching change during the seventh inning in game five of the American League Championship Series baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

How A Move to First Base Would Affect Miguel Cabrera’s Defensive Value

Miguel Cabrera won his second straight MVP award earlier this month, but the baseballing world was sharply divided as to whether or not he was the player most deserving of the award. Cabrera was certainly the best batter in all of baseball last season, but his all-around game (or lack thereof) calls into question whether or not he was the best (or most valuable) player in the major leagues.

Featured prominently among the counter arguments – which are centered around WAR calculations – is always the defensive component. Cabrera was nearly 17 runs worse than the average third baseman last year according to UZR (18 runs worse according to defensive runs saved). Single season data samples of defensive metrics are notoriously noisy, but pretty much everyone agrees that Cabrera is below average at the position (and likely among the worst) due to his relative lack of mobility and range (even though he was quite good at other aspects of the position such as arm strength and throwing accuracy).

The question is, then, will Cabrera’s individual WAR calculations improve if he’s playing a position at which he has at least a chance to be average?

Probably not, actually.

In his first four years as a member of the Detroit Tigers, Cabrera spent most of the time at first base (all but the first few games). During that time he averaged a seasonal UZR of -2.2 runs at the position. That’s slightly below average, but very nearly average. In his last two seasons at third base, he’s averaged -13.3 runs at the position. One might think that the difference there – 11.1 runs or basically 1.1 WAR – could/would be added to Miguel’s total, but a little thing called ‘positional adjustment’ is going to cloud the calculus.

Because defensive metrics (like UZR) are scaled so that zero is the average for that position, an adjustment is made to account for the fact that it’s easier to be average at first base than it is at third base than it is shortstop. Shortstops can shift to third base when they lose range, center fielders can move to a corner outfield spot, and old catchers with bad knees can just stand at first base. There’s a sort of continuum, and this is applied to WAR calculations to better approximate the individual value of a player.

During his 2008-2011 stretch as a Tigers first baseman, Cabrera’s defense (UZR) plus positional adjustment came out to an average of -14.8 runs. That is, compared to every other MLB player at every other position, Cabrera’s defensive contributions were estimated to be about 15 runs less than the average guy (it’s almost impossible even for a very good first baseman to be above average in an absolute sense). In his two years at third base, his average defense (UZR) plus positional adjustment came out to -11.5 runs. That three-run differential isn’t enough to make a big impact on WAR, but this all shows that the move from third to first does nothing to improve Cabrera’s value as a player (unless it also improves his durability or longevity).

So next year when we’re (again) having the same WAR debate, the argument won’t be so much that “Cabrera is a horrible defender” as it will be “first basemen just don’t have much defensive value”. The finals WAR totals will be much the same, but defensively we’ll be comparing his totals to a different positional peer group.

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  • chrisHannum

    Good stuff, Matt. What we tend to hear is that Cabrera would be a great defender at first even though he isn’t at third, and that really isn’t true. His biggest defensive asset is his arm and that isn’t relevant at first at all. Good third baseman or bad third baseman, he is a third baseman with third base tools and moving him to first doesn’t suddenly make him more valuable to the team (though DHing him in September probably would have, I’m guessing he was 10 runs below average prior to the final groin tear and 8 more after). You could make a much better argument if he had great feet and a knack for fielding tough grounders but a weak or inaccurate arm – even though that hypothetical guy might be no better or worse than Cabrera as a third baseman he’d be a much better first baseman.

  • hiuwhgguiewh

    The moment I see the use of UZR and WAR like they are FACTS and that is the instant I stop reading baseball articles. Complete garbage stats for argument sake. I can see with my own 2 eyes that Miguel Cabrera is the best player in baseball, if he was rated a 100 at overall hitting skills the next closest player would be at 85 at the very best, how is that for putting numbers on something that it is impossible to do? Just like WAR and UZR. So tired of those two “stats”. How on Earth did they ever decide MVPs before this outstanding logic came along?

    • chrisHannum

      I’m guessing people who watch Mike Trout all summer would say that their own 2 eyes see something very different. Stats are, at least, objective.

    • http://tomaroonandgold.blogspot.com Matt Snyder

      Actually, according to WAR, if you scaled Cabrera’s MLB-best batting contribution to 100, we would see Trout, the 2nd best, come out at a 90. The third best, Chris Davis, would come out to a 76! So you’re not far off (in some respects).

  • http://www.LambertKlein.com Lambert Klein

    Miggy will be better at first. He should be healthy as well. May have to watch his weight a bit now though.

    • chrisHannum

      Yeah, I kind of wonder about that too. He has been training really hard in the offseason, partly to be in the right shape to play third. Going to be hard to do that while recovering from surgery.

  • Barry2

    I wonder what his Defensive metrics would have been if they left him in OF back in Florida. He got the arm for RF? Probably the same because its his range that is the problem not his hands.