Baseball fans tend to overestimate the value of any one player. You’ll often hear pronouncements such as “that guy is worth at least 15 wins for us!” Or “we could have erased that five-game deficit if our superstar hadn’t missed a month.” The reality is that your superstar probably wouldn’t have helped your team wipe out that five game deficit in a month. Or cost your team 15 games if he missed the entire year. As it turns out, the absolute best players are probably worth around 7-10 wins over the course of a season. Not that that is insignificant. To go from 90 wins to 82, for instance, can be the difference between making the playoffs or not.
Some organizations can better handle losing a star. They have strong backups on the roster or young talent in the minors who could help cushion the loss. Interestingly, and perhaps not inconsequentially, one feature of most playoff teams, certainly in the American League in recent years, is that they don’t rely too heavily on one player. Of the last 22 playoff teams in the AL, stretching back to 2009, only six of them had a player who accounted for more then 15% of his team’s total wRC (weighted runs created, which basically shows how many runs a player is worth in a season. Keep in mind that wRC does not correlate exactly to the actual number of runs a team scores, but it’s close). Josh Hamilton accounted for 15.5% of the Rangers’ offense in 2010. Joe Mauer bested that with 15.8% of the Twins’ wRC in 2009. The other four guys? They all played on the same team and one of them is the same player three times over. And you probably know who that repeat stud is.
No one would contest that Miguel Cabrera is a star and that the Tigers’ hopes of having a good season often rest on his shoulders. But it’s an eye-opener to look at just how important Cabrera is to Detroit’s offense. In 2013, Cabrera had a hand in 17.2% of all the runs the Tigers scored. That was 2.5% higher than any other playoff-bound player. In September, Cabrera cooled off, mostly (entirely?) due to injury. During the last 30 days of the season, Cabrera was worth only 10 runs and 9.3% of the Tigers offense. And everyone remembers what a struggle Detroit had scoring runs that month. Before the September slump, Cabrera accounted for 18.3% of the Tigers’ offense. Put another way, Cabrera was a key figure in almost one of every five runs the Tigers scored before Labor Day. Only the Yankees’ Robinson Cano and Angels’ Mike Trout topped this mark (by .02% and .05% respectively). The Yankees and Angels have something else in common: neither made the playoffs. In 2012, Cabrera’s percentage of the Tigers runs created was 17.7%. In 2011, it was 17.9%. His three-year average of 17.6% tops all American League players by a wide margin. Cabrera’s percentage of the Tigers’ home runs is even more pronounced. Last year he accounted for 25% of all Detroit homers. Through August, before his injuries really took root, that number was 27%. Only Baltimore’s Chris Davis, with 25% of the Orioles’ dingers, comes close. And Baltimore was not a playoff team.
If you thought the Tigers were a top-heavy squad the last few years, one of stars and scrubs, you’re on to something. Supporting this notion further is the sixth guy on the above list. In 2012, that player accounted for 16.3% of his team’s total runs created, the second highest number among all AL playoff teams over the last five years. His name: Prince Fielder. Thus, Fielder and Cabrera had a hand in 34.2% of all the runs the Tigers scored in 2012. Two players who accounted for roughly 22% of all plate appearances helped generate more than 1/3 of all Tigers offense that season.
Fielder is in Texas now. Cabrera is coming off of an injury. Miggy may still be capable of carrying a disproportionate share of the offense. The question heading into the season is will he have to. Will the Tigers’ new mix of offensive talent actually lead to a more balanced—and thus more effective—lineup? The Tigers have scored their share of runs over the last few seasons. But despite having the game’s most productive hitter (or least top two) in its lineup for the last six years, Detroit has yet to lead the league in runs scored. And it wasn’t until last year that they finished in the top three in the AL. If Cabrera can equal his production of the last six seasons and the rest of the lineup can increase its own productivity through whatever means the Tigers could feature the AL’s best offense. On the other hand, if Cabrera misses extended time to an injury or fights a long, stubborn slump, well, I think every Tigers fan knows what the result of that would be.