On Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers, and Lineup Protection


June 23, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) hits an RBI double in the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The one potential downside of the Detroit Tigers dealing away slugger Prince Fielder this offseason is that he (i.e. Prince) will no longer be looming in the on-deck circle when Miguel Cabrera steps to the plate. Will this mean Miggy will see fewer good pitches to hit this year?

Jayson Stark had a piece addressing this question ESPN.com today.

"As my esteemed colleague, ESPN.com’s Dave Schoenfield, wrote recently, there “just isn’t evidence,” in almost any of the really significant numbers in Cabrera’s stats column, “that Prince Fielder made Miguel Cabrera a better hitter.”Wait. There isn’t any evidence? Really?That’s a statement that seems impossible on the surface, even to the Tigers themselves."

The standard sabermetric line on lineup protection being a sort of a myth is that, while intentional walks (and walks overall) do increase when a quality hitter is “protected” by a poor hitter, the overall run-scoring effect for the team remains quite neutral.

Another way to put this is that the style of run production might change, but the batter’s value doesn’t change. So maybe Miguel Cabrera won’t drive in as many runners because he doesn’t have the opportunity to put the ball in play as often, but he will himself be in position to score more runs by being on base more frequently.

Obviously this breaks down at the extremes. If seven of my buddies and I formed a team and added Miguel Cabrera in the middle of our lineup, the correct play would be to always walk Cabrera. The rest of us couldn’t hit a darn against MLB pitching and would probably never push that run across the plate.

But we’re not actually talking about an extreme case. We’re talking about the difference between Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez. There’s a difference there, to be sure, but it’s not like pitchers are joyous to face V-Mart. Especially not with an additional man on base.

But rather just spewing words and opinions out there, I’ll present what one might mean when they say something like “there’s no evidence that Miguel Cabrera hit better with Prince Fielder behind him”.

In 2010, Cabrera’s most frequent “protector” was Brennan Boesch. Now Boesch had a decent year – especially with some very hot stretches – but I also remember a very famous series in Tampa in which Joe Maddon was not afraid to walk Cabrera to pitch to Boesch with the bases loaded and the game on the line. In that season Miguel Cabrera posted a slash line of .328/.420/.622 (a 1.042 OPS).

Cabrera was protected by the newly signed Victor Martinez the following year. He hit .344/.448/.586 (a 1.033 OPS). This was actually more on-base percentage and less slugging than the year before when he had a protection that wasn’t very good.

Prince Fielder was signed prior to the 2012 season after Martinez underwent season-ending surgery and protected Miggy in the lineup for two seasons. Over those two seasons Cabrera hit .338/.417/.620 (a 1.037 OPS).

You can pick out peaks and valleys, but those exist in any player’s stat line. Yes, Cabrera was an MVP twice in front of Fielder, but he was a top-five MVP finisher in the other two years as well (including a runner-up finish in 2010). He was no slouch. In fact, he was pretty much the same in front of Brennan Boesch as he was in front of Victor Martinez as he was in front of Prince Fielder.

Maybe it’s wrong to completely dismiss the idea of lineup protection (I’m probably at fault of that), but, if it exists (i.e. if it changes the player’s overall hitting value), then we’re only probably only talking a miniscule amount.

I think Josh Paulisin had the right of it back in January when he had this to say:

"Since his first full season with the Marlins in 2004 and before Fielder entered the picture, Cabrera put together an impressive streak of eight consecutive seasons with 100 or more RBIs. In seven of those seasons, he hit 30 or more home runs and led the American League in 2008, Cabrera’s first year in Detroit. A six-time All-Star during that stretch, Cabrera was an elite hitter, even without Fielder. So will the loss of Fielder all of a sudden make Cabrera forget how to hit? In Sonny Gray‘s dreams. Expect crazy numbers once again in 2014."