Miguel Cabrera Gets Defensive

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I don’t need to tell you Miguel Cabrera’s having a down year at the plate, we assume, primarily due to a couple of nagging health issues. After four straight seasons of a 160 wRC+ or better, he’s trolling down at 137 in 2014. Primarily, his power is way down. His injuries are costing him offensive value. We’re probably talking about a difference of more than two wins of offensive deduction this year compared to his recent seasons. That’s rough. You know what isn’t rough? His defense.

Wait. What?

That’s right, Miguel Cabrera’s move back over to first base has turned out well, as most of us suspected it might. Cabrera’s big deficiency is his range. The harm is good. The hands are good. The baseball instincts are terrific. He just can’t move very well. You know who doesn’t have to move as much as a third baseman? A first baseman!

Up front, it’s important to be aware of the variation between the two positions in terms of what constitutes good performance. A perfectly average 3B is considered to be about 15 runs better than a perfectly average 1B. You don’t need to take that as gospel, but it’s a good estimate. Even accounting for that, Cabrera is having a better season than last year. And a better season than back when he played first base before.

I don’t want to get into the positional adjustment and Cabrera’s total value. Let’s talk about his performance at 1B in 2014.

He’s played 929.1 innings. He has -1 DRS, which is a career best so far. His UZR is 4.6 (UZR/150 of 4.9), which basically matches his solid 2009 season at 1B. He’s turning more balls in his zone into outs than ever (slightly). He’s started 13 double plays and made 15 scoops. And he’s made fewer errors, if you care about that.

One thing I want to point out is Miggy’s Inside Edge data. They categorize the difficulty of all balls hit to a fielder. Their buckets are 0%, 1-10%, 10-40%, 40-60%, 60-90%, and 90-100% based on the likelihood that the ball should be fielded.

Obviously, he hasn’t made a 0% play because by definition no one can. He’s 0/8 on 1-10%, 0/5 on 10-40%, and 2/5 on 40-60% plays. That doesn’t look great. I mean, it’s not bad. But it’s not great. Know what’s great? Cabrera is 19/20 on 60-90% plays. That’s a 95% success rate! That’s awesome.

Only two 1B with 500+ innings have a higher percentage and they’re 8/8 and 10/10 rather than 19/20. He’s middle of the pack in 90-100% plays, but he’s 185/190.

First, you can see how rare tough plays are at first base. There have been 8,227 balls hit to 1B according to IE. 80% are easy plays. Cabrera makes an average number of those plays and the 7.5% of plays that are 60-90% plays? Cabrera’s been killing those.

At third base, more like 72% of plays are routine plays and there are about 40% more chances at third than first overall. In other words, there are more plays at 3B and they are tougher on average. That makes moving to first base perfect for Cabrera. He’s great at plays he can reach!

Spray charts? Sure. Here are the 60-90 plays and the 40-60 plays.

Screenshot 2014-08-29 at 3.11.31 PM

First base demands less range and values quality hands and such, which makes it a nice fit. By the numbers, he’s been one of the best handful of defenders at first this year by UZR and average by DRS. Range isn’t his game, but he’s vacuuming up stuff near him. We know defensive numbers aren’t perfectly precise, but we can’t exactly do anything other than go off what data we do have.

Particularly, from a scouting perspective, Cabrera turns the 3-6-3 double very well. It’s a small thing overall, but it’s a nice change from Fielder. Cabrera’s next 3-6-3 will set a new career high of six, in fact.

I don’t think we can say for sure we know Cabrera is and will continue to be a good defensive 1B. I think we can say that he’s much better suited for 1B this year relative to 3B and he’s lived up to that given the data that we do have. He’s making routine plays at an average clip and he’s making slightly more difficult pays at a high rate. Sample sizes matter, but if Miggy’s going to have a down year at the plate, at least he’s hanging in there on the other side of the ball.

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