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Looking back on the Miguel Cabrera experiment

With Prince Fielder making his way to Texas, the Tigers can end the Miguel Cabrera at third base experiment, but in retrospect how did it go?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Miguel Cabrera is a first baseman.

It's hard to be more blunt or obvious than that, but there's no two ways about it. He looks like a first baseman, he moves like a first baseman, and most importantly, he hits like a first baseman. Despite this indisputable truth, not long ago the Detroit Tigers decided that they would try putting Cabrera at third base in order to accommodate Prince Fielder, their pricey free agent acquisition. Over at the now-defunct Baseball Nation, Grant Brisbee already did an excellent job of showing just how little the Tigers got from the flexibility they gained with this move. However, there is a little bit more to the story.

Not only do we have to consider what Detroit got for this move but also how Cabrera played at the hot corner. While his relative lack of errors at third led some to believe that Cabrera was filling in admirably, and even used the fact he moved over as some kind of additional justification for his MVP case, in fact the lumbering slugger was just about as bad as you could imagine.

In order to illustrate that point, I could go through every defensive metric around and rank Cabrera, but in order to save both of us some time I thought I would focus only on the categories in which Cabrera was dead last. Is that a fair way to go about an analysis? Absolutely not. That being said, if you rank last in as many categories as will be displayed in the table below then it's pretty fair to assume that you are no good at fielding your position. The following table shows every major fielding category Miguel Cabrera ranked last in among qualified third baseman over the last two years and how bad the second-worst fielder was in each category.

Player Revised Zone Rating (RZR) Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) Range Runs (RngR) Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) UZR/150
Miguel Cabrera .671 -22 -34.3 -26.5 -15.3
2nd Worst Fielder in a Given Category .680 -17 -16.9 -18.2 -11.5

Not only is Cabrera in the absolute basement according some very important defensive metrics he is there more or less by himself. Cabrera was sure-handed, but his 5.8 runs added in terms of avoiding errors do not even begin to make up for this catastrophe.

No matter how bad a fielder Miguel Cabrera was at third base, however, this situation was stacked in the Tigers' favor from the start in terms of getting value. While Cabrera was inevitably worse at the hot corner than he was was at first, the vast difference in the positional adjustment between 1B and 3B was enough to guarantee he would create more defensive value at third even if he was nightmarish there, which he was. The following table shows Cabrera's fielding and positional adjustment numbers for his last two seasons as a first baseman (2010-2011) compared to his last two years at third.

Years Position Fielding Runs Positional Adjustment Total Defensive Value
2010-2011 1B -9.9 -23.3 -33.2
2012-2013 3B -26.5 3.5 -23.0

In terms of maximizing Cabrera's value, the Tigers had the right idea by putting him at third. Although Miguel Cabrera was much worse at third base than he would have been at first, he would have had to have been even worse, and significantly so, for this to be a net negative for Detroit.

At the end of the day, moving Miguel Cabrera to third base will probably be seen as a failure in Detroit. Cabrera was downright awful at the position and Prince Fielder failed to take the Tigers to the promised land, making the move seem unnecessary. Placing Cabrera at third was an intelligent thing to do, however, and other teams would be wise to consider putting their sluggers at tougher positions at the cost of defense if they can import big hitters at 1st base, DH, or the corner outfield spots. There is definitely an extreme where it would cease to benefit a team - no one wants to see Chris Davis at shortstop for instance - but in principle teams should probably be trying this strategy more often. Not every player can simply learn a new position (remember, Cabrera was awful at third base although he had some experience there), but with the right pieces the principle is a solid one; even if there are days when it looks really ugly out on the field.

If the Miguel Cabrera experiment is any indication, there could be a lot of those days.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.