Cabrera is a bad defensive third baseman. No matter how you slice it, there’s no getting around it. Still, a baseball lifer in Jim Leyland has decided that the team is best served with him at 3rd base. By doing this, the Tigers are able to keep Prince Fielder at first base, and use Delmon Young primarily as a DH. There’s also no getting around the fact that Young is a bad left fielder. Keeping Cabrera at 3rd allows the team to platoon Quentin Berry and Andy Dirks in left and not have to live with Young’s defense. If we’re penalizing Cabrera for his defense at 3rd; shouldn’t we at least be crediting him for the runs he’s helping to save in left field by excluding Young from that mix? Doesn’t Cabrera get some benefit for the offense that both Young and Fielder bring to the table as a result of his defensive sacrifice? The alternatives would be to add Ryan Rayburn or Ramon Santiago to the offense more often and live with Young’s poor defense in left or to take Young out of the mix entirely and live with the Dirks/Berry platoon’s offense instead.
Still not convinced? Consider than that while WAR and other metrics have the luxury of creating the RP (replacement player), RP isn’t walking through the clubhouse door. In Trout’s case, if he weren’t in centerfield Peter Bourjos would be instead. While Trout’s defensive exploits are impressive, they’re at best equal to those of Bourjos. So when using defense to separate the merits of Trout and Cabrera, keep in mind that living with Cabrera’s bad defense makes the Tigers better overall on offense, and defensively in left field. By putting Trout in center, the Angels get the benefit of his offense, but may also take a modest step back defensively or at best stay the same. Trout would indeed be more “valuable” to the Angels as a serviceable 3rd baseman, shortstop or catcher than he is as a centerfielder.
The other major consideration I’d give to Cabrera is that in raw offensive numbers he’s mostly better than Trout. It’s only through the scope of numbers modified by “park factor” that Trout’s offense catches up. As I acknowledge the value of most advanced metrics, park factor isn’t one of them. Sure there’s value in handicapping the impact of a ballpark on a player’s production, but park factor doesn’t begin to tackle that task. Still, baseball mathematicians insist on quantifying the impact of a ballpark with a formula based as much in a team’s home and road pitching splits as anything its hitters are doing. Further park factor only accounts for the conditions of half of that player’s games and completely neglects the fact that hitters are vastly different from one another. Any number that suggests a ballpark would have a similar offensive impact on players as different as Robert Andino, Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds is laughable. There are power hitters and slap hitters, pull hitters, gap-to-gap hitters and spray hitters, players who benefit from the differences in the batter’s eye and those who don’t, players who want to know what’s coming and those who’d rather not. Trying to handicap them all with the same set of numbers (again numbers derived largely from the impact of your own pitching staff) is like building the super computer that is sabermetrics and then completing some of the most important circuits using tin foil.
And lastly, least scientifically but perhaps most importantly is the common sense test. Are the Angels really worse without Trout than the Tigers are without Cabrera? I doubt it. I know that the Angels struggled out of the gate this season, and that Trout’s arrival helped to turn that around. But I’m not willing to give Trout full credit for Albert Pujols’ bat heating up; it always heats up. I’m not giving Trout credit for Kendrys Morales rounding into baseball form after nearly 2 seasons out of action, and I’m not giving Trout credit for Ernesto Frieri being added to the mix and shutting down the games that Jordan Walden couldn’t. Trout had an impact on the Angels turnaround, but so did a myriad of other factors.
Check the numbers and look at the teams position-by-position:
Would you rather have Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder?
I wanted to take Fielder here, I sang his praises all winter, but as defense is so important and as close as their stats are offensively I’ll take Pujols.
Howie Kendrick or Omar Infante?
Forget that Infante hasn’t been there for long, and that it was Ryan Rayburn before that, in either case Kendrick is the easy choice.
Erick Aybar or Jhonny Peralta?
Neither seems very special, but again Aybar seems like the easy choice.
Alex Avila or Chris Ianetta?
I think the numbers here say Ianetta and I can’t give a solid judgment on either defensively. For the sake of argument I’ll guess Avila to be closer to last year’s version than this and pick him.
Andy Dirks/Quentin Berry or Mark Trumbo?
I like Trumbo here but we’ll call it a push.
Torii Hunter or Brennan Boesch?
Hunter…not even close.
I’ll say Verlander, then Weaver, Greinke, Fister, Scherzer, Wilson, Smyly, Haren, Porcello and Santana last. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of separation.
And finally Jose Valverde or Ernesto Frieri?
I’ll take Valverde on reputation only, as Frieri seems to have the more impressive numbers this year.
So without accounting for middle relief, I’ll take what the Angels have outside of Trout over what the Tigers have outside of Cabrera. You couldn’t convince me that minus their MVP candidates these teams would even be close.