Very rarely would you see a first baseman move to a more difficult position, in this case third base. However, the move was necessary when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder. Miguel Cabrera had experience before playing third base and the Tigers lacked offensive production from that position, so it seemed like a natural fit. Detractors said that there was a reason why the Tigers moved him out of third base to begin with. He wasn’t very good there before and he was getting too big to have the range necessary to play the position. He was becoming an above average first baseman so why fix something that wasn’t broken? Supporters pointed to his experience at that position, the fact that he lost some weight, so the range should improve and that as long as he remained a productive hitter, the defense didn’t matter so much. So now that it’s been a few months, I’m going to look to see how exactly Cabrera’s defense has held up at the hot corner.
First, the eye test. This is a non-scientific, purely observational method. From just watching him play, how has Cabrera performed? For me, admittedly, Cabrera has made a handful of plays that made me go “wow.” However I think he’s been average at best to below average overall. His best asset is his strong arm, but there were times where I thought his range was lacking. The biggest flaw in this is that I haven’t watched every single inning of every game, so I might be missing something that someone else has seen. Here's an example of this eye-test on two plays Cabrera failed to make on Sunday in Verlander's latest start.
Now to look at some stats provided by Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. I’m not going to go in depth with the advanced stats but one thing to keep in mind is the flaw of the small sample size. According to FanGraphs, 3 years of data is about equivalent to 1 year of hitting.
Miguel Cabrera has played 627 1/3 innings at 3B this year. Only Chase Headley of the Padres has played more innings there this year at 636 1/3. Cabrera has made 7 errors in 188 chances, giving him a .963 fielding percentage. Of the 181 outs, 118 of them have been assists and 63 have been putouts, giving him a range factor of 2.60 (181*9/Innings). League average fielding percentage is .948 and league average range factor is 2.47, so Cabrera has been slightly above average in both of these metrics.
Of the 7 errors, 2 of them have been fielding errors and 5 have been throwing errors. Only Pedro Alvarez has made more throwing errors at 7 (Brett Lawrie and Mike Moustakas have also made 5 throwing errors). Cabrera has made 15 double plays, tying him for 2nd with Hanley Ramirez and Brett Lawrie. Only Mike Moustakas has converted more double plays with 22. No one has attempted a bunt more against a third baseman than Miguel Cabrera with 17. He has turned 12 of them into outs for a 71% success rate. League average is 61%.
The next step is to look at a player’s zone ratings. The simplest one is revised zone rating (RZR). It takes a look at how many balls in zone are converted to outs. According to this stat, Cabrera has converted 91 outs out of 96 balls in his zone, giving him a RZR of .948. He has also made 16 outs out of his zone, which puts him about average. The league average RZR is .919, so Cabrera has been above average in this rating.
UZR, Rtot and DRS (rdrs in Baseball-Reference) uses the same basic concepts of the zones and converts the ratings in terms of “runs.” 0 is average; a positive number is above average and negative number is below average. Miguel Cabrera has a -4.0 UZR, -6 Rtot and 0 DRS. Going by a minimum of 300 innings played, the UZR is the 2nd worst in baseball; Jordan Pacheco is at -6.5. Cabrera’s Rtot is tied for 2nd worst along with Mark Reynolds; Jordan Pacheco also has the worst Rtot with -9. UZR and Rtot have made Cabrera way belowe average. Cabrera’s DRS is exactly league average.
Putting all these defensive metrics together is a little tricky. Cabrera has been anywhere from above average to below average and everywhere in between. My guess before the season was that Cabrera would rival Mark Reynolds as the worst defensive third baseman. Based on the stats accumulated thus far, it’s hard to give him that distinction. I would still hesitate to call Cabrera above average on defense, but at this point average at best is how I would describe Cabrera’s play at 3B, which exceeds my expectations.
Going by the stats, Brett Lawrie has easily been the best 3B while Jordan Pacheco has been the worst.