Hyperbole is fun.
It is. It’s also easy. Plus, it sounds so darn authoritative. No wonder it’s so often our go to form of entertainment.
Our latest example (for baseball, because this is a baseball blog) was the deal the Tigers just signed with Prince Fielder. The Tigers suddenly became favorites to win the World Series. Which is interesting, because about a week earlier, even their candidacy for the AL Central crown was in doubt when their second best hitter, Victor Martinez, was going to miss the year after a knee injury.
Is the hyperbole correct? Is Fielder such an upgrade over Martinez that the Tigers, who won 95 games last year (but only had the run differential of an 89-win team), are a lock for the AL Central?
Let’s just do a little back of the napkin figuring on what this means the Tigers.
Some of the hyperbole is dead on. Fielder is every bit that good. The contract is being called ridiculous by a ton of baseball analysts, but if you’re going to give a ridiculous contract to someone, Fielder is a pretty good choice. We like to make fun of his size, but there are 130 runs hidden in that ample waist and his size hasn’t stopped him from playing at least 157 games per year every year since 2006. He's probably even better than you think.
A really nice metric for measuring a hitter’s offensive impact is Bill James’ Runs Created (RC). James demonstrated that by looking at the number of walks, hits, doubles, triples, homeruns and at-bats a team had, he could give a pretty good estimate of how many runs they scored that year. Then he used that same formula for players.
(It’s a fun metric, and if you have an extra five minutes to dive into details, I did a short tutorial on it here.)
Using RC (as pulled from ESPN.com), Fielder has created 130, 114 and 141 runs for the Brewers each of the last three years. Martinez, on the other hand, is no slouch, but has generated 91, 81 and 105. That’s about 35 runs less per season than Fielder.
Fielder also hasn’t been a terrible first baseman. He’s below average, but has cost his team only about five run per season the last few years. The bigger concern for the Tigers is the talk about Miguel Cabrera moving back to third base. He wasn’t a terrible third baseman with the Marlins, but that was back in 2007. It’s not too crazy to suggest he would be one of the worst third basemen in baseball if he were to play there full time.
The worst third basemen in baseball cost their teams about 15-20 runs last year. Which would still mean that the Tigers are coming out ahead 15-20 runs. That’s about two wins.
But is that really going to happen? The Tigers might not WANT to put Cabrera or Fielder in the DH spot regularly, and those players may not want to play there either. But nobody is going to want to watch Cabrera embarrass (or hurt) himself either. And if you're going to play Brandon Inge anyway, wouldn't you rather play him at third? So those other 15-20 runs are in play, too. That could be another two wins.
Still, the hyperbole probably isn’t accurate. Fielder likely improves the Tigers above and beyond what Martinez could have provided, adding 2-4 wins. That certainly strengthens their hand, but it doesn’t launch them into a world-class level, and they’re still within reach of whichever other AL Central team puts things together this year.