Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Prince Fielder vs. Hyperbole

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, 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.


Jack Ungerleider said...

Have you been watching Hot Stove and/or Clubhouse Confidential on the MLB network? Your analysis is almost identical. What they said was the real benefit of the Fielder deal will be in 2013, assuming Martinez comes back and they can figure a way to have all 3 in the lineup at the same time without butchering the defense. (Pay attention to the Tigers in ST see if Cabrera ends up in RF for some games.)

TT said...

"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. "

Actually, he didn't demonstrate that. He asserted it. And when you apply his formula to individual teams you find a fair number of teams where RC and actual runs scored are far apart.

When you apply the formula to individual players on the team and add up the results, you don't get the same result as you do when you apply the formula to the team totals. So applying the formula to individual player introduces another level of uncertainty.

RC is just another number that crudely reflects relative player performance. "Runs Created" is a marketing term for that number. But you shouldn't be fooled that it actually measures runs in any real sense.

When you try to translate RC into wins you are on even more treacherous ground. As the disparities between James models for how many wins a team should have and the number of wins it actually got demonstrate. Certainly run differential is a factor in a team's record, but it is not the determining factor.

Anonymous said...

Something being ignored here is the shift between the AL and NL. It's not as big as it was a few years ago but it should still effect Fielder a bit. In Cabrera's first year in the AL, his OPS+ dropped 20 points before coming back up to around his career norms the following years. I don't think Fielder would likely drop off that much but he should take a slight offensive dip as he gets used to the AL. Something near his 2008 or 2010 line wouldn't be shocking.