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Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Cabrera and great seasons by 3Bs

By David Schoenfield

Best seasons by third basemen since 1980, at least according to Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement formula:

1. Adrian Beltre, 2004 Dodgers: 9.6
2. Alex Rodriguez, 2007 Yankees: 9.4
3. Rodriguez, 2005 Yankees: 9.4
4. George Brett, 1980 Royals: 9.4
5. Scott Rolen, 2004 Cardinals: 9.1
6. Wade Boggs, 1985 Red Sox: 9.0
7. Mike Schmidt, 1980 Phillies: 8.8
8. Miguel Cabrera, 2013 Tigers: 8.8 (projected)
9. Wade Boggs, 1989 Red Sox: 8.4
10. David Wright, 2007 Mets: 8.3

Cabrera is certainly having a historic season with the bat. If we look strictly just at hitting by third basemen, the list looks like this in terms of runs produced compared to an average hitter from that season:

1. Cabrera, 2013: 79 (projected)
2. Rodriguez, 2007: 65
3. Rodriguez, 2005: 64
4. Brett, 1980: 61 (in just 117 games!)
5. Jim Thome, 1996 Indians: 60
6. Chipper Jones, 1999 Braves: 59
7. Chipper Jones, 2007 Braves: 58
8. Boggs, 1988 Red Sox: 57
9. Ken Caminiti, 1996 Padres: 56
10. Boggs, 1987 Red Sox: 56

Eric Karabell argues that the first list gives too much credit to defense; he may be right -- Rolen is credited with 3.3 WAR on defense alone in 2004, for example, although he doesn't top 2.0 in any other season. And it's true that none of the players on the first list were bad defensive players in those seasons, except Cabrera, who is credited with minus-1.1 WAR on defense so far. Boggs didn't have a great defensive reputation early in his career, although he later won two Gold Gloves with the Yankees, and Baseball-Reference credits him as a plus defender for most of his career (although not in the class of Rolen or Beltre).

Does Cabrera's offensive output make up for his subpar range at third base? In the video, we discuss Schmidt's 1980 season, when he hit .286/.380/.624. Schmidt posted a 1.004 OPS that year; the only other National Leaguers to reach even .900 were Keith Hernandez at .902 and Jack Clark at .900. Bob Horner and Dale Murphy, both playing in the Launching Pad in Atlanta, were the only other National Leaguers to reach 30 home runs.

As impressive as Schmidt was compared to his peers, Baseball-Reference still credits him with "just" 47 runs produced above average, compared to Cabrera's projected total of 79. As Karabell says in the video, .286 is not the same as .359. But do Schmidt's defense and baserunning advantages make up for Cabrera's edge at the plate? I think it's close. Schmidt was still a very good third baseman in 1980 and B-R credits him with plus-11 runs, compared to Cabrera's minus-15 so far. B-R actually gives Cabrera the minor edge in baserunning, plus-1 to minus-1, although Schmidt did steal 12 bases that year.

Anyway, measuring defense remains imperfect. But in measuring the complete package of a player, it must be considered. Cabrera is having an all-time great offensive season, but it's a good debate whether it's the best all-around season by a third baseman of the past 35 years or so. (And to be fair, WAR isn't going to factor in that Cabrera is hitting an insane .422 with runners in scoring position.)

What do you think?