April 24, 2014

#Sabermetrics: The Pujols advantage over other big boppers at first base

When Miguel Cabrera signed his big new contract with Detroit earlier this year, the response of this blogger and many pro sports writers was: Too long. Specifically, we generally cited the similar contract of Albert Pujols.

There's two other first basemen of roughly the same age to throw into this mix. That's Prince Fielder, traded from Detroit to Texas to let Miggy move from third to first, and Ryan Howard.

But, there's one difference between them.

Pujols is a plus fielder at first; none of the others are. In fact, none of them are close.

A friend of mine scoffed when I called Pujols a plus fielder, but the record doesn't lie. First, there's the two Gold Gloves — and four Fielding Bible awards. But, let's move beyond that into sabermetrics, since FB uses them much more than GG traditionally has.

The basics? Prince Albert has a career total (which includes a few OF and 3B games) of 134 fielding runs. And he has a career positive of 1.9 dWAR. 

For reference, the fielding and mustache god of modern first basemen, Keith Hernandez, has only, yes, only, 117 fielding runs and 0.6 career dWAR.

Now, to the others.

Howard's long been regarded as a statue, and stats don't lie. He weighs in with -46 fielding runs and -12.4 dWAR for his career.

Fielder? A couple of years ago, a lot of allegedly sabermetrically informed writers and bloggers talked about when he'd lose his range at first. I got news for you all — he never had it. At -93 fielding runs and -17.8 dWAR, he's worse than Howard. He's had a slightly longer career, but not that much longer. In other words, on average, each has cost his team a little more than a full point of dWAR, and around 7-10 fielding runs, per year.

Miggy, actually, comes off as relatively not so bad. At -77 fielding runs and -12.0 dWAR, in a career longer than Fielder's, let alone Howard's, and noting that most of this was at third not first, perhaps some of us have been a bit hard on him? 

Actually, no. His first couple of years at 3B in Miami weren't too bad, but he soon looked like crap. Detroit, let us not forget, quickly moved him to first after trading for him, before getting the even more immobile Fielder.

(All Baseball-Reference stats are for all positions for those playing multiple spots.)

Just to dip to Fangraphs, on a cross check, on total zone runs and ultimate zone rating per 150 defensive games.
Hernandez: 121/(no UZR)
Pujols: 96/6.2
Cabrera: -7/-2.0
Fielder: -38/-5.5
Howard: 14/-3.4 (really)
All Fangraphs numbers are for first base only. 

I did not include Joey Votto in any comparisons, for two reasons.

First, he's got an even shorter MLB career to date. Second, he doesn't have the "statue" reputation.

Sidebar: this shows that "we" still have a ways to go in advanced defensive metrics. While Baseball-Reference is my go-to for stats, and I generally rate it over Fangraphs, Fangraphs has its value. This isn't the first time the two have differed a lot on defensive issues. I don't really believe Fangraphs on Howard; on the other hand, I don't totally believe B-R that Pujols is in the same league as Hernandez. On the third hand, B-R's advanced fielding says that Prince Albert has just six fewer ground ball double plays initiated than does the Merry Mex. For comparison, Howard has about 80 fewer and Fielder about 75 fewer, so, maybe B-R shouldn't be doubted quite so much as I think.

Anyway, given all that I wrote above, on fielding, it makes me wonder if Prince Albert hasn't even been underappreciated in some way.

Anyway, moving on ...

Future realities?

Cabrera could go to DH as early as next year, if the Tigers don't resign Victor Martinez, or land another DH-first person. That, in turn probably depends on other things, starting with whether or not they resign Max Scherzer.

Fielder? Mitch Moreland's at DH now, and hits arbitration next year. He could be traded, or not. Why he's not the primary 1B in Arlington now, I have no idea other than two words: "Ron Washington." Of course, we know what he thinks about sabermetrics.

Howard? He should be traded to an AL team, but no trades out of Philly (sorry, Cliff Lee) are happening until Ruben Amaro is finally fired. That said, given that Howard refuses to adjust a lot, he's not that good of trade bait, except to AL teams with a short right field. Calling the Steinbrenner brothers!

Pujols? He's still a plus fielder. He's said he'll take a day here and there of being "spotted" at DH, but, as long as he's an even fielder, as well as a plus fielder (he started a 3-6-3 double play recently) why would you do anything but keep him at first? This is also part of why on overall WAR, and even more WAA, he's a cut above Cabrera and at least that much above the others.

It's also an advantage to the team. If you have someone who's still bringing this level of power and who can at the same time make a positive contribution with the glove or, at minimum, even a few years down the road, not make a negative one, it gives you more lineup flexibility.

Speaking of adjustments, most of Pujols' early home runs have been on high strikes. Whether he's guessing well, has lost a few pounds (it looks possible), has gone to a lighter bat, or is quicker on turning on the ball without the fasciitis, or some combination of the above, I don't know. But something's happened.

This all also shows that, even if Pujols' contract still turns out to be a long-term overpay, and even if 1B is not a defense-first position, it's still going to be much less of an overpay than Cabrera's new one, or even Fielder's current one, in all likelihood; that said, Fielder being younger helps a bit. Howard? We already know the truth about his albatross; the Phillies are just lucky on its shorter length.

And, let's not forget that, with passing the 500-HR mark, he's probably more likely to pass 600 than most the others on this list are to pass 500. 

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Welcome, visitors from Fangraphs and elsewhere. See some of my other recent baseball blogging, including my touting of a new Kozma Line as a sabermetric replacement for the old Mendoza line and, with the century mark at Wrigley, my take on Babe Ruth's called shot.

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