Evaluating the Tigers through a Sabermetric lens

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tigers Sign Prince Fielder

The Tigers have filled the void of Victor Martinez by signing Prince Fielder to a huge 9-year, $214 million deal.

I'm not going to fully defend the deal. It is an over payment. You cannot get around that. Will this deal be an albatross at some point in the future? Possibly. Will he be an over paid, under-skilled baseball player for the latter half of the deal? Probably. Show me a deal this large where the player isn't over paid and under-skilled in the latter stages of said deal and I'll be impressed because those types of players just don't exist.

Even Albert Pujols -- a clear superior player than Prince Fielder -- will be over paid. Remember when Alex Rodriguez was a lock for the all-time home run title? $31 million for 15.5 runs above average offensively from the Future Home Run Champion isn't exactly an Evan Longoria-like deal.

My point is that free agents that are held in high regard are often over paid because they don't hit free agency with many prime seasons left in them.

So what are the Tigers getting from Prince Fielder for the next nine seasons?
If we consider him a true talent 5 WAR player and subtract 0.5 WAR per year for aging, Fielder projects to producing around 27 WAR over the course of the contract. You can subtract from that total if you think he'll age progressively worse due to his body type (I can buy it).

Articles that have already come out declare this an awful deal for the Tigers. Dave Cameron notes that the Tigers are in that part of the win curve where any addition wins is incredibly valuable -- could one say, more valuable than the straight dollars-per-win that he winds up referencing? -- yet has the Tigers over paying by $60-ish million. Friend of the blog(ger), David Wiers has the Tigers over spending by around $25-70 million. These are sound, reasonable projections for Fielder in terms of production and cost and market/surplus value.

Unfortunately, both don't discuss in-depth that the Tigers are probably around an 87-89 win team without Fielder. With him (and Martinez), they move into that sweet spot of 91-92. Wins and playoff spots are finite. Sure, the Tigers are in possibly the worst division in baseball but they aren't just playing against their division. They are attempting to keep pace with the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays.

Because of this, the Tigers likely aren't valuing a win above replacement at $4.5 million in 2012; it's worth more to them than that. And it'll continue to be worth more to them than the going rate for the next couple of seasons before the window of opportunity closes.

Consider this final graph in this post from Baseball Time in Arlington.

The Tigers sat at around 87-89 win team. Notice that the highest spike is in the 87-90 win range? Then it declines the higher it goes into the 90's. The value of a win grows for a team in the Tigers position beyond the going rate for a win. There is a cap as well where adding wins don't have the same value to a  team. Dave Cameron notes this during the off season before the 2010 campaign with regard to the Yankees, saying:
The Yankees have entered the prime area of significant diminishing marginal utility. They are so good that adding another high quality player doesn’t help them that much in 2010, and because of the long term contract that is required, they’d be risking future flexibility to add wins that may actually matter for an upgrade that just isn’t necessary.
It’s a rational decision made by smart people who understand just how good their roster currently is. In the past, New York has pursued every big ticket free agent on the market because they represented a real, tangible improvement in their quest to bring home another championship.

How much extra revenue is generated hasn't been widely reported (to my knowledge, at least) but here's a very good article from 2007 by Vince Gennaro at The Hardball Times. The win curve is relatively flat until win 85. Wins 85 through the mid-90's are much more valuable than wins before number 85 because they increase your odds at a playoff birth. In 2007, Vince found that the average team's 86-91 wins were worth around $11-12 million versus wins 78-83 being worth ~$4 million. Add inflation and we're looking at possibly around $15 million for wins 86-91 for today. Right where the Tigers sit.


The other news that broke from this deal is that Miguel Cabrera is now your new third baseman. He's bigger than he was when he played with the Marlins and given he's at best average defensively at first base, he'll likely be below-average at third base. How far is anyone's guess (including the inaccurate defensive metrics touted in pieces like this).

For simplicities sake, let's call Cabrera a -15 defender over 162 games. Let's assume a 5% drop in his offensive production because of manning a position that is more demanding than first base -- I'm just bull shitting here. I have no idea how much (if any) this will impact his offense.

I feel comfortable projecting him for a wOBA of around .410 for 2012. Maybe that's a touch optimistic, but let's roll with it. A 5% reduction would put it at .390. If the run environment stays the same and the league average wOBA is .316, Cabrera's production would be 39 runs above average over 162 games. Kick in 2.5 positional adjustment and 22 replacement runs. Adding that up we get 48.5 runs above replacement. Give Cabrera 85% playing time and convert to wins and we get around 4.1 WAR. Seems low, but remember we're giving him much worse defensive talents than his abilities at first base and we've reduced his offense for exerting more effort on defense.

Now, if Cabrera is a full time DH, we'll go with the .410 wOBA I guesstimated for him earlier. Over 162 games that is 49 runs above average. 22 more for replacement level, and then subtract 17.5 for being a DH and we get 5.35.

However, we aren't acknowledging the fact that the Tigers have literally just two people who happen to have functioning limbs at third base right now: Don Kelly and Brandon Inge. No one wanted to see this platoon at the hot corner for Detroit (and by no one, I mean especially me). Cabrera moving over does two things: fills a tougher position to find a suitable replacement for and leaves us an open DH or left field spot for the 2012 season which I'd expect to be filled by more than one person.

The 2012 defensive line-up looks something like this:

C: Avila
1B: Fielder
2B: Santiago/Raburn
3B: Cabrera
SS: Peralta
LF: Dirks?
CF: Jackson
RF: Boesch
DH: Young?

The move for Prince Fielder is steep monetarily but even more-so in the duration of the deal. Financially, the Tigers are likely loser as shown by the linear dollars per win. However, the gap between that estimate and reality is likely smaller than portrayed; the Tigers position on the win curve -- improving from a high-80's win team to the lower-90's -- and additional revenue from a mostly assured playoff spot (as assured as one could be on January 24th) are important details when evaluating this deal and shouldn't be overlooked or cast aside for the run-of-the-mill saber analysis.

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