Last week’s Prince Fielder signing changed the fantasy landscape in many ways, most notably by making Miguel Cabrera the favorite to go first overall in drafts giving his impending third base eligibility. No one expects the Cabrera-at-third experiment to work — he was a -11 defender (by DRS) at the hot corner the last time he played the position regularly, which was five years and about 50 lbs. ago — but all he has to do is get those five starts in to gain eligibility and make fantasy owners happy. Some of his pitchers can’t be all that enthused, on the other hand.
Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer will have less of a problem with the shaky infield defense as strikeout/fly ball pitchers, but Doug Fister and Rick Porcello aren’t so lucky. Those two are old school pitch-to-contact types who rely on ground balls, particularly Porcello…
Fister’s reputation as a ground ball guy is greater than the reality (the Jon Garland special!), but he still relies on his infield defense more than most. The info at Baseball Heat Maps suggests that neither pitcher has an extreme directional split on ground balls, meaning they’re no more likely to give up a ground ball to the left side than they are the right. Grounders towards the middle of the diamond are far more common for both pitchers, actually.
Fister’s career BABIP on ground balls is .215, which was certainly helped out by the Mariners’ stellar defense during his 2+ years there. Porcello’s career BABIP is ground balls is .243, which is a much more reasonable approximation of what we can expect going forward for these two. That’s still a little light though, since they’re replacing a strong defender in Brandon Inge with a crummy one in Cabrera. Going from a .215 BABIP to just say a .245 BABIP on ground balls will result in additional 10-15 hits allowed by Fister next year, assuming a similar workload and ground ball rate to 2011. Maybe he’ll get lucky with the timing, but those extra hits will inevitably contribute to runs crossing the plate.
Remember, it’s not just Miggy at third that’s the problem, it’s the entire infield defense in general, regardless of who’s playing second. Fielder is a below-average defender, as is Jhonny Peralta (his 9.9 UZR in 2011 was based on his ability to avoid errors, an outlier compared to the rest of his career), so right away they’re using subpar glovemen at three of the four infield spots. Perhaps the Tigers will employ a third base platoon, with Cabrera at the hot corner when Verlander and Scherzer are on the mound (fewer ground balls) and Inge at third for Fister and Porcello. Jim Leyland’s a smart guy, but it would surprise me.
I think Fister is destined to be overvalued on draft/auction day anyway given his stellar finish after the trade, but I think most FanGraphers realize that his 1.79 ERA and 1.8% walk rate with the Tigers is pretty unsustainable. Six of his ten starts with Detroit came against the Athletics, Twins, and fading Indians, which is as favorable as schedules get. There will be many more ground balls sneaking through the infield in Detroit this summer compared to the last few years, particularly if they run Cabrera out to third for more than a few weeks. Fister and Porcello will take the biggest hit, so expect to see a higher WHIP and ERA out of both guys in 2011. As far as ottoneu leagues go, every extra hit that gets through the infield will cost you 2.3 points, which in Fister’s case could mean as much as 35+ points.