In his Baseball Abstract books, author Bill James introduced what he called “The Defensive Spectrum,” in which he rated the difficulty of baseball’s eight defensive positions. It went like this:
P – C – SS – 2B – CF – 3B – RF – LF – 1B
The farther you go to the right, the less demanding the defensive position is. According to James and his disciples, players usually start off somewhere on the spectrum and move to the right as their career progresses. Rarely does a player move to the left – the more demanding positions – of the spectrum.
But that’s just what the Tigers are asking Miguel Cabrera to do. The Tiger slugger will turn 29 in April, and he’s been a first baseman in the major leagues for four years, since coming to Detroit in 2008. Granted, Cabrera was a third baseman when he came to the big leagues with Florida, in fact he was a shortstop in the minor leagues. But rarely can a player make a switch from a position like first base to third base with success at this stage of their career. Normally, a player is asked to switch to third after playing a more physically demanding position.
Late in his career, Johnny Bench was moved from catcher to third base. Joe Torre, like Bench one of the best-hitting catchers in history, was similarly moved to third base, actually earlier than bench was. Harmon Killebrew, a Hall of Famer like Bench, moved from shortstop to third base when he was in the Senators system as a teenager. Later, he moved from third to first, the opposite direction that Cabrera is being asked to go.
In the entire history of baseball you’d be hard-pressed to find one instance where a player moved from a much less demanding position to one so much more demanding. (There’s maybe been only one, which we mention below.)
Chipper Jones was a shortstop in the minors and switched to third, where he played until he was moved to the outfield. Pete Rose was a second baseman, in fact he was Rookie of the Year at that position for the Reds. Later he moved to the corner outfield spots before being asked by Sparky Anderson to play third base in the mid-1970s. Rose obliged and did a fine job, though he was far from a Gold Glover at the hot corner. His is one of the few examples of a player moving to third from a less demanding position.
The Brewers moved second baseman Paul Molitor to third base in the early 1980s. Molitor had been a second baseman, and he was fine at third for about a decade before he re-emerged as a designated hitter, where he did as fine a job as anyone ever has.
When the Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez and his big contract from the Texas Rangers, they moved the All-Star to third, since Derek Jeter was already at short. But short to third is a shift right on the defensive spectrum. A third baseman doesn’t have to cover as much ground, or pivot the double play, or go deep to his right. He has to make a lower throw, that’s it.
Brandon Inge was a catcher, a much more demanding position, when the Tigers asked him to move to third base in 2005. If Cabrera doesn’t cut it at third this year, it will probably be Inge who will get the job replacing him.
Hall of Famers Robin Yount, Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, Rod Carew, Mickey Mantle, Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt, and Cal Ripken Jr. all changed positions during their careers, but each of them moved from more demanding to less demanding positions. Many of them (Musial, Banks, Carew, Mantle, Stargell, Schmidt) moved TO first base. For Ripken, like Chipper Jones, he moved to third because it was less demanding than shortstop.
Travis Fryman was moved to third base for a good reason. When he came up through the Tiger ranks, heralded as a can’t miss shortstop prospect, his path was blocked by Alan Trammell. So, Sparky Anderson moved him to third base, where Fryman’s rocket arm proved valuable. But that was a switch from short to third, something much easier than asking a first baseman with a big belly to do so.
Eric Munson is a rare example of a player being asked to move to third base from first, and the Tigers requested that switch in 2003 so Carlos Pena could play first. Back then, as now, the team didn’t have an immediate answer at the hot corner, and Munson’s bat was considered strong enough that he was wanted in the lineup every day. Munson was dreadful with the glove at third, but Detroit was desperate so they tried him in about 200 games over two seasons before abandoning the plan.
Even the great Jackie Robinson, considered one of the best athletes to play the game of baseball, switched positions in his career and did so by going to less demanding defensive slots. Originally a shortstop in the Negro Leagues, Robinson became a first baseman for the Dodgers because they had a future Hall of Famer at short, in Pee Wee Reese. At the major league level, Robinson moved to second base, the outfield, and finally third base. He’s one of the few players in baseball history to move from the outfield to third with success.
Sometimes the switches are folly. In spring training of 1985, with Detorit having come off one of the best single seasons in baseball history, Sparky fell in love with young Chris Pittaro, a rookie second baseman. Sparky was sure that Pittaro would be a ficture in the Tigers middle infield for years to come. He even asked All-Star second baseman Lou Whitaker to move to third base to make room for Pittaro, who almost seemed embarrassed at the suggestion. “Sweet Lou” played a few innings at third in the Grapefruit League, but he never warmed to the idea. On Opening Day he was on second, next to his double play buddy Trammell, and Pittaro was at third. Pittaro lasted about a month.
It will take a while before we know if Miguel Cabrera can be a major league third baseman at this stage of his career. The Tigers may back off of their plan and make him their DH. That seems to be what most baseball experts think will (or should) happen.
We do know that baseball history tells us that the odds are stacked against Cabrera.