Miguel Cabrera and Intentional Walks

With the Rangers having opened up an insurmountable lead on their AL West competitors, they’ve given Josh Hamilton a lot of rest lately. He has exactly six plate appearances in September, and when he’ll return is anyone’s guess. With a 99.8 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, the Rangers have no incentive to hurry him back for meaningless regular season games.

Due to his absence from the field, people (most notably Fox Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi) are taking the opportunity to re-open the AL MVP discussion that was basically closed at the beginning of the month. Hamilton lapped the field for the first five months of the season, leaving no real argument for anyone else. Now, though, as he stands on the sidelines, people have begun to make a case for Miguel Cabrera. Since most of the people arguing for Cabrera will reject any kind of argument based on WAR out of hand, let’s just stick with good old fashioned traditional counting stats, comparing them heads up.

Hamilton vs Cabrera:

Singles: Hamilton +20
Doubles: Cabrera +4
Triples: Hamilton +2
Home Runs: Cabrera +3
Walks: Cabrera +41
Hit By Pitch: Hamilton +2
Double Plays: Cabrera +8
Steals: Hamilton +5
Caught Stealing: Cabrera +2
Outs: Cabrera +25

Overall, its pretty close, with most of the differences in the single digits. The categories that stand out are singles, walks, and outs. Hamilton has the lead in the former, while Cabrera has more of the latter two (only one of which is a positive). Their OBP and SLG end up being pretty similar, with most of the differences coming out in the wash.

However, Hamilton’s wOBA (which is just the calculation of the run values of the individual events added together and scaled to look like OBP) is .449, while Cabrera’s is .433, a pretty decent difference in Hamilton’s advantage. Why is Hamilton’s wOBA superior, even though his lead in singles is mostly offset by Cabrera’s lead in walks?

Because there’s a dirty little secret about Cabrera’s walk rate – 30 of the 84 walks he’s been issued this year have been intentional, and intentional walks simply are not as valuable as non-intentional walks.

This is actually an intuitive conclusion, even though it might seem a little bit strange at first. Intentional walks are issued in situations where the opposing team believes it is more valuable to have the batter on first base than at the plate. It is a strategic move, based on the situation at hand, that is aimed at reducing the offense’s chance of scoring a run, or multiple runs, in a given inning.

Thanks to the play log on Cabrera’s page here, we can actually look at the situations where he’s been intentionally walked. Here are the base/out state for each of those situations:

No Outs

No intentional walks issued

One Out

First only, first and second, first and third – no intentional walks
Second only – 6 intentional walks
Third only – 4 intentional walks
Second and Third – 3 intentional walks

Two outs

First only – no intentional walks issued
First and Second – 3 intentional walks
First and Third – 1 intentional walk
Second and Third – 1 intentional walk
Second only – 7 intentional walks
Third only – 5 intentional walks

In all 30 instances where opposing managers chose to put Cabrera on, it was in a situation where he otherwise would have had a chance to drive in a man already in scoring position. In addition, only four of the 30 walks actually advanced runners, as IBBs are generally issued when first base is already open.

The end result? These walks weren’t all that beneficial to the Tigers chances of winning the games in which they occurred. The average win probability added of the 30 intentional walks is just 1.5 percent. The average win probability added of the 54 non-intentional walks Cabrera has drawn this year? 3.3 percent.

Cabrera’s walk rate is heavily influenced by the IBBs that have been issued when he’s up, and those simply aren’t particularly helpful to the Tigers chances of winning, because they come in situations where Detroit would be better off with Cabrera at the plate than on first base. They help his OBP and OPS, but they don’t really contribute to the Tigers scoring more runs, which is why Hamilton’s wOBA is significantly higher, even with similar rate numbers.

In this case, Hamilton’s singles trump Cabrera’s walks. Even though Cabrera has a .003 edge in OPS, Hamilton’s been the more productive hitter this year. That could change if Hamilton sits out the rest of the year and Cabrera has a monster finish to the year, but it’s going to be tough for him to pull away enough offensively to offset the pretty big gap in defensive value. Barring something crazy, odds are pretty good that Josh Hamilton will end the season as the AL MVP, even if he doesn’t play in September. He was that good from April through August.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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13 years ago

Nice piece. I’m kind of surprised that his IBBs have about half the value of a regular walk. I’d have guessed maybe 1/4, but I suppose he is getting IBBed in some borderline situations (compared to league IBBs) since he has been mashing so hard this year.