Machado's WAR versus Cabrera's WAR

This came up in my chat today from Jack in Toronto: "BTW, Machado is a great player. But any system that says he's more better than Miguel Cabrera is flawed."

Jack was referring to this:

Manny Machado, Baseball-Reference WAR: 3.8 Wins Above Replacement

Miguel Cabrera, Baseball-Reference WAR: 3.6 Wins Above Replacement

Now, I'm going to write the following, and Tigers fans -- some of the them, anyway -- will think I'm hating on Cabrera. Which is the furthest thing from the truth.

Cabrera entered Tuesday hitting .361/.444/.647 and leads the American League in runs (50), RBIs (69) and total bases.

How can Machado be better than that? He has just five home runs! And while he's hitting .316/.352/.484, it seems like a huge gap to make up with defense. Plus, he has just 33 RBIs, so how can we even suggest he exists in Miggy's universe?

Well, OK, Miggy leads Manny in home runs, 18-5, and in singles, 56-53. But Machado leads in triples, 2-1, and in doubles, 27-15. Cabrera has a big edge in walks, 36-14. Machado has grounded into two fewer double plays. Add it up, and Baseball-Reference estimates that Cabrera has created 70 runs and Machado 44. That's a 26-run difference, a huge difference considering Cabrera has done it using up 32 fewer outs. Machado gets a few runs back because Camden Yards -- despite its reputation -- is closer to a neutral run-scoring environment this year while Comerica is a hitter's park. (That makes the runs Machado does produce a little more valuable.)

Baserunning is a draw; B-R rates both players at plus-1 run.

So it comes down to defense. Defensive Runs Saved has Machado at plus-15 runs compared to an average defender and Cabrera at minus-5 runs. That's a huge total for Machado, tied with Andrelton Simmons and Carlos Gomez for best in the majors; Norichika Aoki and A.J. Pollock are the only other defenders at plus-10. The fact that Machado is an elite defender seems to be something everyone agrees on; the fact that Cabrera -- while competent at third -- is below average pretty much jibes with the consensus opinion as well.

The only dispute is whether Machado has really been 20 runs better than Cabrera. With plus-15 runs in 64 games, he's on "pace" to save 37 runs over 160 games, which would be the highest DRS total for a third baseman since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking defense in 2003 (Scott Rolen was plus-30 in 2004).

(For what it's worth, Ultimate Zone Rating has Machado at plus-12 runs and Cabrera at minus-7.)

One stat to consider:

Machado has 144 assists; Cabrera has 83. That's 61 more balls fielded. Machado has more putouts, fewer errors and has started four more double plays. Yes, the Tigers' staff generates more strikeouts; the Orioles have also faced about 100 more right-handed batters, who are more likely to pull the ball; the Tigers' staff, however, generates a slightly higher percentage of ground balls. So, yes, Machado is going to have more opportunities to record Defensive Runs Saved. Anyway ... not to go all old-school on you, but I think 61 assists says a lot about the defensive differences between the two.

To be fair to Cabrera, WAR doesn't factor in the timing of his hits, and he's hitting .493 with runners in scoring position. On the other hand, in "late and close" situations (seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck) he's hitting .139/.326/.139 in 46 PAs (5-for-36, all singles). So he's been clutch, but he hasn't been clutch.

OK, there you go. I'd still take Cabrera -- Machado probably won't keep up those defensive numbers. although comparing him to Rolen is of perfectly sound mind in my opinion, and he may regress at bit at the plate as well -- but I think it's certainly reasonable to argue that Machado has produced similar value to the great Cabrera. Baseball, after all, is played on both sides of the ball.