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Asdrubal Cabrera and problematic bouncebacks

Asdrubal Cabrera and problematic bouncebacks
January 16, 2014
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After a 2013 Wild Card game performance in which Asdrubal Cabrera went 0-for-4 with a strikeout and the single most deflating play of the season, a double play in the bottom of the 4th with the bases loaded, the phrase ‘bounce back’ was not an appropriate word for Cleveland audiences.

However, as the Browns’ and Cavaliers’ seasons have progressed and impressed upon fans’ minds the nature of true cosmic despair in sports, where ‘hope’ is a meaningless word even in jest, the author feels he can now make the argument for an Asdrubal Cabrera bounce-back without fear of mob justice.

The term ‘bounce-back,’ in this case, does not refer to a 40-point increase in batting average or a 20-home run leap from 2013. Nor, moreover, does it refer to the concept of a ‘contract year’ since it’s difficult to believe that baseball players who are already competing against the toughest competition in the world can merely will themselves to perform better than they already have. Baseball is hard. Major League Baseball, orders of magnitude harder.

Rather, a probable bounce-back would be both less dramatic and less mystical than either of these two possibilities. Instead, bad luck relative to the mean caused Asdrubal Cabrera’s numbers to undersell his actual performance; namely, Cabrera made frequent, solid contact at the plate, but his batting average did not reflect his solid contact. Assuming his contact ability remains going into 2014, this bounce-back alone figures to improve Asdrubal Cabrera’s value to the club by about 1 WAR – which still, admittedly, leaves him a slightly below-league-average shortstop.

These bounce-backs do not take away from two serious unlikely-to-regress flaws going into 2014, the most notable of which is his fielding. Ultimate Zone Rating, a defensive metric based on three factors (a defender’s range, double-play conversion rates, and errors), estimates that Asdrubal Cabrera’s defense cost the Indians 12.8 runs on defense relative to the league average defensive shortstop. In other words, Cabrera’s defensive performance – removed from game context – cost the Indians about one win in 2013.

On one hand, there’s no reason to believe that at age 29 his defense is poised for apocalyptic decline, but on the other hand, said defense is equally unlikely to be anything better than below-average given that Asdrubal’s range and defense have been below average for the entirety of his major league shortstop career. Entertaining as Asdrubal’s defensive flair might be, such flair exists only because his range is below league average, meaning that even an average defensive shortstop would make Asdrubal’s exhilarating plays, as well as many more plays, in a high-percentage, routine manner. Thus definitively proving that baseball stat-heads like the author are indeed destroying the excitement of the game.

Behind-the-back fireball throws to first don’t win championships; close-cropped, clean-shaven throws do. Suit up, John Wayne.

In light of this, Cabrera’s offense is almost the entire reason he is valuable to a major-league team; however, going into 2014 legitimate concerns do exist about his plate discipline. In 2013, Cabrera’s strikeout rate, clocking in at 20.4% of his plate appearances, was both the highest of his career and the first time since 2008 that he struck out at a worse-than-league-average rate, with career-highs in both his Swinging Strike Rate (9.5%) as well as his Out-of-Zone Swing Percentage (34.4%). Plate discipline, moreover, is not a bounce-back trait, so as of this point there’s no reason to believe that Cabrera’s 2014 strikeout rate will be much different from 2013.

Yet while it is true that Cabrera was little better than a replacement-level player this past year, the fact remains that from 2009 to 2012, Asdrubal was the fifth-best offensive shortstop in the game by most holistic metrics. Whatever value his defense lacked, his offense more than made up for. And while Cabrera’s strikeout rate is highly unlikely to rebound, an uptick in strikeouts is not, on its own, enough to cause Cabrera to decline from a top-tier offensive shortstop to John McDonald at the dish. The reason for his decline is almost entirely his batting average.

  AVG OBP SLG OPS BB% ISO BABIP
2011 .273 .332 .460 .792 6.6% .187 .302
2012 .270 .338 .423 .762 8.4% .153 .303
2013 .242 .299 .402 .700 6.2% .159 .283

(Stats: FanGraphs)

While Cabrera’s on-base percentage and slugging percentage both declined in 2013, his walk rate and ISO (Isolated Power) each varied only slightly from 2012. Isolated power is slugging percentage minus batting average, a way to measure extra base hits without singles - hence power. In short, it was his poor batting average that caused his decline in OBP, SLG, and (unsurprisingly) OPS.

Yet batting average is not itself a root cause of offensive success but a result of the manifestation of his batting skills; namely of strikeout rate, of home run rate, and of batting average on balls in play (BABIP). The first of these increased and has been accounted for, and the second has held steady. The last of these, BABIP, explains how frequently struck balls fall in for hits, and it is this stat that is the linchpin of the bounce-back argument for Asdrubal Cabrera.

Put simply, BABIP is mostly a product of four factors: how fast the batter can get to first, how many balls in play were hit well, how many balls in play were hit poorly, and where the defenders were. These four factors are represented by the following four quantities: speed, line drive percent, infield fly ball percent and ‘luck.’ There are a number of other BABIP-influencing factors, but these four are by far the most important. Given that Asdrubal is about as fast as a league average player using the FanGraphs Speed metric, we are left with three main variables: line drive percent, infield fly ball percent and ‘luck.’

  AVG BABIP LD% IFFB%
2011 .273 .302 17.5% 5.9%
2012 .270 .303 23.4% 10.6%
2013 .242 .283 23.0% 5.6%
LEAGUE AVERAGE .253 .297 21.2% 9.7%

(Stats: FanGraphs)

In 2013, Cabrera’s BABIP was well below league average. However, his solid contact – measured by line drive percent – was well above league average. Moreover, because line drives fall in for hits at an incredible .693 clip per this article on Talking Chop, LD% is the prime mover in a high BABIP. In contrast, his rate of infield fly balls, which result from poor contact and almost never fall in for hits, was also better than league average.

In fact, using the league-average BABIP rates in the Talking Chop article coupled with this expected BABIP (xBABIP) equation from FanGraphs, Cabrera’s xBABIP was .314. This means that, given the rates at which Asdrubal did those things which generally lead to a high BABIP (i.e. hit line drives, avoid hitting IFFBs), Asdrubal’s BABIP would have been .314 with neutral luck. In short, if one subtracts Cabrera’s xBABIP from his BABIP, we find that Asdrubal lost a full 31 points of BABIP from bad luck.

How would that have affected his offensive output in 2013?

Given that he struck out or homered in 31% of his at bats, a 31-point BABIP increase would have increased his batting average by .020, up to .262. In turn, this 20-point increase in batting average would have effected a 20-point increase in slugging (assuming equal ISO) and a 14-point increase in OBP (assuming unchanged walks and hit by pitches). The result of this thought experiment is the offensive season he might have had without bad BABIP luck; hence, we end up with our Haphazardly-’Regressed’ Asdrubal Cabrera Triple-Slash Line Of Science that looks like .262/.313/.422, with an OPS of .735 – an OPS about 20 points higher than league average.

The point of this is not that Asdrubal was above-average offensively in 2013. As much as one regresses his luck-based numbers, that doesn’t change the fact that in the real world his offensive numbers were below-average thus making Asdrubal little better than a replacement-level player. However, when one projects forward into 2014, there’s no reason to believe he’s going to continue to be unlucky. Hence, counter-intuitive though it may be, the .735 pseudo-regressed OPS above is very  likely more predictive of his 2014 than is his actual, real-world .700 OPS, since said pseudo-regressed OPS makes no unfounded assumptions about future luck.

Moreover, a .735 OPS is quite good for a shortstop. Will Asdrubal’s actual offensive performance be exactly .735? Doubtful. However, he’s equally likely to improve on this estimate as he is to decline from it. Like most regressed predictions, it’s not a guarantee, just a mid-point.

What that in turn means for 2014 is that with that sort of offense and a repeat of this year’s defense Asdrubal Cabrera will be, overall, a below-average shortstop in 2014. On many teams, a 1.5 WAR shortstop making $10M for one year would be an entirely reasonable allocation of resources.  Given the precarious position of the Indians’ finances and the possible pursuit of a different 2013 Indians player in Ubaldo Jimenez, the Indians will be forced to gamble. Either sell low and risk Cabrera returning to 2011 form, or call and risk expedited decline.

The correct answer will only present itself in retrospect, yet if this segment of Cabrera’s career is at all like the rest of his genuinely bizarre career arc, even retrospect might not help us.

John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimmHe can also be reached by e-mail at john.h.grimm@hotmail.com.

User Comments

John
January 17, 2014 - 6:30 PM EST
Couldn't tell. The Murphy article was excellent, but ESPN has access to strength of contact data that isn't public. Really wish it were.
discollama
January 17, 2014 - 8:48 AM EST
How well hit were his ground balls? I recall an article about david murphy's poor 2013 that talked about how his BABIP was ruined because of weakly hit grounders, which seems more like a skills issue than a luck issue.
Walter
January 16, 2014 - 7:26 PM EST
We were spoiled by the play of Omar. Since Omar we had the replacement in Phillips but Wedge mishandled his talents and was shipped out to Cincy. We also felt Peralta was to slow to handle SS position but did adequate job for the Tigers and just received a big pay day with Cardinals. Cabrera will have a decent year and will become FA in 15 and Lindor should take over at SS next year.

Since the post Vizquel the Indians have had pretty decent luck at that position. Before Vizquel the Indians had people like Felix Fermin, Tom Verzyer, Frank Duffy and Jerry Dybzinski playing SS.
Willie
January 16, 2014 - 7:07 PM EST
Francisco Lindor is a serious talent, but I think they should keep from rushing him. I haven't had to see Lindor in person, but word is rom almost everyone he is special.

As for ACab, he's controllable for one yr, and his salary is essentially blocking the Tribe from making a push for a P. I don't think they would let ACab keep them from making a move for a P they really wanted though. I think there's an outside shot the Tribe goes after the last man standing (Jimenez, Garza, Arroyo, and even Maholm). Perhaps Masterson's intentions come into play here too. There is a possibility the Tribe tries to sign Jimenez or Garza if Masterson seems inclined to test FA.
Roger
January 16, 2014 - 6:20 PM EST
i am beginning to think that we need lindor as fast as possible, however for a reason that hasnt been addressed in this colume that i can remember seeing. Jhonny abd
Astrubel neither have made indians fans even for a breif time have been acceptible to anyone not in the same league defensively. There are few in history in omars class defensively. Maybe lindor with his talent can make fans accept him cause i honestly think the bar at shortstop has been set by mr omar visquel. Right or wrong he is the standard i am not familiar with the cardinal fans reaction to ozzie smith's replacement but neither of omars have proven to be acceptible. I think we as indian fans need to feel fortunate to have had 10 or 12 yrs of omar's magic and quit trying to expect another one there isnt one

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