Two Different Ways to See Melky Cabrera by Jeff Sullivan December 15, 2014 Maybe the most important thing you learn early on in any basic stats class is that you can’t just throw out data. At least, not just because you want to, and not just because the data doesn’t fit. Just about all information is legitimate information, and you simply have to decide how heavily to weight it. Take Chase Headley, for example. No one figures he’s going to hit 31 dingers again, like he did in 2012, but the reality is that Headley did have a seven-win season just a few seasons ago, and we can’t justifiably ignore that. It’s a part of his record, and it hints at his true-talent level, or at least where it was in San Diego that one time. Because of that year, Headley gets a more favorable projection, and I don’t think you can argue that away. If you’re going to eliminate data from a sample, you need to have a damn good reason. You need to be able to prove that the data is irrelevant. If you’re a research scientist, maybe the data came out of an experiment run you know you messed up. You accidentally buffered a solution to the wrong pH. As baseball fans, we’re not research scientists, but we’re still always looking for reasons to eliminate data. This is basically the same thing as having a disagreement with a given player projection. Overall, the projections do well, because they don’t eliminate data. But we’re always trying to beat them. Last year gave reason to eliminate prior data from J.D. Martinez. The White Sox saw reason to eliminate prior data from Zach Duke. And now the White Sox have also signed Melky Cabrera for three years and something like $42 million. Cabrera’s another interesting case, like Duke — he didn’t just overhaul his mechanics, but there’s something about his record that makes you wonder how much you should care about his 2013. A tumor! A tumor in his back. Melky Cabrera, in 2013, had a tumor in his back, and while it was eventually discovered and removed, it was apparently causing him great discomfort through the year, especially in his lower body. Perhaps not coincidentally, Cabrera had a terrible season in 2013, and then the tumor was taken away, and Cabrera did well again. This goes beyond, say, “he struggled through hamstring discomfort” or something. “…when healthy” tends to be an over-optimistic suffix, since no one plays a whole season at 100%, but there’s a difference between ordinary aches and pains and having a tumor in your back. Isn’t there? It seems like there should be. Deciding what to do with Cabrera’s 2013 goes a long way toward determining your opinion of the contract. Let’s run through some math. Here’s a table of Cabrera’s last four years. I’m including WAR/600, and a basic weight for purposes of calculating a 2015 projection. This is a very basic projection, and it doesn’t account for age, but just focus on the result here for a minute. Season WAR/600 Weight 2011 3.1 0.3 2012 5.4 0.4 2013 -1.5 0.5 2014 2.5 0.6 Projection 2.2 – Cabrera’s 30 years old, so he shouldn’t age too steeply all of a sudden. If you treat 2013 like it was just an ordinary season that happened, two seasons ago, you see Cabrera as almost exactly an average player. And, as it happens, Cabrera is getting paid as if he’s almost exactly an average player. He’s getting paid, roughly, to contribute about six wins to the White Sox over three seasons. What that implies is that the White Sox aren’t just tossing out Cabrera’s 2013. But look what happens if you were to do that: Season WAR/600 Weight 2011 3.1 0.3 2012 5.4 0.4 2013 – – 2014 2.5 0.6 Projection 3.5 – If you just throw it out entirely, Cabrera looks a heck of a lot better. That’s 59% better. Last season, he was a little better than average. In 2011, he was a little better than average. In 2012, he was a borderline superstar before getting suspended. Now, that’s another variable, and some of you might have a desire to throw out steroid-fueled data, but we know relatively little about what performance-enhancing drugs mean for offensive performance. Cabrera just hit well in 2014, presumably off of the stuff. We could observe that Cabrera was crap in 2013, hardly able to move, and the reason for that feels pretty significant. That 2013 makes Cabrera a little bit unpredictable. Because of that year and because of his medical condition, you could simultaneously argue that Cabrera’s a little overpaid, but also he has big upside. Some of Cabrera’s indicators remained unchanged. In 2013, his walks were normal, and his strikeouts were normal. His batted balls were normal. Cabrera simply lost power and defense. We know he’s not a good defender when healthy, but he should be better than he was, and he should hit for more power than he did. In Cabrera’s last three healthy seasons, he’s been a good player. There’s just also a fourth season, gumming up the works. Where I think you come down is that Cabrera is worth something in the neighborhood of $42 million over three years, but he’s got a little extra volatility. It’s worth noting somewhere in here that Cabrera apparently turned down a four-year offer, potentially from Seattle, because he wanted to play closer to the east coast. So there was a bigger commitment out there, but it wasn’t sufficiently big to change Cabrera’s mind. The White Sox seem to be focusing mostly on Cabrera’s 2014. Call this a third way to see Melky Cabrera. We know that something happened that had an effect on Cabrera’s 2013 performance. Yet we also know that something happened that might’ve had an opposite effect on Cabrera’s 2012 performance, so the White Sox probably just see Cabrera as a line-drive sort with just enough contact and power to offset uninspiring defense. It’s not an All-Star package, but Cabrera isn’t yet old and Cabrera also isn’t Dayan Viciedo. I can’t tell you how badly the White Sox wanted to move forward with Not Dayan Viciedo. So, think of this as mission accomplished. The White Sox have achieved almost all their offseason goals. They’ve now built a team talented enough to hang around the race for at least the bulk of the season ahead. A month ago, the White Sox didn’t look like a contender, so in that sense it’s odd to see what they’ve decided to pull off, but on the other hand, Jose Abreu, Chris Sale, and Jose Quintana are good now. So why not seize the day? The day is being very aggressively seized.