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What does 2009 tell us about the future of Cabrera and Valbuena?

The 2009 season is mercifully over for our boys.  We are sick of it.  The only reason to think about the 2009 season anymore is to try to figure out what it tells us about the future.  In particular, I was interested in what we learned about the future of our middle infield in 2009.  What do we have to look forward to from Asdrubal Cabrera and Luis Valbuena?  The following essay reads the entrails of 2009 with respect to the fortunes of our youthful double-play combo.

It was one of the most trying and frustrating seasons in memory (which goes back to the mid-70's) for this Indians fan.  Other than 2008 and 1987, no other season in the past 35 years can come close to the tremendous gap between expectations and accomplishments of this maddening year.  That should not be a problem in 2010.  Sadly, this is not because the Tribe will achieve great things, but because by now all but the most severely delusional of us have reluctantly concluded that we're in for a year of retrenchment, of building for a new future.  We close the gap by lowering our expectations not by raising the level of results. 

Some have argued that we are in for an extended time in the doldrums, a return to the status quo of the 70's and 80's.  Those were years where we could enjoy stress-free baseball by Memorial Day, or the 4th of July at the latest, unconcerned about trivial wins and losses due to our spelunking in the AL East.  The die-hard Indians fan had the nature of the Buddha, unconcerned with the sufferings of this world, but given to the contemplation of larger questions and higher natures.  Yes, we will not win the division, but let us envision a future in which this Alex Cole fellow continues to develop and becomes Lou Brock; a future extrapolated from Joe Charbonneau's rookie year where he is one of the top sluggers in the league for years to come.  A future where, some day far off in the hazy matrices of years to come, we cobble together enough spare parts (aging knuckleballers, closers with shutdown 80 mph fastballs, unheralded mid-20's rookies putting together career years) to make a run at the playoffs.

I don't think that we're in for a return to the extended futility of the 70's-80's, but clearly next year, and quite likely 2011, are years where we will happier to focus on individual players' accomplishments and development rather than on the win-loss results of the team.  And I think that the prospects with regard to this situation are surprisingly good (and that's why I think we won't have the extended period of futility).

The strength of this team seems to be up the middle of the defense, and its future depends in large part how those prospects pan out, and how those young vets continue to mature and develop.  Grady Sizemore is a tremendous talent; he's shown what he can accomplish at the major league level.  Provided that he is able to recover fully from his physical ailments of this year, there is no reason to think he can't be a very productive player for as long as he remains with the Indians, one of the top centerfielders in the league.  There is not really much to examine or analyze there - at least not without medical information and knowledge that we don't really have access to.  Carlos Santana certainly looks like a great prospect.  For now, he remains just that; until he gets some major league playing time, we'd just be speculating on what he can and will do.  There is plenty of basis for informed speculation, from scouting reports to minor league statistical results, but I'm not tackling that here.  (Same deal for our other solid catcher prospect, Lou Marson).

The situation is different for the other two key up-the-middle players.  Asdrubal Cabrera (AC) and Luis Valbuena (LV) both have had significant playing time at the major league level, but are young enough, and inexperienced enough, that we don't have a clear idea of who they could become.  Perhaps they are already as good as they will ever be.  For Cabrera, that would be enough to make him a solidly above average shortstop.  For Valbuena, that would leave him a little short of what it takes to be a regular.  He might be able to stick as a utility infielder, but it would be difficult to justify a full-time starting job.  But, given both players young ages, it seems likely that they have some continued development left.  I decided to try to determine what they might look like as fully-developed players.  To do so, I compared their results from 2009 to all other player-year results from ML history through 2008 in order to determine which players had produced seasons like theirs before, and what type of careers they went on to have.  The results were interesting, and particularly for Valbuena, somewhat surprising. 

The Methodology

I wanted to find seasons that were essentially similar to those produced by AC and LV this year.  The first aspect of this essential similarity is age - both of these guys are young.  They were born 17 days apart (AC is the old one) in November, 1985.  I have their age as 23.6 years as of 7/1/2009, so I'll use that as their seasonal age.  I wanted to get range of players centered on that age.  For LV, I used a range of 22.5-25.0 years; for AC it was 22.0-25.5 (I used a larger range for AC because due to his excellent season, I had to widen it a bit to get a decent number of comparables).

The other aspect of context which was essential for an offensive comparison is defensive position.  Players at demanding defensive positions are generally less apt on offense than those who are basically offensive specialists.  To account for this, I limited the comparison to players who appeared in at least 80 games at a skill position (I used C, 2B, SS, and CF).  The corner infielders and outfielders, and DH's, are ignored.

Beyond that, I considered certain statistical results and limited the consideration subset to those players whose results fell in a limited range centered on the results of the player in question (AC or LV).  Since I included players with better or worse results (as long as they were similar), the group as a whole should have average performance very similar to the target player. 

The measures used included batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.  Since plate discipline and power are such important skills for a good offensive performer, and since they can manifest in different ways, I included several other measures to account for these skills.

To make it into the consideration subset, the player had to have results within the permissible range for all of the measures.  The measures used, and the ranges for each target player are below.

I used a cutoff for plate appearances since many of the measures are ratios, and I wanted a decent sample size.

Acceptable Range

Actual Results

AC

LV

AC

LV

Seasonal Age

22.0-25.5

22.5-25.0

23.6

23.6

Games at Skill Pos

>=80

>=80

128

105

Plate Appearances

>=400

>=300

581

398

Plate Discipline

    BB/PA

0.06-0.10

0.05-0.09

0.076

0.065

    SO/BB

1.25-3.25

2.0-4.0

2.02

3.19

Power

    XBH/PA

>=0.075

>=0.075

0.090

0.095

    ISO

.100-.160

.140-.190

.130

.166

BA

.270-.335

.225-.275

.308

.250

OBP

.330-.390

.275-.325

.361

.298

SLG

.405-.465

.370-.450

.438

.416

Note that I did not park or league adjust the offensive numbers, so the context of the target player's results and the comparison set are not the same.  Yes, this is a shortcoming of the analysis, and a player may look similar but be considerably more or less valuable based on their actual context.  With a large enough data set I expect this problem to be relatively small, especially consisting the somewhat neutral run context of Cleveland/AL/2009.  But if you disagree, you may just want to quit reading right here, because I'm ignoring the context from here on out.

Although the ranges of values, particularly for AVG, OBP, and SLG seem quite wide, you end up with a small set of comparable players.  If these rangers were much narrower, you'd only have a handful in the comparison set.

The resulting consideration set consisted of 15 players for AC, including 4 active players.  The LV set consisted of 20 players (but 21 seasons), once again including 4 active players.

Here are the players and seasons for each set

AC-set

Year

Age

LV-set

Year

Age

Roberto Alomar

 

1991

23.4

Lou Brock

 

1962

23.0

Earl Battey

 

1960

25.5

Ellis Burks

 

1987

22.8

Paul Blair

 

1967

23.4

Jorge Cantu

 

2006

24.4

Wil Cordero

 

1995

23.7

Jose Castillo

 

2005

24.3

Coco Crisp

 

2004

24.7

Billy Conigliaro

 

1971

23.9

David Dejesus

 

2005

25.5

Travis Fryman

 

1992

23.3

Ray Durham

 

1996

24.6

Greg Gagne

 

1986

24.6

Dan Ford

 

1975

23.1

Ron Gant

 

1988

23.3

Johnny Grubb

 

1973

24.9

Pedro Garcia

 

1973

23.2

Jim Landis

 

1958

24.3

Alex Gonzalez

 

1996

23.2

Ken Landreaux

 

1979

24.5

Alex Gonzalez

 

1997

24.2

Julio Lugo

 

2000

24.6

Dave Henderson

 

1983

24.9

Russell Martin

 

2006

23.4

Randy Hundley

 

1966

24.1

Jorge Orta

 

1975

24.6

Omar Infante

 

2004

22.5

Amos Otis

 

1971

24.2

Pat Kelly

 

1992

24.7

Ray Lankford

 

1991

24.1

Jimmy Rollins

 

2001

22.6

Roy Smalley

 

1950

24.1

Miguel Tejada

 

1998

24.1

Zoilo Versailles

 

1964

24.5

Michael Young

 

2001

24.7

That is Alex Gonzalez the Blue Jay in both 1996 and 1997 on the LV list.

For AC, here is what those guys did for their entire careers, ordered by career/peak awesomeness.

Player

Primary Position

Years

Career OPS+

All-star Games

MVP Award Shares

350+ PA Seasons with OPS+ of

110-119/120-129/130+

Roberto Alomar

2B

17

116

12

1.91

3/1/5

Amos Otis

CF

17

114

5

0.93

3/4/2

Earl Battey

C

13

106

4

0.45

1/1/1

Paul Blair

CF

17

96

2

0.20

2/1/1

Ray Durham

2B

14

104

2

X

5/1/0

Jorge Orta

2B-DH

16

107

2

X

3/3/0

Johnny Grubb

CF-LF-RF

16

120

1

X

1/0/3

Dan Ford

RF

11

108

0

0.00

4/2/0

Jim Landis

CF

11

99

1

0.20

1/1/0

Ken Landreaux

CF

11

99

1

x

3/0/0

Wil Cordero

LF-SS-1B

14

95

1

x

1/0/0

 

active players

 

Russell Martin

C

4

101

2

x

1/0/0

Julio Lugo

SS

10

88

0

x

0/0/0

David DeJesus

CF-LF

7

106

0

x

2/0/0

Coco Crisp

CF

8

94

0

x

2/0/0

This is a solid group.  Alomar will be in the Hall of Fame; Amos Otis had a career that was borderline HOF-worthy, though largely forgotten.  Battey was an excellent offensive performer for a catcher, and had several big years.  Paul Blair was an amazing defensive center-fielder, and he actually produced more with the bat in his peak years than is apparent at first glace.  If AC can match the career of any one of these guys, we should be happy with the results.

In the next tier (Durham, Orta, Grubb), you have some guys who had excellent bats but either bad defensive reputations or trouble staying on the field.  Nonetheless, if AC hits like these guys but can be an average shortstop, you've got a key contributor for a championship caliber team.

After that, you've got some outfielders with mid-length careers and several solid offensive years.  Dan Ford was actually pretty good, I had never heard of him before.

And then, Wil Cordero.  Yech.  Still, he could have been good.

Of the active guys, Martin and DeJesus look like they will have solid careers with several years of star-quality performance.  Lugo is the only shortstop on the list, and he's been underwhelming.  Crisp, ... you all know him.

Summary - the future looks bright for AC.  The average career line for this group, excluding the guys still active was 274/342/417 over 1600 games.  It looks like something along the lines of a 30% chance to be a perennial high-performer, a 50% chance of being a long-time solid player with occasional star-level years, and a 20% chance of being a decent player, but looking like a disappointment compared to 2009-based expectations.  I don't know that this is all that different from what you'd say from glancing at his 2009 line, but it's somewhat reassuring.

On to the, to me, more surprising results.  Luis Valbuena looks pretty good in this context.

Here are the career totals for his comparison set.

Player

Primary Position

Years

Career OPS+

All-star Games

MVP Award Shares

350+ PA Seasons with OPS+ of

110-119/120-129/130+

Lou Brock

LF

19

109

6

1.60

5/4/0

Ellis Burks

CF

18

126

2

0.54

2/3/6

Miguel Tejada

SS

13

112

6

1.39

3/3/1

Ray Lankford

CF

14

122

1

0.03

2/4/3

Roy Smalley

SS

11

77

0

x

0/0/0

Ron Gant

LF

16

112

2

0.89

2/4/2

Dave Henderson

CF

14

108

1

0.07

2/2/1

Travis Fryman

3B

13

103

5

0.02

1/1/1

Zoilo Versailles

SS

12

82

2

1.01

1/0/0

Greg Gagne

SS

15

83

0

0.01

0/0/0

Alex Gonzalez

SS

13

79

0

x

0/0/0

Randy Hundley

CF

14

77

1

0.03

0/0/0

Pat Kelly

2B

9

81

0

x

0/0/0

Billy Conigliaro

CF

5

104

0

x

1/0/0

Jose Castillo

UT

5

75

0

x

0/0/0

Pedro Garcia

2B

5

75

0

x

0/0/0

 

active players

 

Michael Young

SS-2B-3B

10

105

6

0.38

1/0/2

Jimmy Rollins

SS

10

97

3

0.91

1/0/0

Jorge Cantu

2B-3B

6

104

0

0.00

2/0/0

Omar Infante

SS

8

85

0

x

0/0/0

Lou Brock is in the Hall of Fame; Ellis Burks isn't but he was better at his peak, and he had a long, excellent career.  Miguel Tejada may be in the Hall some day, and he has an MVP.  Ray Lankford was an underappreciated offensive force who could handle centerfield, he's a heck of a player, too.  Roy Smalley, before being diminished by injuries, was Cal Ripken before Cal Ripken was.  ((EDIT - oops, wrong Roy Smalley.  It's actually Roy Smalley, Jr., not Roy Smalley, III.  So, he was Cal Ripken Sr. before Cal Ripken Sr. was))  Ron Gant, Dave Henderson, and Travis Fryman all had good, long careers with several years of star-quality performance (yeah, Travis was a SS that first year, and Gant a 2B).  Then you have a run of career shortstops, including MVP-winner Zoilo Versailles, the weirdly age-resistant and highly competent Greg Gagne, and the first of the nearly interchangeable Alex Gonzalezii.

So far, that's 3 stars plus 4 very good players with some spectacular years plus 4 solid shortstops with long careers (including Smally Jr) - that's a lot of value.

As for the rest - Hundley had 6 years as a starting catcher (plus 2 as a backup, and 6 cups of coffee), but only two or three where he was solidly above average.  Pat Kelly had a pretty good 3-4 years as a semi-regular followed by a collapse in his bat and playing time.  Billy Conigliaro, Tony's younger brother, I don't know what happened there.  He was decent at a young age, but he didn't play after age 25.  Jose Castillo looked good at first but didn't develop.  Pedro Garcia got an early start with the expansion Pilots/Brewers, but never accomplished much after his rookie year.

Of the active players, Young and Rollins are established stars (Young more deserving than Rollins despite what the MVP votes may say), and Cantu has had a couple of good years in his young career.  Infante looks like Jose Castillo again, though I wonder what he could do with a couple of years as a regular - he's hit really well for a utility infielder.

In the end, it looks like about a quarter of these guys were stars, another quarter were very good with occasional star performances, another quarter were solid regulars, and the final quarter were marginal contributors with shortish careers.  That is better odds than I would have given LV based on a glance at his 2009 line, and it makes it look like he has considerable upside potential.  I suspect that this is based on his impressive power for such a youngster - a 166 ISO for a young middle infielder is unusual (through 2008, there were 956 seasons of 80+ Games Played at 2B/SS for players under 25, and a 166 OPS would rank 81st).

I'm not sure how useful this type of analysis is as a projection tool, but it's fun as speculation.  Given how little fun the 2009 regular season was, we could use a little fun now.  I'd be happy to hear your thoughts about whether or not this type of 'similarity set' comparison is useful, and how it could be improved.

Data used in this analysis was drawn from the Lahman database and baseball-reference.com

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