March 20, 2012
All players eventually succumb to the passage of time. Outwardly, though, some age less obviously than others. Their statistics might lose some of their luster, their managers might rest them more often, and they might be more susceptible to a calf pull here or a hamstring strain there. But they look no less trim and move no less smoothly than they did in more durable days. Watch them from the stands, and you might almost convince yourself that they’re still in their prime and not deep in decline.
Look at early-model and late-model Mariano Rivera. It’s tough to tell them apart. Here’s Rivera giving up a crucial home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. in Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS. (Orel Hershiser, by the way: also aging gracefully.)
And here’s Rivera last September, nailing down save number 602 and setting off a Scripted Michael Kay Moment:
In 1997, Rivera had a 1.88 ERA, struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings, and saved 43 games. In 2011, he had a 1.91 ERA, struck out 8.8 batters per nine innings, and saved 44 games. I’m probably not the first to point this out, but he’s also still throwing the same pitch. Yes, he used to have more hair, and he used to pitch more innings. Other than that, though, he’s remarkably well preserved, both physically and statistically. For 20 years after he retires and inevitably embarks on his second career as a spring training instructor/Old Timer’s Game attendee, Yankees fans will have to listen to their broadcasters blather on about how he looks like he could still play. He’s one of those players who appears to weigh about what he did on the day he debuted in the majors.
Miguel Cabrera is not one of those players. In fact, he’s on the Albert Belle aging curve, at least superficially. Compare these two images of Cabrera, one from September 2003, his rookie season, and the other from October of last year. I’ve labeled the differences for you.
A. Fist raised in triumph A. Fist too heavy to raise in triumph
A through H are mostly minor details that add up to one major difference: there's a lot more Miguel in the second picture. That’s what a rawhide diet will do to you.
I pointed out what a difference eight years has made for Cabrera since he’s in the midst of a move back to third base, a position he hasn’t played regularly since 2007. I was planning to point this out before Cabrera took a grounder off the sunglasses in yesterday’s game and walked off the field with a bleeding face. When I heard the news, confirmation bias kicked in, and my thought process went something like this: Cabrera was hit in the head by a ball that bounced first? Well, of course he was. He’s a designated hitter/first baseman, and a DH/1B shouldn’t have been playing third in the first place. If he stays out there, Jim Leyland might have more blood on his hands before the season comes to an end.
After viewing the video, it’s not so easy to say whether Cabrera’s poor fielding skills were to blame for his bruises. Leyland didn’t think so, saying that a better third baseman would be “in the same place Cabrera is right now: getting stitches.” Maybe a more agile man might have moved out of the way or even gotten a glove on the ball, but not necessarily—it was hit hard, as grounders to third often are, and it took a bad hop before hitting Cabrera. Since I can't embed the MLBAM version, I'll settle for a GIF from the fine minds at Baseball Nation
In further fairness to Cabrera, he worked hard to shed weight over the winter. While one of his chipmunk cheeks might hold more fat than Julio Franco's entire body contained at age 47, and while he wouldn’t pass for a player in the best shape of his life, he doesn’t look noticeably larger than he did the last time he played third. The problem is, he looked pretty large—approaching Stay Puft territory—the last time he played third. In fact, he looked a lot like a first baseman.
So, is Leyland crazy? Regardless of whether Sunglassesgate was avoidable, should he take it as a sign that future harm will befall his new third baseman and most valuable bat if he’s not moved to a different position?
To come up with an answer to that question, I decided to search for some precedent for the move Cabrera is attempting to make. Cabrera has spent the past four seasons as a first baseman. He’ll turn 29 in April. With the assistance of BP data dude Andrew Chong, I looked for player-seasons in which a player was at least 29 and moved to a more difficult position after spending his four previous campaigns at an easier one. To determine whether a position was “easier” or harder,” we followed the traditional defensive spectrum:
A move to the right on this spectrum—the opposite of the direction that a player typically travels as he ages and becomes less defensively adept—counted as a move to a more difficult position. Any player our query turned up would be past his prime (or nearly so) and a former fixture at a less demanding place on the field. Since it's difficult to tell from the data when a position switch fails, we looked only for successes. We don’t know how many times a move like Cabrera’s has been tried, but do we know how often it’s succeeded.
The answer? Not often at all. We found around 30 players in the last 40 years who were 29 or older, switched to a tougher position after at least four years at an easier one, and played at least 80 percent of their games in that season at the new, more difficult position. After excluding seasons of under 100 games played, I narrowed the list down to 22 player-seasons since 1972. The following table lists the eight players from the last decade who fit the bill. (Full results can be found here.)
The majority of the qualifying players clustered close to the age-29 cutoff, which makes sense: making these moves doesn't get any easier with age. The oldest was Carl Yastrzemski, who switched from first base to left field in 1977 at the age of 37. The group as a whole went from about one fielding run above average at the easier positions to about one fielding run below average at the harder ones, but there were a few disaster stories. In 1975, Pete Rose moved from left field, where he’d been well above average in 1974, to third base, where he posted the fourth-worst FRAA of any fielder in baseball. More recently, Chone Figgins—the only man to make this position switch and spend 100 percent of his playing time at the new spot—suffered an even greater reversal of fortune. Figgins recorded baseball’s fourth-best FRAA as a third baseman in 2009, then switched to second in 2010 and finished with the game’s third-worst FRAA. As a result, his position switch, like many of those on the list, didn’t stick beyond its first year. In 2011, he was back at third base to stay.
A couple factors set Cabrera apart from most members of this list. For one thing, Cabrera is probably the worst fielder to attempt this switch: he’s already cost his teams over seven wins in the field, including almost three at first base in Detroit over the past three seasons. For another, he’s not making a simple switch from first to left or left to right. To get from first to third, he’s hopping—if someone who looks like Cabrera can be said to “hop”—over two spots on the defensive spectrum. Only two other players on the list did that. One was Dave Nilsson, who switched from first base back to catcher (where he’d played as a rookie) in the last year of his career. Although catcher is nominally the most difficult position on the spectrum, it’s also one whose skillset doesn’t translate well to other positions—in a sense, it's outside the spectrum entirely.
That leaves one last, best comp for Cabrera: Kevin Youkilis, who switched from first to third last year to make room for Adrian Gonzalez after spending the previous five seasons primarily on the other edge of the infield. Like Cabrera, Youkilis had played some third earlier in his career. Since he was three years older when he made his move than Cabrera is now, it might seem that the odds were stacked even more heavily against him. However, Youkilis had something going for him that Cabrera does not: he was an elite defender at first.
While Youkilis’ bat looked even better relative to his peers at the hot corner than it had at first, he broke down toward the end of the season, spending most of the final two months on the sidelines with lower back tightness, bursitis in his hip, and a sports hernia. Those injuries weren’t necessarily a result of the position switch—he hit the DL in 2009 and 2010, too—but Corey Dawkins has found that players who change positions run a slightly higher risk of injury. Given the importance of Cabrera’s bat to the Tigers, that’s a factor they’ll have to weigh against the potential benefits of playing him at a position where his offense is even more valuable.
At 29, most players content themselves with trying not to slide any further down the defensive spectrum. Cabrera is trying to climb back up. That doesn’t mean that his position switch is destined to fail, but if he does spend the season as a full-time third baseman, his success would be almost unprecedented. As Christina Kahrl has pointed out elsewhere, Leyland likes to be aggressive with defensive substitutions, and Brandon Inge’s presence gives him a good gloveman to deploy whenever he has a late lead. Most likely, Cabrera will see some time at third but make plenty of appearances at easier positions. Until he proves conclusively that he can’t handle the position—which might take only another knock or two to the noggin, though early returns on his work in the field were positive—asking him to turn back the clock on a part-time basis is a risk worth taking. Expecting him to stick as a full-time starter, though? That's probably a low-percentage play.