March 3, 2016
Winter Is Leaving
In a few weeks, Miguel Cabrera will get the first paycheck under his new contract, an eight-year, $240 million extension that was signed two years ago. At the time, Grantland headlined it “an Unconscionable, Indefensible, All-But-Guaranteed Mistake,” which, yeah, might be totally true. An extension like Cabrera’s can end up being a mistake because the player doesn’t perform as well as the contract supposes, making the player’s value, by a reasonable calculation, less than his compensation. Albert Pujols’ contract with the Angels is a mistake by this standard. Robinson Cano’s with the Mariners, same.
It can also end up being a mistake because it was signed before it had to be—because the club forfeited the one advantage it has in a sport that restricts player movement to certain, limited windows: The ability to wait and see. Ryan Howard’s contract with the Phillies was a mistake by this standard. Justin Verlander’s with the Tigers, same. Both players would have certainly been paid much less if their clubs had simply waited to see how they aged before preemptively betting on them at the height of their careers.
Miguel Cabrera’s deal might end up being a mistake in the Pujols/Cano style. He is owed a tremendous amount of money for a very long time. But the Tigers have at least cleared the risk of it being a mistake in the Verlander vein, because right now Miguel Cabrera is still unbelievably good at baseball.
From age 26 to 30, the pretty-clear peak of his career, a stretch in which he finished fifth, fourth, second, first and first in MVP voting, Cabrera had a 170 OPS+. He averaged 4.4 WARP for every 119 games played (a not-arbitrarily chosen measure, as you’ll see soon enough). That’s the sixth-best offensive run for that agespan since 1950, comfortably splitting the difference between Albert Pujols and Hank Aaron. Historically good player.
In 2014, at the age of 31, though, Cabrera started to show his decline. His OPS+ dropped to 150, which is great, but not slap-yourself-sober great: 45th best ever for that age, tied with (of all people) John Kruk. He produced 4.1 WARP per 119 games. All of this was good, and it all suggested the most predictable thing: Days had passed, seasons had changed, person had aged. This seemed confirmed by Cabrera's loss of power—homers became doubles, the pessimistic inverse of the frequently invoked hope for young players—and by the offseason groin surgery he had required just before signing the extension.
But last year made 2014 look like it might have just been an outlier. Cabrera’s OPS+ was, once again, 170 on the nose, the 12th-best since 1950, tied this time with Barry Bonds. He produced 4.8 WARP; he played 119 games.
That number 119 aside—and playing so few games is very relevant, for sure—Cabrera had a vintage season. Sort of. A vintage Cabrera season is a True Average better than .330, with isolated power near the top of the league. In 2013, the year before he signed his extension, he was second in baseball in ISO. From 2009-2013, our previously identified “peak Cabrera” years, he was third. In 2015 he was 51st, behind Russell Martin, Brian Dozier, Justin Turner and Rougned Odor. His True Average, though, was .333, fifth-best mark of his career, 11 points higher than his career.
The value comes partly from increased discipline—he had the second-best walk rate of his career last year, and his lowest O-swing rate since PITCHf/x started giving us ways to measure it—but more from his total dominance of the middle of the field. Cabrera has always used the whole field, has always had startling power to the biggest part of the yard, but last year he had the sixth-best batting average ever (by a right-handed batter, min. 150 PA) on balls hit up the middle. The 10th-best OPS.
That’s just a sliver of a meaningful sample, and it’s a BABIP-driven one at that, but Cabrera has been building toward this for years:
I’ve argued before that, in the age of shifts, Albert Pujols is—because of his lack of speed and his one-way spray chart—the most defendable hitter in the game. Cabrera has the same lack of speed, but is otherwise the opposite of that:
And with that approach, he’s unpitchable, too, unless you can simply blow pitches past him:
We know that most pitchers age predictably (they almost all lose velocity, "stuff") unpredictably (some make adjustments and thrive forever with craft). Cabrera shows some sign of following this path as a hitter: He's clearly not as athletic as he used to be, and in the past two years he is clearly not as strong as he used to be. That is aging. He has aged. But the adjustments he has made as a hitter have allowed him to, essentially, maintain the same level of production, or at least for one year they did. It's pretty cool.
So, again, acknowledging that getting it “right” on Cabrera’s two bridge years does not in any way assure that the deal won’t turn out to be disastrously long and burdensome: What would Cabrera have been in line for this offseason if the Tigers had waited? Pujols is the most obvious precedent. The three years before he hit free agency:
Those Pujols WARPs put this article in danger of spiraling into Peak Albert Pujols Fun Factland, so we’ll just acknowledge that Pujols brought baserunning and defensive value (or was supposed to) that Cabrera doesn’t, but that they were comparable hitters and Pujols’ offensive trajectory was, if anything, slightly more worrisome. Put in more objective terms, PECOTA projected, at the time, that Pujols would produce 29 WARP over the 10-year contract he signed, including a 6-WARP first season. From this moment, it projects Cabrera (who is a year older than Pujols was when the Angels signed him) to produce 27.6 WARP over the eight-year contract that is kicking in, including 5.5 WARP this year. Not like we were all giddy with the Angels for getting a sweet, sweet deal on Pujols or anything, but PECOTA projects Cabrera to produce about as many wins as it projected Pujols to produce, for roughly the same total dollars, but now with four years of inflation. Had Cabrera been a free agent this winter, I’m not sure he’d have found somebody to give him eight years and $240 million. I’m not totally sure he wouldn’t have, though: Polling the green dots among my Gchat contacts, I get estimates of 6/$175M, 7/$231M, and "fair chance he gets the most of any free agent." At $8M-$9M per win over the life, a team might not even have come to regret it.
Which is to say: Miguel Cabrera’s extension looked, at the time, like it might be the worst contract ever signed. It is, I would say, clearly better now than Albert Pujols’ was in 2012. The Tigers gambled on his next two years and won. Now they are gambling on his next eight. They might lose. But the good news is that all the allowances stunned writers were willing to make two years ago—e.g. “Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet, and he’s able to perform feats with a bat that no one else can match: He murders first pitches, launches tape-measure homers on balls six inches or more inside the plate, works deep counts when fat pitches don’t come early, and generally shows no weakness with the bat”—are more or less still true. The 2016 Tigers succeeding in keeping one of the best hitters in baseball.