Comping Cabrera: Eeyore’s Rebuttal

I don’t know why I’m so fascinated by Everth Cabrera. He doesn’t figure to be as critical a piece of the eventual puzzle as guys like Kyle Blanks and Mat Latos, but Cabrera’s skill set intrigues me.

Also, there’s the fact that he successfully made the jump from A-ball to the big leagues. We’ve noted that Rafael Furcal followed a similar path. We’ve identified several other players with comparable skill sets, including Pete Rose, Steve Sax, and Chuck Knoblauch. Reader Pat suggested Delino Deshields.

All of these comps make sense on a certain level. However, they also have something in common that potentially distorts the picture: These players were all really good and enjoyed successful careers.

We need a counterexample to show what can go wrong. We need Mike Caruso.

Caruso, part of 1997′s infamous White Flag Trade, became the starting shortstop for the Chicago White Sox in 1998. Like Cabrera, he skipped the high minors and made it look easy:

                A-ball                   MLB
        Age  PA   BA  OBP  SLG  Age  PA   BA  OBP  SLG
Caruso   20 617 .311 .365 .416   21 555 .306 .331 .390
Cabrera  21 550 .284 .361 .399   22 438 .255 .342 .361

Caruso’s sophomore campaign didn’t go so well. He hit .250/.280/.297 in 564 PA, then returned to the minors before making a 12-game cameo with the Royals (arguably still the minors) in 2002. Last year, at the ripe old age of 32, Caruso played five games for Newark of the independent Atlantic League.

Although this is only one data point, it’s worth acknowledging. I don’t mean to kill anyone’s buzz about an exciting young player that I happen to like a great deal, but it’s useful to know that there is precedent for someone jumping from A-ball, succeeding initially, and then falling to pieces.

Do I think Cabrera will regress to the extent Caruso did and find himself out of a job by age 25? No. Do I think it could happen? Sure.

Ryan from Padres, Chargers, Illini Blog got me thinking about this topic a while back when he posed the following question:

Is there any indication from Cabrera’s rookie numbers that he won’t end up like [Josh] Barfield? Does the fact he gets on base more often and plays a more marquee position really make him that much more valuable than Josh was after the ’06 season?

I can’t point to any studies, but my suspicion is that Cabrera’s superior on-base skills will help. Barfield succeeded initially despite his inability to discern balls from strikes. He never solved that particular problem and it caught up with him.

Some guys (Vladimir Guerrero, Alfonso Soriano) can hack their way to nice careers. Most people, however, don’t possess their hand-eye coordination or plate coverage. Anecdotally speaking, even the guys who start reasonably strong with such an unrefined approach tend to stagnate (Jose Guillen, Corey Patterson) or fade early (Carlos Baerga, Juan Samuel, Cory Snyder).

But maybe I’m telling myself this because I want Cabrera to be better than Barfield turned out to be. If history has taught us anything, it’s that learning from history is harder than it looks.

That said, Ryan has identified two points (superior on-base skills, greater defensive utility) that should work in Cabrera’s favor going forward. Cabrera was also a year younger than Barfield during their respective rookie seasons. As Bill James demonstrated many years ago (and others have since confirmed), that makes a huge difference.

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9 Responses »

  1. For one I think people like Cabrera because he’s a type of player that we haven’t seen since Dave Roberts left – fast and a constant threat to steal. For another, he probably enjoys fans in the latin community here in San Diego. And finally, he’s a likable guy. Nothing about him seems to rub people the wrong way. Not to mention people see him, see Gwynn Jr and see the potential to go flying around the bases and steal as much as possible. That’s exciting stuff, especially in a park that’s a home run killer.

    As to the Josh Barfield comparison – Barfield isn’t and never was as talented as Cabrera. Cabrera is also faster combined with the two skills you noted. That makes it more likely he’ll succeed as opposed to fail.

  2. Do you have a universe of “skill” infield positions (2B, SS, C) that jumped minors? I really like Cabrera so am hoping we would see some reason for hope in that group.

  3. Here’s an article that had a bunch of good background info on Everth …

    http://www.baseballdailydigest.com/2010/02/04/the-value-of-everth-cabrera/

    Oh, and one more thing to point out … If Everth being a year younger the Barfield “makes a huge difference”, shouldn’t Caruso’s being a year younger than Everth have made an even huger difference? Or perhaps there’s a sweetspot? :-)

  4. @Loren: I hope you are right. Cabrera sure is fun to watch, and it’d be nice to have shortstop solved for a while.

    @Jay: I can’t think of any others off the top of my head. A more comprehensive list might prove useful; if I find one, I’ll let you know.

    @LynchMob: Cool, thanks for the article… As for the age thing, well… anomalies are a constant source of irritation in any field of study. ;-)

    But seriously, 21-year-olds who post a 700 or better OPS while qualifying for the batting title are a rare and usually successful breed. Of the 118 players who have done it, 40 are in the Hall of Fame. Of the 21 players who have done it with no previous big-league experience, 7 are in Cooperstown.

    So yeah, there’s a gap between what “should” have happened and what did happen… Then the conversation returns to Sean Burroughs and we get depressed all over again.

  5. Geoff, you and Ryan got me hooked on this, too. For the past week or so I’ve been looking at a whole slew of young middle infielders trying to come up with a good comp. What I eventually ended up with was a group of 30 guys who all had their first big league appearances at 22 and were pretty much starters from 22-24, that is they had to have at least 1,000 PA’s from 22-24.

    I looked at plate discipline (PA per BB), power (XBH% and ISO), speed (SB success rate and raw SB). I added in K/BB and K rate later. It’s a very interesting group, but it’s hard to tell what Cabrera might look like for the next two years by looking at the sum of those first 3 years, so I also looked up each of the 30 players age 22 season.

    After all of that I ended up with Knoblauch and Furcal as the best two comps. I’m going to keep an eye on young Everth and see if he comes out anywhere near either of those two. I’m not going to say he’ll end up with a career like either of them, or like any of the 30 guys I looked at, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him put up similar numbers to what either Knoblauch or Furcal did in their age 23 and 24 season.

    As to Caruso, I think if you look at his BB rate, you’ll see why he failed. An amazing season for a 21 year old rookie, but that .331 OBP translates to about 1 BB per 39 PA’s. Everth walked once every 9.65 PA’s. Huge difference there. The only thing which concerned me in the numbers Everth put up was the K rate. Like you noted, he does not have the bat control of Knoblauch. Hopefully he can maintain his eye and cut down on his K’s as he matures.

  6. I’m not completely convinced that Cabrera’s plate discipline will save him from Caruso-itis, or less complete regression. His OBP was much better in the 8 hole, where even Swingin’ Khalil Greene posted acceptable BB/K numbers. Still, there are signs that Cabrera won’t fall apart. His OBP as a leadoff hitter was dragged down by his BA; he still drew a fair share of walks up top. He also showed a good eye in the minors. This is my long-winded way of saying that I agree with GY’s analysis.

    Who would have thought that “Everth” is more rare than “Khalil” on Baseball Reference? Three Khalil’s have played pro baseball — Greene, Khalil Gourdin, and Rashid Khalil. There’s only been one Everth.

  7. The only bad thing about Cabrera sticking as a quality big leaguer is that it would force me to rethink my reflexive antipathy toward the Rule V draft. Thinking…ugh!

  8. I realize I am in the minority with this, but I still have a lot of doubts about Cabrera.
    I hope I am wrong, but a lot of his success last season happened in a 4 week stretch.

  9. I don’t think you’re in the minority, Parlo. I’m pretty sure we all realize Everth could end up stagnating or regressing; I, for one, am just having fun playing the projection game. Also, it’s way more fun to project good things than disasters. :-)