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Asdrubal Cabrera: Above-average players & contract extensions

Asdrubal Cabrera: Above-average players & contract extensions
Asdrubal Cabrera (Photo: AP)
May 21, 2014
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When Asdrubal Cabrera signed a contract extension with the Cleveland Indians in 2012, Manny Acta (rightly) described Cabrera as having "carried the offense" in 2011. Fresh off a 25-home run season in which he was the third-best offensive shortstop in baseball, Asdrubal Cabrera's value was at its zenith.

In a sense, it was the worst time for the Indians to sign him.

Fast forward only two years later to April 2014, the two-year, $16.5 million contract set to pay Cabrera $10 million this year is less unambiguously well-received - in much the same sense as John Elway is not unanimously beloved by Browns fans, or in the same sense as LeBron James in 2011 was slightly less Playing For The Cavaliers. Even in the best of times, Cleveland commits to shunning The Astrocab.

His contract is perhaps one of the largest contributing factors to the great heap of disdain. After a 2013 season in which he posted subpar offensive numbers, coupled with the worst shortstop defense in the league, demands for top prospect Francisco Lindor mounted, both locally and nationally, only adding to enmity toward the shortstop - not only was he objectively below-average, he was perceived as the force holding back the best cornerstone shortstop prospect in the game. Given that, bitterness swelled at the idea of giving $10 million to the below-average Asdrubal Cabrera.

Before that line of rhetoric takes off - i.e.: that Cabby's contract is a substantial overpay - there are two decisively mitigating factors: service time, and the quality of Asdrubal's 2014 play.

First, the end of 2013 marked the end of Asdrubal's sixth year of service time. As a general background note, service time typically works as follows: a team has at least six years of control over a player. For the first three years of service time (slightly under three full seasons), the club is obligated to pay the player only the league minimum. After at least three years of service time have been achieved, a player is eligible for arbitration, which awards players increases in salary below free agent prices but still, for an above-average player, somewhere in the range of $2 million to $6 million. For the next three seasons, arbitration will award raises to that player consummate with service time and merit. After at least six years of service time have elapsed, the player is eligible for free agency.

With this in mind, the first year of Asdrubal's two-year contract extension covered 2013, his third year of arbitration, and paid him $6.5 million. Given that he and the Indians agreed to a 2012 salary of $4.5 million, a $6.5 million dollar salary would have been the most probable result of an arbitration raise.

After the 2013 season, Asdrubal would have been eligible for free agency; however, both Asdrubal and Cleveland agreed to exchange this first year of free agency for $10 million in advance - for Cleveland, it presented the opportunity for a discount if Asdrubal improved; for Asdrubal, it guaranteed financial security if he completely fell off the map. The extension, like all extensions, was a gamble: Cleveland was gambling on Asdrubal's 2013 performance being better (and thus, his 2014 contract being a bargain), and Asdrubal in a sense was gambling on his 2013 performance being poor - thus, ensuring he would be paid well in 2014 even if he had a poor 2013.

Dan Gilbert owns a casino and has won two draft lotteries in the last four years. The Dolans could take a lesson in gambling from him, because they lost the Asdrubal gambit badly. Asdrubal's 2013 season, for reasons that have been addressed previously, was disastrous.

Yet there's a very important distinction to be made here - the Indians have lost the gamble, but whether the extension itself is a loss depends entirely on Asdrubal Cabrera's performance in 2014. Because the six years of service time artificially decrease the amount of open-market free-agent talent, the talent that does reach the free agent market experiences substantial salary inflation as a direct result; the aforementioned article hence lists Asdrubal's salary, $10 million, as a probable open-market salary for a slightly below-average player - for instance, a player with a decisively above-average .735 OPS combined with terrible defense and poor baserunning.

That hypothetical .735 OPS, suggested as a probable 50th-percentile performance for Asdrubal in 2014, isn't far from the mark: Asdrubal's current 2014 OPS is .758. This difference is a substantial change from his .700 OPS of 2013, but an entirely expected one, and not a change large enough to single-handedly catapult him from 'team weakness' to 'team strength.' The biggest change between 2013 Cabrera and 2014 Cabrera came with his defense.

To suggest that a player with Cabrera's six errors hitherto in 2014 has improved over 2013 is both surprising and quite true. To improve substantially upon his 2013 defense, all Asdrubal Cabrera needed to do was not be the proud owner of the worst shortstop defense in the majors. The largest driver of Asdrubal's problems last year was his lack of range; this year, Asdrubal Cabrera's range has been approximately average for a shortstop.

























Credit: FanGraphsc

As one might expect from a player who has made six errors through 376 innings in the field, Asdrubal has made a decreased rate of plays within his zone - that is, the zone within which an average shortstop might be expected to make plays.

What has increased - quite noticeably - is the number of plays that Asdrubal has made outside of his zone, or plays that a shortstop is not necessarily expected to make. As a result, UZR regards Asdrubal's range is as approximately average but his error-prevention worse-than-average - on the aggregate, awarding Asdrubal a defensive grade slightly below average relative to the shortstop position as a whole.

One must note that the context of this discussion is relative to the position of shortstop as a whole. As perhaps the most demanding defensive position on the field, the league-average shortstop is a defender who is very likely substantially better on defense than even an elite defensive first baseman. To receive average or even only slightly below-average defense from a player with Asdrubal Cabrera's offense, whose batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage are all notably better than league average, and whose base-running has likewise been above-average (both in terms of base-stealing as well as the much-discussed 'little things,' such as first-to-third, which he did with great aplomb in Tuesday's victory over Detroit - little things which the Baserunning statistic does capture), yields what is altogether a good baseball player.

Cleveland doesn't need to love Asdrubal Cabrera, nor will it: fans are unlikely to ever forgive him for the double play in the 2013 Wild Card game. Yet whatever enmity does exist, and whatever shortstop happens to be knocking on the door of I-71, the reality is that Asdrubal Cabrera is, right now, an above-average player, one whose starting role would not be out of place on a playoff team. If Lindor is not MLB-ready by the beginning of the 2015 season, this fact will soon make itself clearly and bitterly resonant.


Small-money contracts typically don't look terrible, but as noted, the Indians almost certainly lost the gamble of Asdrubal's contract. The team was hoping Asdrubal would consistently produce well, but his unfortunate 2013 season closed the door on that opportunity. Counter-intuitively, however, the fact that this contract extension is a loss only illustrates the tremendous benefits of contract extensions on the whole.  

Between his defense and his offense, Asdrubal is likely to contribute approximately 3 WAR in 2014, a solidly better-than-average number. Because they bought out this free agent year early, the Indians reduced their free agent commitment to a one-year, $10 million contract.

To understand the market for players comparable to Asdrubal, consider Omar Infante, a second-baseman with below-average offense but substantially better defense - on the aggregate, Infante has been an average player. This past offseason, Infante signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the Royals taking him from his age 32 to age 35 seasons.

Consider also Jhonny Peralta. Peralta's numbers, on offense and (surprisingly) defense, have been much better than Cabrera's and, while variable, still stoically above-average. However, Peralta was suspended for fifty games in 2013 for PED use. Despite this PED use, this past offseason, Peralta signed a four-year, $53 million contract with the Cardinals, running from his age 31 to age 34 seasons.

Peralta and Infante's contracts are bellwethers of the size of commitment that must be made to secure free agents who are either average or, in Peralta's case, above-average but also high-risk due to his PED usage. Each of these players was over thirty entering free agency, and their average contract was four years, $40 million - $10 million per year.

Additionally, there's reason to believe that each player's average annual value was deflated by the total years added - earlier on Tuesday, Boston signed Stephen Drew for $10 million for the remainder of 2014, in which the 2-3 WAR, or average-to-above-average, player will be playing his age 30 season.

The effect of Asdrubal's own contract extension was that, after a down year, Cleveland was forced to pay Asdrubal Cabrera, a player who, even including a poor 2013, has been average-to-above-average over the course of his career, a total of $10 million over one year. Unlike Peralta or Infante, however, Cabrera enters the 2014 season going into his age 28 season.

In other words, the Indians signed a younger player whose performance midpoint of Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta to a one-year contract at the annual rate that Infante and Peralta got, and substantially less than the rate that Stephen Drew received (by the time Drew plays his first game, Asdrubal will have already accumulated 1.2 FanGraphs WAR). The player is less risky than either Infante or Peralta due to age, has a substantially higher ceiling than Drew due to playing time, and the contract, because of its short duration, is also less risky than the Peralta and Infante signings that were regarded as, at least, justifiable moves.

As a result of a contract extension that the Indians got the raw end of, they ended up with an average-to-above-average, low-risk player at free agent prices for a low-risk contract. The Asdrubal Cabrera contract extension was a failure in execution, but the outcome of this failure proves the effectiveness of the method.

To be entirely clear: Asdrubal Cabrera's scenario was not a worst-case scenario. Those who recall the Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore contracts will have no difficulty recalling the dead money at the end of those deals. Those contracts are the worst-case scenarios. Yet the dead money in Sizemore's contract, approximately $16 million over three years, was insubstantial relative to payroll size, and the Hafner contract was criticized from the very outset for paying substantial sums of money to a 32-year-old dedicated DH. Those two extensions are the worst case scenarios, and even these worst-case scenarios had mitigating factors: one involved a relatively small deadweight loss of payroll, whereas the other was lampooned from its inception for being a poor move.

What the Asdrubal Cabrera contract does represent is a contract that went poorly - but not catastrophically - relative to the scope of all possible trajectories for a contract extension. A relatively poor trajectory gave the 2014 Cleveland Indians a lower risk player and contract than exist on the open market at comparable open-market costs. A relatively good trajectory, like Carlos Santana's, has given Cleveland (the last six weeks aside) a very good hitter for $21 million over five years.

This range of trajectories is broad, certainly, but Asdrubal Cabrera's contract extension shows that only the very worst are a net negative for the team. The success of the philosophy should be very encouraging when one recalls the Gomes, Brantley, and Kipnis deals, deals which, the team hopes, will carry Cleveland even after Asdrubal has taken a cab out of town.

John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimmHe can also be reached by e-mail at

User Comments

May 23, 2014 - 7:20 AM EDT
Well, last night with RISP and two out late in a tie game he hit one just over the left field fence. It got caught, but I have to give him credit - it was a nice hit and could have been the deciding hit in the game. Maybe that will get him going.
Eastside Long Beach in a 78 Coupe
May 22, 2014 - 11:26 AM EDT
Maybe if Cabrera stopped going out to night clubs and drinking all of the time he'd be good.
May 22, 2014 - 10:22 AM EDT
Asdrubal is hitting .320 this year with nobody on, .192 with runners on, and is 0-for-19 with RISP and two out. 19 times he's ended the inning with a runner or second or third, or both, with not a single hit.

Santana is 1-for-16 with RISP and two out. Asdrubal and Carlos have combined to go 1-for-35 with 1 RBI with runners in scoring position and two out. Josh Tomlin, with his .571 career batting average, would have done much better.

Whatever these guys are making this year it's too much. I suppose we should be thankful that the Tribe extended Cabby's contract so it expires after this season, rather than giving him 4 years at $35 million or so after last season.

By comparison, David Murphy is hitting .350 with RISP2 and .444 with RISP. Whoever signed him should get a bonus.

Cabby seems to put a lot of pressure on himself with ducks on the pond. He's gets impatient and hacks at bad pitches. If he gets up 2-0 he's swinging at the next pitch no matter where it is. It's like that double play in the Wild Card game, which I'm pretty sure came on the first pitch he saw. It's like he's scared to fall behind in the count in a high leverage at-bat.

He's hitting very well in May, but still not a single hit in those RISP two-out situations. Once he gets his first it may take the pressure off.

May 22, 2014 - 6:53 AM EDT
John, anyone who knows statistics and physics will tell you defensive metrics cannot tell you much regardless of the acumen of those doing the analysis. Offensive statistics have fewer variables as do pitching but defense cannot evaluate metrics accurately because of the variety between fields, batted balls and pitchers. Daniel Faraday probably proved the physics did not duplicate as do sound, electricity and magnetism. There is no repeatable action to defense that can be accurately defined.
C L Who
May 22, 2014 - 2:22 AM EDT
ACab's rebound this year has been a nice surprise....all players have off times, and sometimes those times are a whole year.

He seems no longer to be a "power hitter" and the Tribe's standing around July 1 will probably determine whether ACab is traded, and Lindor -- inexperienced though he may be -- is installed as the starter.

The salary issue is a big "so what"? ACab is obviously on a team friendly contract even if he hasn't performed at the level the FO would want. It's not exactly news that teams overpay (in cash or years) for just about every free agent or near free agency player. Let's all just hope ACab continues his renaissance in the field and at the plate for the year, or until he is traded....whichever is first.

Anecdotally, ACab used to be a regular feature on the highlight reels not so long this never happens.
May 22, 2014 - 12:37 AM EDT
But they are not reliable from a descriptive standpoint, especially in a 45 game sample. But even over much larger samples, they can be unreliable. According to DRS, Asdrubal Cabrera was above average defensively in 2011. According to UZR, it was the second worst fielding year of his career, after 2013. These cannot both be correct; one, or both, are necessarily unreliable, even over a full year's worth of data. According to DRS, Brantley was above average in left field last year. According to UZR, he was below average. According to both metrics, Russell Branyan was an above average first baseman in 2010, when he could barely move because of his bad back; his range was nonexistent, and many throws that could have been picked skipped by him, often without much of an effort to catch them. If they are accurate at describing what actually happened, then you wouldn't have this:

John Grimm
May 22, 2014 - 12:01 AM EDT
Matt: I appreciate it, and yes, his career clutch numbers are quite good. It appears contradictory when I myself, deep down, mistrust Asdrubal in critical situation contrasted with the reality you highlighted. It's a bizarre dissonance.

Seth: There should be a clarification between reliability in the sense of predictive stabilization and reliable in the sense of descriptive faithfulness.

In small sample sizes (i.e.: through mid-May) xFIP is more reliable than ERA. When one says that xFIP is more reliable, one makes the (correct!) argument that xFIP has a better ability of predicting future performance than ERA.

However, both statistics are reliable from a descriptive standpoint, in that both statistics describe faithfully what has occurred - xFIP describes what a player's FB%, K%, and BB% suggest his ERA should have been over a period of time reliably; likewise, ERA is reliable in the sense that it faithfully describes how many earned runs have been scored while the pitcher on the mount. Predictively unreliable, but descriptively reliable.

That's the approach I would take to describe UZR in response to the 'unreliability' point. Does UZR/DRS take two years to become predictive? Sure. Are they open to large amounts of fluctuation? Granted. It's reasonable he'll regress more to career means, which are substantially below-average, than his 2014 performance of only slightly below-average. And 'substantially below average,' recall, is a marked step up from his disastrous 2013 defensive campaign. I grant the predictive power of UZR/DRS may not be excellent.

But, like ERA, while it may not have excellent predictive power, to deny their descriptive power is to confine oneself unduly. I do trust my eyes, but I trust substantially more the eyes of people whose livelihoods depend on objectively evaluating quality of defense. I trust the eyes whose profession and livelihood it is to describe in precise detail the contours of every play.

To deny these metrics' defensive metrics is to deny the baseball acumen of those who collect them. This I cannot do.

You are free to deny these statistics' predictive ability; the '3 WAR' projection assumes below-average defense the rest of the season. But the Cameron quotation should give tremendous pause to discarding their descriptive ability.
May 21, 2014 - 11:04 PM EDT
And UZR requires a sample size of 2 years to have any reliability. Asdrubal has made more errors this year than last, I.e. he's missed the easy ones, and I would put zero trust in a defensive metric that is a 45 game sample , especially if that metric is deviating from observation and past performance.
May 21, 2014 - 9:33 PM EDT
Thanks John, I'd rec this if it were possible. Also, per BR, ACab's career OPS for such metrics as "high leverage", "late and close", "RISP" are all above his career averages and above .750.

Having said that I have zero confidence in him defensively or in clutch hitting situations anytime I get the opportunity to watch Indians games based solely on my few observations of him. Somewhere out there is an ACab fan who has seen the SSS where he actually succeeds with regularity.
John Grimm
May 21, 2014 - 7:06 PM EDT
I'm going to quote Dave Cameron of FanGraphs at this point.

"I’m continually amazed at the the fact that people think that the numbers, based on a multitude of people watching every play, are biased and unusable, but that their own perspective, based on watching some plays by some players, is not. DRS and UZR are based on people watching a player play defense. If that’s what you think matters most, then you should love those metrics."
May 21, 2014 - 5:58 PM EDT
I don't buy what defensive metrics are saying about Cabrera in a small sample size. If anything he's looked slower, and hasn't made many tough-looking plays. And has been shakier on the easy ones than he was last year. (I also don't buy the continued Brantley-hate from defensive metrics) Kipnis, Swisher and Santana/Chisenhall have been worse, but Cabrera continues to be a poor defensive shortstop.
matt underwood
May 21, 2014 - 5:44 PM EDT
ive never seen a worse clutch hitter in my life - besides casey blake - than asdrocab.

if you need someone in a key situation to come up and hit into a double play to end a rally and casey blake is not available, call asdrocab.

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