Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Cabrera Conundrum: When do you give up on talent and potential?

Every five days or so, my cognitive dissonance flares up. I’ve been dealing with this condition since Thanksgiving 2004, when my cousin and I began discussing the Orioles’ upcoming 2005 season. Little did I know it was a conversation that would last nearly two-and-a-half years.

My cousin the Orioles fan, and eternal optimist, tried to convince me that if some of the Orioles young pitchers were good, they might contend. The one pitcher who became the center of the debate was Daniel Cabrera. I saw a pitcher who had just walked more batters than he struck out. He saw a raw pitcher with electric stuff who had just one season in the majors. We were both right.

From that point we traded taunts based on Cabrera’s performances. A typical exchange would go something like this:

Cousin Optimist: Cabrera looked good last night.
Me: It’s one start, his numbers are still iffy.
CO: Yeah, but he’s still young.
Me: He was born the same week as Jake Peavy and Carlos Zambrano.
CO: Yeah, but those guys are really good.
Me: Yes, they are.

And around it would go, even as Cabrera raised his strikeout rate in ’05, but then improbably raised his walk rate even higher in ’06. I’m as tantalized as my cousin by Cabrera’s physical ability, but I feel like he should’ve taken the next step by now, his age 26 season. Given my hunch that good pitchers become good before they’re 26, and bolstered by the thoughts of those smarter than I am, I took a quick and dirty look into it.

The first step was defining good. Rather than setting the bar at guys who became mega-millionaires this past winter, I defined a good starting pitching season as a season good enough to be a number two starter on a generic playoff team. With the help of baseball-reference.com, I looked at the eleven 162-game seasons that have been played in the wildcard era. I took the number two starters from the 88 playoff teams over that period and created a composite number two starter on a playoff team based on the average number of innings and the weighted mean adjusted ERA+ of the 88 pitchers. The 88 pitchers were selected by simply taking the pitcher with the second highest adjusted ERA+ among pitchers who made at least 25 starts for the team that year. That number was picked to restrict the list to pitchers that were more likely to have been in the team’s original plans for contention at the beginning of the year (the one exception was the 2002 Cardinals who only had one pitcher make that many starts due to injuries, trades and the passing of Darryl Kile. Jason Simontacchi defaulted into the spot). The 25 start requirement excluded trade deadline acquisitions like Randy Johnson (1998 Astros) and some household names who became instant stars mid-season (Oswalt and Santana to name a couple). On the other hand it also dethroned Shawn Chacon as the ace of the 2005 Yankees.

(At this point, I’d like to remind anyone reading this that this started out as a quick look at a debate, but, without giving away the end, I’m sufficiently intrigued by the results that I’d be thrilled if someone with more experience in this area chose to take this and run with it to give us something even more precise.)

The 88 pitchers gave me a composite number two starter on a playoff team who pitches 206 innings with an adjusted ERA+ of 119. The list of 88 provided some interesting observations.

The 88 pitchers ranged in adjusted ERA+ from 80 (Brian Lawrence, 2005 Padres) to 174 (Andy Pettitte, 2005 Astros). Steve Trachsel made the list of 88 twice with an adjusted ERA+ under 100 both times. Trachsel made the list once in 1998 with the Cubs, when Kerry Wood didn’t have enough starts to qualify, and once with the 2006 Mets’ patchwork starting rotation. The list also nicely illustrates how many different ways there are to get to October. The 2005 Astros had an extremely top heavy pitching staff. The 2006 Mets and 1996 Orioles relied more on their offenses and bullpens. The 2006 Tigers didn’t have a single starting pitcher reach 206 innings and an adjusted ERA+ of 119, but they had four who came respectably close. And, of course, the 2005 Padres won by playing in Quadruple-A.

Next, I took my composite number two starter from a playoff team and made a list of active pitchers who’ve had at least one season of at least 206 innings and an adjusted ERA+ 119 or higher (top, right). There are 54 active pitchers who meet that standard. With Daniel Cabrera in mind, I divided the list into two groups. On the left side are the pitchers who had their first such season at age 25 or younger and on the right are the ones who did it at age 26 or later. For all pitchers I included the number of times they’ve reached the No. 2 bar and their age when they first did it (as always age is as of July 1).

Some notes and observations:
· If Roger Clemens comes out of retirement, he tops the list on the left with 13.
· Peavy won the NL ERA title in 2004, but was well short of 206 innings. In 2005 he again cleared an ERA+ of 119, but missed the list by 3 innings.
· Colon, who resides on the right-hand list, missed the mark by 2 innings in 1998 and 1 inning in 1999, his age 25 and 26 seasons (though we thought they were his age 23 and 24 at the time).
· Garcia missed making the left side by 4.7 innings when he was 24. He missed time the next year and then hit the mark at 26 before settling into his role as an inning eating number 3.
· Carlos Zambrano’s four number two seasons entering his age 26 season is amazing. When Greg Maddux became a free agent after 1992, at the age of 26, he had done it three times. It’s no wonder everyone in baseball wants the Cubs to wrap him up now—except possibly Yankees fans.
· Jamie Moyer, Jamie Moyer, Jamie Moyer. To hit the mark for the first time at 35 and then hit it four more times is incredible. But the only thing he has in common with Daniel Cabrera is they’ve both pitched for the Orioles.
· Generally speaking, the left side is made up of power pitchers and groundball pitchers, most of whom also have above average control. Garland and Perez would probably fit in better with the right side group.
· On the right side, the one-hit wonders breakdown into guys who didn’t get their real shot until they were a little older (Arroyo, Harang and Wang), and non-strikeout guys who had career years with control (Towers, Pavano, Byrd, Washburn, Hernandez, and Moehler) or HR rate (Davis and Ortiz). Westbrook was a blend of the last two groups. Jennings pitched at altitude and then pitched with humid balls.
· I can’t explain Franklin.
· Wood, the only real power pitcher of these one-hit wonders, never stayed on the field and productive other than 2003.
· Lackey lowered his HR rate and raised his strikeout rate at age 26 to become a star.
· Lowe, Rogers and Wells didn’t become full-time starters until their late 20s.
· Schmidt and Carpenter teased people with their ability before putting together their full, healthy and productive seasons.

These lists seem to indicate that pitchers who achieve sustainable success as frontline starters usually do it by their age 25 seasons. Where does that leave Daniel Cabrera? He’s not a soft-tosser, he already has a good HR rate, and with 82 career starts through age 25, he’s had plenty of opportunity already. But there’s still the matter of the outlier at the top of the list.

Of the pitchers on the list, Cabrera has the most in common with Johnson. They’re tall, power pitchers, with nasty stuff that they couldn’t harness in their youth. Cabrera doesn’t have nearly the strikeout rate that Johnson had even before he broke out, but he also, amazingly enough, isn’t nearly as wild. Johnson walked 416 batters in 631.3 innings, 5.93 BB/9, in the three years before his breakout. Cabrera has walked 280 batters in 457 innings, 5.51 BB/9, over the last three years.

Does that mean Daniel Cabrera will be the next Randy Johnson? That would be surprising. The clock on him is ticking louder and louder and having more in common with Johnson than the others doesn’t change that.

But I also won’t be surprised if my cognitive dissonance returns this weekend.


theghostofdavidnied said...

humid balls? funny way of putting it for a team with a religious nut for an owner.

Anonymous said...

so when are my freakin cubs going to lock up z?

sufferingoriole said...

Just when I thought we had a reason to be optimistic in Baltimore. Thanks.

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