Live podcast announcement: Man vs. Pizza Machine

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I’m headed back into the Pizza Cave tonight to discuss the hot topic on the Detroit sports streets, Miguel Cabrera versus Albert Pujols, with legendary Southeast Michigan restaurateur-podcaster Fredi the Pizzaman live at 5:00 pm Eastern. Although you can listen to it later on, keep in mind that this is a live podcast, meaning that you can stream it as it’s being recorded, which I recommend.

Tune in tonight at 5:00 by clicking here to listen live or check out the archives later on.

Man vs. Machine

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The great Miguel Cabrera is thirty-four years old. His team, once a surefire contender, is stuck in neutral, and Cabrera, their ostensible offensive engine, has only been slightly above average at the plate (108 wRC+, which would be the worst of any of his seasons since his rookie year (106 wRC+)).

It looks like we are seeing the beginning of Cabrera’s inevitable decline, which has observers taking stock of Cabrera’s likely legacy and projecting his place among the greats once he puts that magic bat down for good. For example, Yooper David Laurila included this observation in a recent edition of his Sunday Notes column:

Lou Gehrig had 8,001 at bats, 534 doubles and 493 home runs. Miguel Cabrera has 8,028 at bats, 533 doubles, and 451 home runs.

The day before, conversation on Fredi the Pizzaman’s Pizza Cave Podcast turned to Cabrera as the panel debated whether he would join Albert Pujols in the 600-home run club. (Pujols, whose major-league debut came two years before Cabrera’s, passed that milestone on June 4 of this year.) That discussion prompted a broader one about both players’ achievements and legacies.

Here’s a quick graph to introduce and orient this comparative analysis:

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By aligning the two players’ offensive performances (measured by wOBA) to their individual age-seasons, we can develop a rough snapshot of their careers at the plate. This graph illustrates a couple of significant trends. First, it’s easy to identify the clear tipping point in Pujols’ career, which very clearly has two distinct halves. Second, Pujols came out of the gate hotter than Cabrera, who needed a couple years to ramp things up. Both achieved production levels that make them generational talents, but when it comes to counting statistics (like career home run totals), the gap in those early years may be what will end up separating these two in the final analysis. All players eventually decline, but that just means it’s going to be tougher for Cabrera to make up for his comparatively slow start now.

pujols cabrera hr career

Again, this graph compares Pujols and Cabrera by aligning their career seasons. Even though they’ve accumulated homers at a similar rate, merely keeping pace in that regard likely won’t be enough for Cabrera in light of Pujols’ head start unless Cabrera has more years left in his tank than Pujols has in his. And right now, that first part– keeping pace– isn’t looking so sure for Cabrera. Here’s the same graph as the one above expanded to include 2017 numbers:

pujols cabrera hr career

This comparison to Pujols thus suggests that Cabrera is unlikely to reach the 600-homer benchmark for two reasons: 1) a slow start and 2) what looks to be an early– relative to Pujols– decline. None of this is to say that Cabrera can’t or won’t reach 600 home runs. Comparing him to the most recent guy to do it suggests that, absent some change, he’s unlikely to get there.

That change could come in the form of a late-career rejuvenation. Cabrera’s capable of ripping off amazing offensive tears, and he certainly could do that again. It always has felt a bit odd to think of Cabrera as unlucky, but there continues to be evidence that Cabrera’s offensive numbers should be even better than they already are based on the quality of contact he makes. A third change could be a positional one. Just as David Ortiz extended his career by becoming a full-time designated hitter, the thought is that Cabrera could alleviate some of the strain on his body by being relieved of his defensive obligations.

All of this is relative, of course. Failure to accumulate 600 home runs is no indictment on a player or his legacy. Only nine players ever accomplished that feat, and three of them are Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa. Three more of them are Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.

 

While we’re here, two concluding notes on the overall comparison between Pujols and Cabrera. The first, which came up on the podcast episode linked above, involves postseason success. As a rookie, Cabrera was a member of the Florida Marlins team that won the World Series in 2003. Pujols was a member of the 2006 Cardinals team that swept Cabrera’s Tigers in the World Series, as well as the 2011 World Series team that beat the Rangers in seven games. Pujols also has been a better hitter in the playoffs, though both have been significantly above average (164 wRC+ vs. 136 wRC+). Postseason appearances are significantly team and context-dependent and involve small samples (seventy-seven games for Pujols and fifty-five for Cabrera), but it’s something to mention.

The second is a total career assessment. Neither player is retired, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a peek at what their legacies look like right now. One way to do that is with JAWS, an analytical tool designed to assess Hall-of-Fame candidacy. Its creator, Jay Jaffe, explains:

JAWS is a tool for measuring a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses the baseball-reference.com version of Wins Above Replacement to estimate a player’s total hitting, pitching and defensive value to account for the wide variations in scoring levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history and from ballpark to ballpark. A player’s JAWS is the average of his career WAR total and that of his peak, which I define as his best seven years. All three are useful for comparative purposes, as Hall of Famers come in different shapes and sizes. Some—Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson—dominated over periods of time cut short by injuries, military service or the color line. Others such as Eddie Murray, Don Sutton and Dave Winfield showed remarkable staying power en route to major milestones. While it’s convenient to believe that every Hall of Famer must do both to be worthy of a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, they can’t all be Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Willie Mays, or the institution would merely become a tomb, sealed off because so few have come along to measure up in their wake.

For the purposes of comparison, players are classified at the position where they accrued the most value, which may be different from where they played the most games, particularly as players tend to shift to positions of less defensive responsibility—and thus less overall value—as they age. Think Ernie Banks at shortstop (54.8 WAR in 1,125 games there from 1953 to ’61) as opposed to first base (12.8 WAR in 1,259 games there from ’62 to ’71). A small handful of enshrined players, including pioneers and Negro Leaguers with less than 10 years of major league service, are excluded from the calculations; Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, for example, had major league careers too short to use as yardsticks for non-Negro League players.

By JAWS, Pujols and Cabrera both are clear Hall of Famers even if neither ever played another game, but there’s a clear separation between the two. JAWS has Pujols as the second-best first baseman ever, trailing only the aforementioned Gehrig, while Cabrera currently slots at the eleventh position, right next to Jim Thome (another one of those 600-HR guys). Pujols has two more years under his ample belt than does Cabrera, and neither is done playing. (This probably is a decent place to note contract details: Pujols has four more years on his current contract, while Cabrera has at least six.) As with the home-run chase, so too with overall career value: Cabrera has a good bit of work to do if he’s to catch Pujols.

The book is not closed on either of these two great baseball stories. Pujols and Cabrera have yet to author their final chapters. The balance of their works likely are complete, however, and from that we can make educated predictions. Both have their high points and distinct achievements, but it looks like Pujols’ early peak will prove a little too high and too long for Cabrera to close the gap. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

Preseason BP Nuggets

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Real baseball finally gets underway today. (The NL Central doesn’t count.) Like last year, I read the Baseball Prospectus annual (now just 476 pages!) so you don’t have to. Rather than roll around in the sea of numbers, the following are some little nuggets of information that, at the very least and probably the very most, might help you get excited for the 2015 baseball season.

  • Albert Pujols: Everyone knows Pujols is a mechanized slugger who is and has been aging for some time, beginning in especially noticeable and expensive fashion when he left St. Louis for Southern California in 2012. The authors criticize Pujols for “earning $23 million for 2.9 WARP worth of work,” yet the Angels’ overpayment isn’t really that bad. A win usually is valued between $6 million and $8 million, and while an amount north of $7 million is on the high end, the Angels probably are just fine paying Pujols less than $8 million per win.

  • Ian Kinsler: The Tigers’ return for Prince Fielder, Kinsler made Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski look good last season. One thing Kinsler didn’t do last season though was take a free trip to first base. His walk rate fell off precipitously from his career levels, something the Tigers would like to see return for a guy who’s likely to bat high in the order and is a decent runner and base stealer once he’s aboard.
  • Max Stassi: “He must be the only guy in the game ever to earn his first major-league RBI by taking a fastball to the face.”
  • Kansas City Royals: The American League’s representative in the 2014 World Series had a remarkably mediocre regular season last year. Their ranks in various team measures: RS/G (14th), RA/G (12th), True Average (25th), FIP (16th), Defensive Efficiency Rating (12th). And yet there they were in October, one baserunning decision away from a world championship.
  • Ruben Tejada: PECOTA is in love with the Mets shortstop. BP’s projection machine sees Tejada hitting twenty-five home runs this season (he hit eight in the past three seasons combined) with a True Average of .306 (up from the decidedly average .261 last year), and other gains of similar magnitude across his offensive stats. It also sees him aging eleven years this offsesaon and moving from short in New York to first base in Los Angeles. Something must be wrong here.
  • Pitch framing: The middle child of the famous catching family finds himself a free agent, which is a little bit surprising given the new and widespread focus on catcher value, particularly in the area of pitch framing, where all of the Molinas shine. Here’s José’s player comment: “In 1947, private investigator Eddie Valiant was declared a hero for his work in the murder case of Marvin Acme and R. R. Maroon. With help from his girlfriend Dolores, Baby Herman and Maroon Cartoon Studio star Jessica Rabbit, Valiant discovered that Judge Doom killed Acme and Maroon in an attempt to take over Toontown. Unfortunately, Valiant’s investigation came before the time of detectives Mike Fast and max Marchi. The case was re-opened in 2011 when it was determined that Jose Molina was indeed the one who framed Roger Rabbit.”
  • Chris Archer: We may have found the Detroit Tigers Dugout Librarian‘s favorite non-Tiger in Tampa Bay pitcher Chris Archer: “The Dalai Lama of the diamond, Archer is cool as a cucumber off the field, engaging in philosophical debates and juggling book club memberships. Between the chalk, however, he is a firey competitor, chucking hardballs in the upper 90s with a sharp slider.”

Finally, to satisfy all of your team projection needs, here’s the best prediction piece out there, courtesy of the hard-working crew at Banished to the Pen. Leave your opening day thoughts in the comments below.

Flying Tigers: Waiting for Takeoff

A month into the season, the Detroit Tigers sit atop the tightly bunched AL Central with a tenuous 12-9 record. The team, guided by first-time manager Brad Ausmus, looks and feels much different than it did over the last two years. Whether due to the change at the helm or a not-quite-coherent set of offseason moves, the 2014 Tigers appear to have traded identity for tactics and strategy. Thus begins Flying Tigers,* our third Detroit baseball series.

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When Jim Leyland announced his retirement following the end of the 2013 season, we knew Motor City baseball would be different in 2014, but we didn’t realize just how different it would be.     Continue reading

MLB Free Agency 2011

I was hoping that this article would still be topical by the time I started writing it yesterday night, and lo and behold the only free agent of consequence to sign on November 3rd was Juan Rivera.  I have literally no idea who he is.  I watch at least a hundred Mariners games each year (MLB.tv FTW), plus a good number of Phillies games and even as much of a Tigers game as I can stomach now and then.  Between that and fantasy baseball, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on who’s who in the MLB and I had literally no idea who this guy was.*  So basically he wasn’t going to be on this list anyway.
 
Here is a list of ten of the top free agents and where I think they will sign:
 
Albert Pujols
2011 team: Cardinals
2012 team: Cardinals
Why: Everyone has been jawing all season long about Pujols testing the market, but I think a lot of that was ESPN puffing the subject up so they had something else to talk about during Sports Center besides whether Tom Brady having longer hair than Aaron Rodgers makes him a better QB.  When all is said and done, I think this is going to turn out like the Matt Holliday-STL deal where there weren’t a ton of other serious suitors for the money and the player didn’t want to leave St. Louis anyway.  Add in that two of the big free agent spenders, the Yankees and Red Sox already have top tier 1Bs and you don’t have anyone to seriously compete with the Cardinals at the price Pujols wants.  So in the end St. Louis will end up overpaying a bit, talking heads who said that Pujols would sign for 300 million will complain about how St. Louis overpaid, St. Louis fans will complain about how they overpaid, but inside everyone will be happy.
Outside shot: Real Madrid?  At that price, I don’t know.
Keep reading…