Via @DanHirsch: Of the 107 players to play 21+ years, 11 never had a negative-WAR season (Hank Aaron, Cap Anson, Beltre, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Stat Musial, Jim O'Rourke, Frank Robinson, Frank Tanana).https://t.co/usZIv9n4F8— Ben Lindbergh (@BenLindbergh) November 20, 2018
Adrian Beltre’s retirement after the 2018 season prompted the sharing of this gem of a statistical factoid, a hallmark of longevity and consistency achieved by only 11 men in baseball’s long history. To play for over 20 seasons and, for each, never to be a net drain on your team’s production is remarkable indeed. Stemming the inevitable decline. Always keeping one’s head from dipping underwater. Even if you suspect Bonds and Clemens of employing illicit aid in this achievement, foreign chemicals can’t tell the whole story; it’s not as if a slew of steroid-era players dominate this list.* It’s a fragile thing.
Beltre’s retirement presented in this context prompted me to think about Beltre’s contemporary peers, Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols, and whether they were in position to join this rare company. Based on the context of Lindbergh’s tweet, my operating assumption is that it’s using Baseball-Reference’s rWAR. By that metric, Cabrera (16 seasons) and Pujols (18 seasons) both already are disqualified, each with a single negative-rWAR season on his ledger. Bummer. Pujols likely won’t make it to 21 seasons, but Cabrera probably will. Even if he does that, though, he’s already missed out on this elite club. I moved on.
Late last year, Baseball Prospectus changed the way it measures hitter value, replacing True Average (TAv) with Deserved Runs Created Plus (DRC+). Feeding DRC+ into its WAR metric (WARP) instead of TAv led to some historical revision, including, perhaps most interestingly, a reversal in the great Cabrera-Mike Trout WAR/MVP debate of 2012-13.
It also placed Cabrera back in contention for finishing with a career of at least 21 seasons played and no negative WAR, at least if we use WARP instead of rWAR. That’s because the change from TAv-based WARP to DRC+-based WARP flipped his 2017 season from -1.2 WARP to 0.1 WARP without also dropping any of his other seasons below board. It seems that, while TAv thought Cabrera was decidedly below average at the plate in 2017 (.243 TAv, with .260 being league-average), DRC+ thought he was slightly above average (102 DRC+, with 100 being league-average), and that change was enough to lift him out of negative-WARP territory and clear his sheet of any red ink in that regard.
I don’t have a deep enough understanding of DRC+, a proprietary metric, to explain with any further detail why this happened. In a rudimentary attempt to triangulate this and otherwise out of a sense of data-preservation (BP has erased all references to TAv and TAv-based WARP in its available statistical databases, so the following is reliant on Archive.org’s Wayback Machine), though, I have recorded below Cabrera’s season-by-season WARP totals according to the old and new versions of WARP. The net change to his overall career-value totals is negligible but, obviously, what matters for this particular qualification is the annual apportionment of that value, and it appears the transition to DRC+-based WARP generally shifted some of Cabrera’s value from the beginning of his career toward his middle and later years, though not uniformly so.
(Notes: TAv-based WARP isn’t available for 2018, which affects the WARP totals in the bottom row. Orange highlighting signals seasons in which TAv and DRC+ disagree about whether Cabrera’s offense was above or below average.)
If I had to guess based on the introductory articles I’ve read, I’d say it has something to do with improved incorporation of park effects in DRC+. The above table may provide some support for that guess as well, because the shift to DRC+-based WARP docked Cabrera 0.8 WARP on a seasonal-average basis in Florida and added 0.47 WARP on a seasonal-average basis in Detroit, which might suggest a location-based catalyst, although it just as likely could reflect a changed appreciation of Cabrera’s developing skills as he aged into his prime in Motown. Without a behind-the-scenes understanding of DRC+’s components or knowing whether BP also has changed any other inputs, it’s impossible to know for certain.
Cabrera’s 2017 wasn’t good, by his standards or those of any other major-league regular. Most ways you’d look at it, it was the worst season of his career. He managed to appear in 130 games that season, but throughout he battled back and groin injuries (and Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez), seemingly connected to preseason injuries suffered in the World Baseball Classic. He finished the season with two herniated discs in his back. These unrelenting core injuries sapped his power but, within DRC+’s calculus, he still managed to produce runs on singles, doubles, walks, and outs in play at above-average rates. A shadow of a man, but still one who was able to be a net contributor to his team, even as his Tigers sunk to the worst record in baseball.
His seasonal WARP numbers now all in the black, Cabrera is back in the hunt to join the aforementioned elite company, but he has a good bit of work left to do. He’s under contract at least through 2023, which would be his 21st season, so that helps. Performance and longevity-wise, health would seem to be the key factor at this stage. Following Victor Martinez’s retirement, a shift to DH should help in that regard. Still, as great as Cabrera has been, it feels like it would be a bit of an upset if he made it to 21 seasons without any negative WAR(P). Regardless, he’s already cemented his case for Cooperstown, and this sabermetrically rejuvenated path to the inner circle offers something that hopefully will make Cabrera and Tigers fans smile during what otherwise are likely to be some lean years ahead.
*A number of them come close, though, including David Ortiz (20 years, one negative-rWAR season); Rafael Palmeiro (20 years, one negative-rWAR season); Andy Pettitte (18 years, zero negative-rWAR seasons); Jose Canseco (17 years, zero negative-rWAR seasons); and, for good measure, Ryan Braun (12 years and counting, zero negative-rWAR seasons).
More of AD’s work may be found at ALDLAND.Next post: Snap into a Slim Jones
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