The projection systems love Miguel Cabrera. To them, he’s a hitter who performed decent in the first half and struggled in the second half. The projections don’t know that he has two herniated discs in his back. Because of the injury, his wOBA dropped from .339 in the first half to .274 in the 2nd half. Using projections, he’s the 54th highest ranked player but owners have pushed his ADP closer to 100th. It’s time to determine why the disconnect.
It was definitely a tale of two halves for Cabrera.
His OBP dropped under .300 and his SLG under .400. He hit like most catchers. Pitchers even noticed the difference with his intentional walks dropping from five in the first half to just one in the second half. He wasn’t a feared hitter. The production dropped can also be seen by his exit velocity (EV) numbers dropping.
His production started degrading in June when his herniated discs began acting up.
Usually, I don’t discount hitters who are injury prone. But there is one exception, those with chronic injuries like David Wright’s back and Prince Fielder’s neck. Chronic injuries aren’t going away and end up destroying a hitter’s value.
I asked our own Mike Sonne about the implications of herniated discs. Here are some notes from the conversation:
“I looked at just guys who had a “disc injury”, after 30, and before 30. There were 27 players who had it after 30, 18 before 30. No one who had it before 30 had a recurrence, 4 of the guys after 30 had a recurrence (about 15% of them).”
So some chance of a reoccurrence
“The guys who had disc injuries after 34 (Cabrera’s age), it looks like it kind of signaled the end. Adrian Gonzalez, Placido Polanco, Kevin Youkilis, Juan Gonzalez, Todd Helton, Travis Hafner, Scott Rolen. Not that it caused the end, but there wasn’t much left after that.”
Not a good list here and one I may latch onto.
Using my injury database, I compared hitters before and after herniated back injuries. Their on-base and power skills stayed constant from season to season. It’s not just the back, it’s like the back, age, and all the other injuries the player’s occurred over his career cause their downfall.
And finally, how the injury would affect his production.
“In general, biomech/ergo talk, the torsion of a baseball swing can create a lot of pressure on a disc. Definitely can cause it to become hurt. In Cabrera’s case, if there is pain from a disc injury, there could be inflammation/inhibition that is going to cause him to rotate a lot slower than pre-injury. So, expectations are – possibly slower bat speed, less consistent mechanics – and having to play 1st is going to exacerbate it.”
All this information confirms his statistics, mainly he would have a slower bat speed which can be seen in his exit velocity.
I broke out some before and after video of Cabrera’s swing and couldn’t tell a major difference in bat speed. While I usually can find some swing differences his swing is so short and sweet, I had to bring in the big gun. I asked our own Eric Longenhagen to compare his first and second half swings to see if the injury could be visible to a well-trained scouts eye. Here’s his thoughts:
“[I] just don’t think he’s rotating as explosively. His hands are still incredible, timing is there, just don’t think he’s rotating as well and that his footwork is sometimes compromised by his discomfort.”
I still couldn’t see the difference but for reference, here are two of his swings at fastballs down the middle from before and after the injury started affecting him for reference.
After putting it all the preceding pieces of information together, I’m going to use the following rules with him this offseason.
- I’m not going to rely on him for production until I know he’s healthy. In shallow leagues, I would draft him late and if he struggles to hit, pick up another bat. With his ADP hovering around 100, I don’t see myself owning him except in the league I already drafted him.
- Once spring training starts, listen for anything on his status like “starting him off slow”, “sitting today out”, or “not running yet”. These are huge red flags and let someone else buy him.
- I’m mainly interested in first-hand scouting reports. Does his swing look normal or is he still not rotating? If healthy, he could be productive using my “One-Month Rule”* and be a 1st to 3rd round talent. I may move him up and try to get him near or just before his ADP.
In all, I’m out with Cabrera and will let him be another owner’s problem. But if reports are extremely positive from spring training on his swing, I’ll going to monitor his costs and buy in if the cost is right.
* I’ve been using the “One-Month Rule” personally for a couple of years but after searching past articles, I’ve never written about it. The Rule applies to older, often injured hitters. I look for the best month the previous season to see if he can put together 30 days of decent production?
If a good stretch exists, I may gamble on him. If healthy, this guy can be productive hitters, like Ryan Zimmerman in 2017, until he does break down. There is a chance the cards could lineup and a full productive season happens (e.g. Victor Martinez in 2014 and 2016).
If they were never healthy enough to be productive for a month, I’ll try to stay away.
For reference, here are the hitters over 33 and their best 2017 month (min 75 PA).
Two names stick out to stay away from, Adrian Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki. Neither could get much going last year and they’ll be a year older. As for a deep sleeper, Jose Bautista put together an incredible May (.317/.412/.644) with nine home runs. I’ll take a chance in deep leagues to see if he can bounce back as a team’s DH.
While just a rule of thumb, I may test it against real numbers later.
Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first two seasons in Tout Wars, he's won the H2H league and mixed auction league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.