WTNYAugust 11, 2004
Makings of a Star
By Bryan Smith

"It's so gratifying to see this kid come in here and do that, this kid wasn't fazed at all. He had good poise all night long...This kid is maybe going to pick us up offensively. Dontrelle's been doing it on the hill. This is what we've been looking for, a little spark on the offensive side. This guy's a threat now.''

- Florida manager Jack McKeon on June 20, 2003

This kid, the one McKeon speaks of, was the greatest Marlin prospect in their short history. This kid was willing to move from the hot corner to an outfield corner, just for his shot in the Majors. This kid hit a home run in his fifth Major League at-bat, a 419-foot walk-off home run. And yes, this kid is also shaping up to be the greatest Marlin ever, period. Finally, he really is a kid, turning 21 in April of this season.

As Rich Lederer moves further in his Abstract series, he will likely detail a piece in the ’84 Abstract called “Where Does Talent Come From.” In this article, James attempts to identify that background and age of players by team. For example, James tells us that the 1983 Boston Red Sox received more production from homegrown players than anyone else. But how does this relate to us? Well, when identifying age, James creates four age brackets: young (up to 25), prime (26-29), past-prime (30-34), and old (35+). This is what I take issues with, more specifically, his ‘young’ age bracket.

Without statistical evidence, I propose the young bracket be seperated into young (22-25), and developmental (up to 21). Coaches would be the first to tell you that the ages 17-21 shape a player, whether he chooses the college route or not. A high school player, if he is a real prospect, should spend his developmental years in the minors, debuting in the Majors around the age of 22. The sabermetric world has began good studies on the developmental years, particularly Dayn Perry and Craig Burley. While these deal with players spending their developmental years in the minors or college, I wish to focus with Major League players still in their d-years.

And this brings us back to the lanky 21-year-old from the beginning, better known as Miguel Cabrera. His play undoubtedly played a chief role in a resurgent Marlins team that ultimately became World Champions. His mature play landed him an ESPN the magazine cover shoot, but with his publicity came vocal doubters. Some existed within the depths of All-Baseball, which spawned an argument on the home page shortly before the season. I took Cabrera’s side, using my list of comps to bullishly predict a .200/.300/.400 line. Yes, buyers please step forward and collect your prize.

Fact is, Miguel has exceeded not only the predictions of his critics, but his supporters as well. Rather than watch quietly, I want to recognize the greatness Cabrera has displayed. His transfer from an A-ball doubles hitter to Major League slugger was unusually quick...historically quick. Miguel’s power spike is a sight, evidence for the ‘old age’ types that swear power is a learned and developed trait. His league-by-league Isolated Power numbers:

League ISO
GCL 0.092
Mid 0.114
FSL 0.147
Sou. 0.244
MLB 0.219

While most players spend developmental years in the minors, Cabrera has spent his final ‘d-year’ season tearing up Major League pitching. Rarely, if ever, do we see 21-year-old superstars, making Cabrera even more special than he gets credit for. I mentioned Cabrera being part of a special group before the season, and not only has that not changed, but the group has become more impressive. In every 11.7% of his career at-bats, Miguel Cabrera has had an extra-base hit. When establishing a minimum of 90 XBH, a number he’s sure to pass, only six players have done better.

Met Ott, Alex Rodriguez, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Mathews, Hal Trosky and Ted Williams. These six had a better XBH/AB rate than 11.7%, and only these six. Four Hall of Famers, and one surely destined for his day in Cooperstown. Trosky, once only trailing Lou Gehrig as the AL’s best first basemen, is the only bust on this list. Trosky’s career was shortened by an early retirement caused by headaches, and like Michael Jordan, had an unsuccessful go at a comeback later in his career. After these six, we have eleven more that were between the Cabrera rate and 10.0%. This group doesn’t exactly have the success rate of the aforementioned six, but there is still three Hall of Famers, two in Ken Griffey Jr. and Ron Santo that should be, and one Andruw Jones. The eleven, ranked by their pre-22 XBH/AB:

Name XBH%
Ken Griffey Jr. 10.10%
Cesar Cedeno 10.30%
Ron Santo 10.40%
Ruben Sierra 10.50%
Vada Pinson 11.00%
Orlando Cepeda 11.00%
Bob Horner 11.10%
Hank Aaron 11.10%
Tony Conigliaro 11.20%
Andruw Jones 11.20%
Frank Robinson 11.30%

In my belief, these numbers alone create a good list of comparable players. But, while this is a start, I’m also under the belief that strikeouts and walks are very telling of a player’s future. So, the below table documents how these 18 players rank in terms of both OBP-AVE (DIS) and K/AB:

Name DIS Name K/AB
Williams 0.103 Ott 0.074
Ott 0.097 Trosky 0.091
Foxx 0.094 Aaron 0.093
Mathews 0.092 Williams 0.105
Santo 0.072 Foxx 0.120
Robinson 0.071 Santo 0.131
Jones 0.068 Horner 0.143
Griffey 0.068 Cedeno 0.144
Cabrera 0.067 Pinson 0.152
Conig. 0.066 Cepeda 0.152
Trosky 0.058 Griffey 0.154
Pinson 0.056 Robinson 0.158
Rodriguez 0.052 Sierra 0.175
Aaron 0.048 Mathews 0.179
Cedeno 0.043 Rodriguez 0.191
Sierra 0.039 Conig. 0.206
Horner 0.037 Jones 0.244
Cepeda 0.034 Cabrera 0.260

A couple observations about this table:

- First, we see the interesting similarities between Tony Conigliaro and Andruw Jones. The pair have immensely similar numbers in DIS and XBH%, and are respectively the two worst in K/AB. Conigliaro, the youngest player to lead a league in home runs, also saw his career end early, due to vision problems. Jones always flirts with his own greatness, including four straight 30-HR seasons, six straight Gold Gloves, and 202 postseason at-bats.
- I like these lists because they begin to show the divide between less talented players (read: Sierra, Pinson, Cedeno), and some of the all-time greats (Williams, Ott, Foxx). If anything, this only further proves the importance of the BB and K.
- Finally, the K/AB chart shows a huge dependence on time period. Cabrera and Andruw Jones have the worst, with Sierra, Griffey and A-Rod all lurking closely behind.

The latter point leads me to the next part of this project: league-adjusted statistics. Using the always amazing Baseball-Reference, I figured what a league average player would have done in our three categories over the time period of each of the 18 players. And then I divided the player by the average, multiplied by 100, and came away with a stat similar to OPS+. Rather than make three different tables, here is one with the 18 players adjusted statistics in each category, ranked by XBH+:

Name XBH+ DIS+ K+
Williams 181 147 99
Trosky 178 83 92
Mathews 168 139 143
Conig. 158 102 116
Foxx 155 141 152
Horner 154 58 95
Cedeno 151 65 87
Robinson 147 113 113
Ott 147 167 89
Pinson 145 88 97
Cepeda 141 53 101
Aaron 141 70 74
Santo 135 113 82
Rodriguez 135 75 106
Griffey 133 103 94
Jones 132 103 124
Cabrera 130 97 135
Sierra 127 58 102

Wow. We see that Cabrera slips to from seventh to 17th, largely because the league average XBH% in 2003 and 2004 is right around 9%, which is extraordinarily high. Cabrera drops from first in strikeouts, falling behind Eddie Mathews and Jimmie Foxx, but still in front of Andruw Jones. His DIS+ of 97 is right around league average, very similar to the numbers of Jones, Conigliaro and Griffey.

Overall, there is no question that Cabrera matches up best to Jones, who has fallen quite a bit behind Conigliaro in terms of XBH+. Jones is a bit superior in every category, but very narrowly, so much that it won’t make a difference. While he stole bases earlier in his career, Andruw only stole four bases in 2003. He’s hit 66 extra-base hits every year since turning 22, and is considered in his ‘prime season’ this year. While staying solid, I expect Jones to never again reach the player he was between ages 24-26, a scary notion for Cabrera.

Miguel will likely fall somewhere between Jones, Griffey and Ron Santo. The former Cub saw his decline start after the age of 29, with his prime years right where James slated him (26-29). Griffey’s well-documented struggles began during a similar time period, with 1993-1994 being his best seasons to date.

While Cabrera has already bested my predictions once, I expect him to follow a similar career pattern to the aforementioned three. While he might be one of the NL’s most feared hitters between 2006-2008, by 2012 we will see a sharp decline. It won’t take much to become the Marlins’ best player ever, but Cabrera still has a long way to prove he’s a future Hall of Famer.


I somehow don't feel safe predicting a burnout for a player who has barely started.