When the Rays signed Asdrubal Cabrera on a one-year contract this past offseason, it was pretty clear what they were getting. How one felt about the deal depended more about what one valued in a player than about uncertainty in Cabrera's projection.
He was a bat-first shortstop who could be counted to hit at a league-average rate but might do better. Cabrera had never set the world on fire with his defense before, and as he aged, many felt that a move to second base was due. Kevin Cash had other thoughts, and in a decision that may have been influenced by the other options available to him, named Asdrubal the everyday shortstop.
Then the world turned upside down. Cabrera, whose career strikeout rate sits just above 17%, struck out over 24% through March, April, and May. Over that period, he hit for a .211/.270/.327 slash line that was 36% below league average.
It would have been easy to declare Asdrubal Cabrera done (even though 29 is a little bit young for that), but for his defense. Cabrera was fantastic. He his footwork was smooth, his hands were impeccable, and his throws to first were reliably on-the-money. When he wrote about the Rays' success in late June, Jared Ward noted that Cabrera ranked as the league's fifth-best shortstop by UZR and seventh-best by DRS, the two most commonly used advanced defensive metrics.
I think that many of us believed both these offensive and defensive numbers. Shame on us.
It wasn't wrong to believe that Asdrubal hit poorly. He did. It's a fact. It wasn't wrong to believe that Cabrera played great defense. Although it's more difficult to call that it was a fact, I'm pretty comfortable, based on what I watched, claiming that he did. But variation over the course of a season is also a fact, and it's one that the modern baseball fan should be comfortable with.
In both cases, we had a long history of a certain type of production from a well-established player and we had small sample sizes displaying a different level of production than the expected. To believe that those sample sizes represented Cabrera's true talent at the time put us on shaky but plausible ground. To believe that his production going forward would mirror those sample sizes was downright foolish.
In the second half of the season, Cabrera hit .352/.405/.563. Those gaudy numbers are 70% above average, and combined with his poor first half, his season total now stands at .264/.317/.420, or 4% above average. That's pretty much what a reasonable person should have expected from Cabrera before the season started.
Meanwhile, Cabrera is no longer beloved by defensive metrics. On the season, Cabrera now rates as 3.1 runs below average by UZR (which puts him on pace for six runs below average over 150 games) and seven runs below average by DRS. Those numbers too are right in line with what a reasonable person should have expected, and they tell the story of Cabrera as a below-average (but not terrible) shortstop*, who would probably be a league-average second baseman.
*When talking about "below average" players at premium defensive positions, it's important to keep in mind that an average shortstop or center fielder is an amazing defender overall. Just being capable of playing that premium position means that the player is highly skilled and very athletic, but these metrics report production in comparison to the other defensive studs of the baseball world.
Cabrera's 2015 season is a powerful reminder that projections, when they have enough data to work with, are generally pretty good these days, and should not be thrown out the first time real production disagrees. At the same time, seasonal totals often miss most of the story of a player's year. There are hot streaks and cold streaks, individual players make adjustments and the league makes adjustments in response. That's why baseball is worth watching.
So we should pay attention and recognize when a player is doing something unexpected, but Asdrubal Cabrera would like us to remember not to forget what we knew before.