On one side, you have your tenured newspaper columnists. The writers who hate steroids with every fiber of their being, or at least that’s what they’ll tell you. On the other side, you have the stats-centric crowd. They trend younger, and most members of that group care about as much about steroids as casual baseball fans do about things like wRC+ or rosin bags.
Not all newspaper columnists are strident steroid-bashers, and there are plenty of statistical mavens who feel that any usage of illegal drugs is deplorable. But the generalities in the first paragraph ring true often enough to keep rolling with this, so bear with me.
Hardliners feel that using performance-enhancing drugs is cheating, and cheating is wrong. Others — mostly those who believe in numbers over narrative in all cases — point to the fact that no study has conclusively shown that PEDs have a significant enough effect on a player’s ability to swing, throw, run, see or recover to freak out every time someone tests positive or is rumored to be getting chemical help.
These opposing views explain in part why Barry Bonds is simultaneously hated and loved with equal intensity, at least around here.
There is also the battle between the common sense (otherwise known as the “eye test”) faction and those who don’t believe in speculation without proof. Currently there are enough of the former group to keep Jeff Bagwell out of the Hall of Fame.
Melky Cabrera wasn’t just playing well in the days before he tested positive for testosterone, he had been a highly productive player for the better part of the last two seasons. For that reason, along with the fact that Giants fans have been inundated with self-righteous tsk-tsks about PEDs from all sides, many people feel like the Giants should’ve at least left their options open in terms of a potential return for Cabrera. Why? Because he’d make the team better, the bring-Melky-back folks say.
Intangibles? Let’s get them out of the way
Since we don’t know how much worse Cabrera and/or the rest of the team would play based on these factors, we’ll ignore them for now:
— The benefits afforded by extra testosterone
— The challenges posed by preparing for postseason baseball in the Arizona Instructional League after a long layoff
— How upset certain players are with Cabrera
— Extra media scrutiny created by Cabrera’s return
There are several ways to assess value that take into account far more than the Triple Crown stats, and those ways come with just as many funky acronyms. The acronym that may be easiest to remember is WAR, which stands for Wins Above Replacement. 10 years ago, virtually no one talked about WAR. Now, you can see WAR in the middle of Sports Illustrated articles — the ones printed on paper, even.
One of the great things about the sabermetrics revolution is how it makes you challenge your own beliefs when it comes to the value of individual players.
(“Wait, closers aren’t as important as all the other relievers combined? Well I’ll be…”)
So with that in mind, let’s check out how much added value 2012 Cabrera would provide in the postseason, assuming he’d come back as the exact same player he was when he got suspended.
Cabrera’s 2012 WAR as measured by Fangraphs (otherwise known as “fWAR”) is 4.6. So, according to this metric which takes into account offensive and defensive production along with baserunning, Cabrera was worth 4.6 wins over the course of the season compared to a Triple-A “replacement” player. Cabrera played 979.2 innings in the outfield this year.
Gregor Blanco’s fWAR sits at a pretty respectable 2.3 — fifth among all Giants position players (Buster Posey’s fWAR is at 7.8, good for second in the National League behind Ryan Braun, who’s at 8.0 … the hardliners’ stance on Braun is part of the reason why Posey will probably win the NL MVP going away). Blanco has played 858.1 innings, and theoretically should play most of the innings in left field for the Giants during the playoffs.
Ready for another assumption? To maximize Cabrera’s potential postseason impact if the Giants had decided to bring him back, let’s say the Giants win the NLDS in five games, and then find themselves in a NLCS and World Series that both go seven games. Now assume none of the games in the NLCS and World Series go into extra innings, because we have to put a limit on this thing somewhere. That would equal 126 postseason innings for Cabrera. Based on his production during the regular season, full-strength Cabrera would earn a shade under 0.6 WAR over those 14 games. Let’s round up — 0.6 WAR it is.
If we do the same experiment with Blanco, over the NLCS and World Series he would earn a little over 0.3 WAR. Let’s round down and keep Blanco at 0.3, especially since he there’s probably no way Blanco would play against left-handed starters — even though Blanco’s lefty-righty splits are nearly identical in 2012.
Real world assumptions
You might look at that difference of 0.3 WAR between Cabrera and Blanco over the last two fully maximized playoff series and think it’s insignificant. Or, you might think that since postseason baseball is a nail-biter’s affair, any slight advantage could mean the difference between a World Series title and bitching about an error or some strange managerial decision for the rest of our lives.
But if you consider that — at best — Cabrera’s production wouldn’t exactly dwarf Blanco’s over a 14-game span, then take into account all of the concerns surrounding the intangibles listed earlier, and finally factor in the Giants’ record without Cabrera (29-13), and there appears to be some logic behind the Giants’ decision to remain Melky-free the rest of the way. You may not agree with all those numbers and reasons, but we also haven’t even brought up yet the very real possibility that the Giants might not take part in enough playoff games to bring Cabrera back in 2012.
One could also bring up Cabrera’s postseason production over 22 games and 80 plate appearances (.213/.244/.280) as a point in the Giants’ favor. However, in a statistician’s mind obsessing over small sample sizes is a sin on the level of freaking out every time a player goes a little overboard with the supplements.
In the end, it’s probably not the difference between Cabrera and Blanco that would keep the Giants from prevailing in a postseason series, it’s the difference between the Tim Lincecum of old and the Lincecum who gave up three home runs at Petco on Sunday.
That last point on Lincecum is something even grizzled columnists and tech-savvy sabermetricians can probably agree on.