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Has Orlando Cabrera Lost a Step?

When the Athletics signed Orlando Cabrera to a one-year, $4-million-dollar deal late in the offseason, Dave Cameron was not alone in lauding Billy Beane for another veteran steal.

The logic seemed unassailable. Cabrera has been a real plus on defense over the course of his career. Last year he even put up an impressive 14 runs over the average shortstop, but his glove has also averaged 7 runs over average at a premium position for three years.

Of course, his offense has been a drag on his value. Over his valuable last three years, he’s given up almost 4 runs a year with his bat. Even so, most teams would agree with his $26 million dollar value over the last three years, especially if that player came with a $4 million dollar price tag.

Then came this year. The player himself said it best to the San Francisco Chronicle: “I suck. I don’t even know how to describe it. … I suck. For real.” So what’s going on with this year’s disasterpiece? Perhaps we can use his offensive numbers to figure out what he’s lost on defense.

There are a couple issues with his plate discipline. While his walk rate and strikeout rate are right in line with his career numbers, his reach rate is up a little (27.2% over 24.1% career). With a 93.6% zone contact rate, he could stand to take advantage of that strength by reaching less often. This is nitpicking, however.

His batted ball rates are actually all perfectly in line with his career averages. It is eerie actually how Cabrera’s line drive, ground ball and fly ball rates are right in line with what he’s always done. In April, he hit 62 balls without getting a single one over 100 mph, but without historical data, it’s hard to say much about those numbers. He was never much of a slugger anyway.

No, he was more of a speedster. Since 2001, he’s averaged 21 stolen bases and a 5.3 four-component speed score. This year, he’s down to two stolen bases (against four caught-stealings) and a speed score half his average (2.5). His BABIP, a number that is tied to speed, is in a three-year decline. That’s more than a step slow, that seems like a leg or foot injury… or a quick decline.

Consider that his speed score, which was never elite in the first place, is actually in a four-year decline. His stolen-base success rate in 2008 was his lowest since 2001. It certainly looks like Orlando Cabrera has lost a step – or even more than a step. Since speed is a big part of both his offensive and defensive game, it follows that his value has quickly entered a decline phase.

Maybe this isn’t so surprising for a 34-year-old middle infielder. What is surprising is that, by using his speed score and offensive numbers, we can possibly spot a loss of speed that isn’t evident in his defensive component numbers. If he has slowed, you wouldn’t have seen it in his Range Factor, Range Runs Above Average, or Ultimate Zone Ratings over the past three years. His defensive numbers just fell off a cliff this year, with little warning. It seems that defensive statistics could use some more refining.

Either that, or Cabrera is just having an unlucky start (.250 BABIP) and a little trouble getting his motor going.