A keeper smackdown-Ryan Braun vs. Miguel Cabrera

In two recent podcasts I have heard someone pose the following question, and one prominent 3B ranking list I have seen answered it differently than I will: assuming you had to pick either Ryan Braun or Miguel Cabrera for 2008, who do you choose? Let’s assume all else is equal, so we are just thinking about who will be better in 2008, and forget about value, at least until later in this column.

This is about the easiest question to answer and the answer I believe is beyond a reasonable doubt (and yes I am a lawyer in my sad, Sisyphean day job). Miguel Cabrera should be preferred, and it is not even a contest in my opinion.

As good as Braun has been, his performance is overwhelmingly likely to be a fluke. He has a mere 75% contact rate, and only walks 6% of the time. His BB/K ratio is a very low 0.26. This implies that he has difficulty controlling the strike zone. It doesn’t mean he can’t succeed but only that he must do so in spite of a flawed batting eye and a well below All-Star skill combination of contact and BB/K ratio.

As a result of these skills his expected batting average is only .289 and his .324 batting average performance this year is buoyed by a fluky .373 BABIP/37% hit rate. As an aside, hit rate for pitchers does not work the same way as for hitters. For pitchers we can expect regression to a mean of .300. For hitters there are often reasons why they will be higher than 30% or a .300 BABIP. Usually these are the most skilled players. The garden variety major leaguer (if there is such a thing) will regress to 30% but the best hitters will routinely put up hit rates higher than that simply because their skills allow them to do so.

So it is possible I am wrong about Braun’s ability to get hits despite an inferior batting eye. However, among players that produced at least $10 in value this year, Braun is sixth worst in BB/K ratio, and of the ten worst BB/K ratios in this group he was second to last in contact rate. Aside from a huge disappointment most of these are not great players: Matt Kemp, Khalil Greene, Alfonso Soriano, Matt Diaz, Xavier Nady. These are good players mostly, and so is Braun, but there is no reason for anyone to prefer these players to the likes of Miguel Cabrera. More importantly, none of them have an expected batting average greater than .300, and in Kemp’s case it is .258, almost 100 points lower than his actual batting average.

Miguel Cabrera has posted hit rates in his full seasons of 34%, 36%, 38% and 38%. Braun has one season at 37%. Miguel Cabrera has had the following splits and skills:

2004 294 365 512 34 75 10
2005 323 387 561 36 80 9
2006 339 424 568 38 81 13
2007 321 399 564 38 77 11

Braun has clearly had an unexpected season. But with an expected batting average of .289 and an BB/K ratio of only 0.26 it is tough to see a repeat though not inconceivable. But even if he does repeat, is there any reason to think that Cabrera will be worse next year? Braun’s BABIP may be sustainable, but it is very unlikely given his deficient control of the strike zone.

Another way to look at it is by dollar values generated. This year Cabrera has been worth $30 and Braun $31 (albeit in less time). So they are roughly equal. Braun next year is more likely to regress, but even if he repeats he will be equal to Cabrera’s output for this year.

Yet, as can be seen above, this year is probably Cabrera’s worst among his full seasons. So his worst full season right now is worth as much as Braun’s unexpected breakout.

Braun has the speed of course with 15 steals this year and that is something Cabrera will not do. But a more reasonable hit rate or BABIP and a low walk total means that 15 may be the highest he can reasonably achieve.

Age? Cabrera is 24, Braun is 23. This is slightly in Braun’s favor. But on the other hand Cabrera will be hitting his prime with four excellent years under his belt. Through this point in his career, baseball-reference.com lists Hank Aaron as the most similar player through age 24, with the most similar players overall being Aaron, Cepeda, Frank Robinson, Joe Medwick and Mickey Mantle. This is not the stuff Ryan Braun is made of.

How unexpected is Braun’s debut? According to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA, Braun has exceeded his 90th percentile projection. I think that qualifies as “unexpected.” There is nothing in his minor league record to suggest that he would be this good as a rookie. In 2006 Braun was 22 starting the year in AA and though he hit well there was nothing to indicate an MVP caliber rookie year.

It is all about risk. They are both roughly equal in value. One will likely improve next year as he reaches his prime, and one will likely regress to his expected performance. One is a Hall of Famer in the making approaching his prime and one is not proven to be anywhere near that level.

To inject the question of value next year: even if you love Braun and even if you think I am nuts for saying he isn’t as good as he appears that doesn’t matter. Exploiting misinformation is what matters. If Braun will be overvalued next year based on his stunning debut, and Cabrera may be undervalued compared to his normal production then that is an argument in favor of Cabrera also. So even if you think Braun will repeat Cabrera is still the better fantasy bet.

One caveat: if you are in an auction league where players are more likely to be correctly valued because the owners are sharp or you are against lots of tough good owners then Braun may have more value next year since the owners will likely at least go through the analysis I have done here even if they arrive at a different opinion. In that case Braun may be a better value because now they may bid up Cabrera and let Braun slide to a salary that is more in line with his expectations coming into this year.

But on pure performance alone, I don’t see this as a particularly close decision. It is Cabrera by a mile.

Homestretch: The 1967 AL Pennant Race, Part 3
A tight race shows no signs of letting up.

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ABb5Tw Thanks for good post