The 2011 MLB Silver Slugger awards were announced Wednesday night, and the unveiling brought good news for Indians fans: Asdrubal Cabrera was named the American League’s best offensive shortstop, beating out Jhonny Peralta and J.J. Hardy for the hardware.
The victory was extremely sweet for Clevelanders as Cabrera had lost an award many had thought he would win less than 24 hours earlier—he didn’t deserve a Gold Glove, but since the gilded webbing usually goes to the wrong person anyway it would have been nice to see him win it. At least he brought home something.
That Cabrera won wasn’t a surprise: it was his bat that led the Indians to their hot start, and there’s no doubt that he’s one of the best-hitting middle infielders in baseball. But was he really the best offensive shortstop in the league this year?
At first glance, Cabrera stacks up quite well against the competition. He led all AL shortstops with 25 homers and 92 RBI and tied for first with 165 hits. Throw in his 17 stolen bases and 87 runs scored and he comes out looking pretty good in the traditional roto league categories.
But there’s more to baseball than that. Among the 10 qualified AL shortstops his .332 OBP placed fifth, and his .460 SLG and .792 OPS put him in third. Cabrera’s power helped him to enjoy a very good season, but his pedestrian on-base skills—he was actually below the median in batting average among qualified shortstops, and he doesn’t walk much—hampered his offensive value.
Cabrera’s .273/.332/.460 triple-slash doesn’t look like the obvious winner when compared to Peralta’s .299/.345/478 line or Hardy’s powerful .269/.310/.491 showing. Heck, even Yunel Escobar (.290/.369/.413) deserves some consideration for his great ability to get on base. That doesn’t necessarily mean Cabrera wasn’t the best of them, but clearly it’s not an open-and-shut case.
But those numbers don’t account for park factors, and Progressive Field (unlike Comerica Park and Rogers Centre) played as a pitcher’s park in 2011. So using wRC+, which accounts for those disparities, the race looks like an effective tie between Cabrera (118), Peralta (120), and Escobar (116). On a per-PA basis, each was about as good as the other two this year.
But Cabrera kept the pace up over a longer period of time: he came to bat 91 more times than Peralta, and played in 20 more games than Escobar. FanGraphs has Cabrera ahead in batting runs above average, with 16.4. That gives him a decent (if not completely conclusive) lead over Escobar (13.5). But it doesn’t give him a real advantage over Peralta (16.0).
Essentially, Peralta matched the offensive value Cabrera produced despite Cabrera having 16 percent more opportunities to hit. You can’t credit Peralta for the plate appearances he might have gotten under different circumstances, but that he was just as valuable in a shorter span of time. Everyone has a different interpretation of how skill and value should be balanced in these kinds of awards, but given two players who have been roughly equally valuable, I usually go with the one who succeeded in his fewer opportunities.
Still, Cabrera has one more advantage: his clutchness. He finished way ahead of Peralta in WPA (1.34 to 0.21), and FanGraphs’ clutch rating has him at 0.90 to Peralta’s -0.67. Even if clutchness isn’t really a skill, the fact remains that Cabrera’s superior situational hitting (whether by virtue of luck or willpower) made him more than a full win more valuable than Peralta in that respect. Whether that outweighs the fact that Cabrera had more opportunities to produce than Peralta really depends on who you are.
So was Cabrera the right choice? Seems like a toss-up to me. I don’t think there is a right answer—I’ve actually changed my mind several times just in the course of writing this. Had I had a vote I probably would have let my fan affiliation be the tiebreaker and chosen him, but Peralta would be valid too. Cabrera was the right choice—or at least, a right choice—but to say he was the clear winner isn’t fair to his former teammate.