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Does Asdrubal Cabrera's Weight Matter?

The Plain Dealer‘s Terry Pluto made some waves this weekend when he offered an unflattering report about the shape in which Asdrubal Cabrera arrived in spring training:

The Indians don’t want to talk about it, but Asdrubal Cabrera showed up in training camp in less than ideal condition. The shortstop has long battled weight problems. (…)

Cabrera had struggles with his weight in 2008 and 2010. He has a stocky build and has to be careful with his diet because it’s easy to put on pounds. As a shortstop, his only weakness is very ordinary range … and the weight doesn’t help.

Obviously it’s not a good thing when the reigning team MVP shows up with a few extra pounds of not-muscle when he should be entering his athletic prime. But is it really something to worry about?

Let’s get this out of the way first: you don’t have to look like Mr. Universe or Rainier Wolfcastle to play baseball. Prince Fielder, who was famously dismissed as too fat for even the Oakland A’s in Moneyball, just signed a mammoth contract with the Detroit Tigers. Former Indian Jim Thome is a no-questions-asked first-ballot Hall of Famer, and CC Sabathia is heading down that road too. Not to mention that the best player in the history of the game “was fond of drinking a quart mixture of bourbon whiskey and ginger ale at breakfast, before attacking a porterhouse steak garnished with half-a-dozen fried eggs and potatoes on the side” and once “gorged himself on a dozen to eighteen hot dogs before blacking out.”

It’s pretty clear from that list having dietary problems and being a good hitter are not mutually exclusive. That being said, it stands to reason that a player whose conditioning declines won’t hit as well as he did when he was in better shape. Cabrera was probably due for some regression anyway so if he takes a step back from his 2011 performance it won’t necessarily be because he’s heavier. But additional pounds of non-muscle won’t help him at the plate in 2012, and his added weight will probably exacerbate his decline.

The bigger concern, as Pluto suggests, is Cabrera’s defense. There are some big players who wield golden-worthy gloves (Pablo Sandoval springs to mind), but generally defensive abilities and size have a negative relationship. A fielder’s job is to cover as much ground as possible, and that’s easier to do with a lighter load.

That being said, the variation in Cabrera’s fielding throughout his career doesn’t line up very well with his conditioning issues. Looking at UZR/150 (it’s not a perfect stat, but UZR is one of the best defensive metrics out there and it puts samples of differing amounts of playing time on the same scale), there isn’t much difference at all between Cabrera’s defense when he struggled with weight issues in 2010 (-13.4) and when he was in probably the best shape of his career in 2011 (-12.6).

Going back to 2008, the relationship looks even clear. Cabrera had a -14.9 UZR/150 at shortstop, the other year in which his conditioning was worrisome. But that was in a minute sample of 20 games for a player who at that point had primarily played second base in the majors. And he was quite good at second (8.3 UZR/150). All told, UZR pegs 2008 as the best defensive season of Cabrera’s career. There’s a sample size caveat here and a few years of his past shouldn’t necessarily be weighted more than general historical trends, but at the very least it’s interesting that his conditioning hasn’t had a huge effect on his defense.

For most position players, showing up to spring training camp a few pounds heavier would probably indicate that his fielding would take a turn for the worse in the coming season but that his bat would stay pretty much steady. But Cabrera’s track record suggests the opposite: he probably won’t hit as well as he did in his breakout 2011 campaign just by virtue of regression to the mean, and he’s shown lackluster range in the field regardless of his conditioning.

We can’t say anything for certain, especially since we don’t know how much weight he’s actually gained. But if Cabrera’s history is any indication, the extra pounds won’t affect him how you might expect.

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