It’s hard to translate Cuban statistics, but Jose Abreu looks good
BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI For Sun-Times Media March 4, 2014 10:35PM
FILE - In this March 1, 2013, file photo, New York Mets pitcher Johan Santana throws while working out before the Mets' spring training baseball game Detroit Tigers in Port St. Lucie, Fla. The Mets have declined a $25 million option on the injured pitcher on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, and will pay the left-hander a $5.5 million buyout. Santana will be 35 next season and becomes a free agent.(AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
Translating player performance in overseas leagues to major-league equivalencies is tricky. It’s especially tricky trying to calculate MLEs for players from Cuba.
As pointed out by Eno Sarris at FanGraphs.com, there are wild swings in talent level because of defections, there’s only a small sample of Cubans coming to the United States and no Americans playing in Cuba to yield a base for comparisons, the rosters are politically influenced and there has been a change in the size of the ball. And that’s just scratching the surface of the difficulties.
Nonetheless, analyst Clay Davenport long has tracked Cuban baseball at claydavenport.com. He also has worked on translating Cuban stats to MLEs.
That’s of special interest to White Sox fans, with Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu being the biggest offseason acquisition by either Chicago team. Playing for Cienfuegos in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, Abreu had only 136 at-bats in 2013. Short seasons are the norm, and Abreu has had more than 300 at-bats only once in 10 seasons (2006).
Abreu packed a lot of production into those limited chances in 2013, hitting .322 with 13 home runs, 37 walks, a .527 on-base percentage and a .735 slugging percentage.
Davenport calculates that Abreu’s production was the equivalent of hitting .298/.393/.576 against big-league opposition. Add his on-base and slugging percentages, and you get a .969 OPS. Among American League first-base regulars last season, only the Orioles’ Chris Davis (1.004) topped that. It would be a big step up for the Sox, who had Adam Dunn (.762) and Paul Konerko (.669) sharing first-base and designated-hitter duties last season.
There’s another tier of number-crunching to do to project Abreu’s likely performance level with the Sox. Along with all the problems that go into translating Cuban statistics, analysts need to weigh the effects of his new team, league and ballpark, as well as his age. Abreu is 27, the average age of a player’s peak season.
Such projections are done for players already in the major-league pipeline by a number of sources every season. No one can look into the future with 100 percent accuracy, but the projections tend to be pretty solid. There are some bad misses, but the worst usually are affected by playing time.
Most analysts are bullish on Abreu. On Davenport’s site, he projects .296/.391/.586, with 39 homers, 75 walks and 158 strikeouts. The Steamer projection at FanGraphs is only slightly less optimistic at .272/.363/.547, with 34 homers, 60 walks and 110 strikeouts in a bit less playing time (544 plate appearances at FanGraphs against something more than 592 at Davenport’s site, which doesn’t list sacrifice flies, hit-by-pitches or other small factors that go into plate appearances).
The least optimistic projection is on BaseballProspectus.com’s
Abreu player card, which sees him with a .262 average and 19 homers in 413 plate appearances. Given the difficulties of translating Cuban performance to U.S. equivalents, the surprise isn’t so much that there’s a low-end projection but that the others are so similar.