AL All-Star Report: Cleveland’s Underrated Asdrubal Cabrera

If there was a player who was at a key position and amongst his peers at the spot, he got on base more frequently than any of them, hit for better total power (as measured by slugging percentage) than any of them, and graded out higher in the defensive metrics for range than any of them, what would you think of that player? Particularly if the latter gave his team at a big edge at position that demands good and thereby enabling your team to be on first place in the latter part of June? You’d probably think you have an MVP contender on your hands. And they he won’t get discussed in that context, that’s exactly what the Cleveland Indians have with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

Cabrera has a .390 on-base percentage and that number is reasonably well-balanced between hits and walks, meaning he’s still productive when the bat hits the inevitable slumps and on the flip side, pitchers can’t get too comfortable coming in to him. Cabrera has popped eight home runs and is slugging .485. His range factor rating is the best among regular American League shortstops coming into Friday’s games. It’s the continuation of a career breakout that began last season for the 26-year-old who already seems like a grizzled veteran.

The Indians called up Cabrera in August of 2007. They were on their way to a division title and eventually would get within one win over the World Series, but second base was a hole. Rather than make a trade, they looked internally and Cabrera came up and delivered a .354 on-base percentage in 159 at-bats down the stretch and became a key supporting piece in the lineup. He had similarly good OBPs each of the next two seasons and the departure of regular shortstop Jhonny Peralta to Detroit eventually necessitated a position switch. In 2010 his numbers fell off and it looked like this was another prospect who’d tantalized, but never delivered for the long haul. Then came last year, when Cabrera found his power stroke and hit 25 home runs. The OBP was a pedestrian, albeit acceptable .332. That set the stage for this year where they are absolutely no weaknesses in his game and he deserves the All-Star vote at shortstop.

So take heart Cleveland fans—LeBron may have his ring, but you’ve got hope on the diamond, with your emerging shortstop, along with Jason Kipnis at second base, and you’re in first place in a division there for the taking.

Of course we know Cabrera won’t actually get the votes. Not as long as New York’s Derek Jeter is in the house and especially not with Jeter swinging an excellent bat, hitting .300 with seven home runs. My issue—besides that his numbers still aren’t as good as Cabrera’s in spite of being in a better hitter’s park and much more lineup support—is that Jeter remains about as lousy a defender as there is, at least when it comes to his range. Another good hitter who’s overrated on defense is Texas’ Elvis Andrus. At least he only ranks middle of the league on range, while Jeter is at the bottom, but with Andrus’ speed he should get to more balls than he does. If nothing else he can hit, with his .373 on-base percentage triggering the potent Ranger offense. And in spite of my criticisms on the defensive side, both Jeter and Andrus are having years worthy of being in Kansas City on July 10 for the All-Star Game…just not as the starter.

Any discussion of American League shortstops can pretty well stay confined to these three. No one else is even close and there’s not much hope for anyone turning it around before TheSportsNotebook takes up the topic again in September. Sure, Toronto’s Yunel Escobar can do better with the bat, as can Peralta in Detroit. But neither is so far below career norms that we should expect a revolutionary turnaround and both are well off the pace set by Cabrera, Jeter & Andrus.

We can still give a courtesy thumbs-up to Alcides Escobar in Kansas City, whose youth and .333 on-base percentage, suggest he might join the elite of this discussion in a future season. And on the other end of the age spectrum, Jamey Carroll has given Minnesota some stability and a steady .339 OBP. Oakland at least gets good defense from Cliff Pennington, if nothing at the plate. But at this position, you can live with defense-only.

Boston and Baltimore have situations that can best be described as intriguing. Both Mike Aviles and J.J. Hardy bring the sizzle, with nine and eleven home runs respectively and are at least above average defensively. But the steak of consistent offensive production isn’t there, and both have OBP’s below .300 and slugging percentages hovering around .420, which suggests quite clearly that when they’re not hitting home runs they are a drag in the lineup. Factor in the percentage of at-bats even the best players hit home runs and you understand the problem. Aviles is probably maxed out in what he can do, so it’s more about whether the Red Sox want to keep hitting him lead off. Hardy has shown a capacity to bring that OBP number up and he must do so if his team’s going to continue its surprise pursuit of the AL East title.

Finally let’s close with the disappointments, the biggest of which is Erick Aybar with Los Angeles. That he’s doing nothing offensively is disappointing, but not surprising. What’s problematic is mediocre defense. The Angels have plenty of guys who can hit—or at least be expected to in the future, but they need a defensive anchor. Sean Rodriguez in Tampa, Brendan Ryan in Seattle and Alexi Ramirez have done nothing with the bat and don’t stand out with the glove.