El Caballo built legacy worthy of praise

Former slugger's career draws comparisons to HOFer Cepeda

December 28th, 2017

Let's talk for a moment about context. Carlos Lee was a very good hitter for 14 big league seasons. His final numbers looked like so:
.285/.339/.483, 469 doubles, 358 homers, 2,273 hits, 1,125 runs, 1,363 RBIs, 3,854 total bases.
Now let's look at another player's final numbers:
.297/.350/.499, 417 doubles, 379 homers, 2,351 hits, 1,131 runs, 1,365 RBIs, 3,959 total bases.
Similar, right? You look, the batting average is really the only sizable difference -- the extra base hits, home runs, RBIs, runs, they are staggeringly similar. Both men were powerful right-handed hitters, both about 6-foot-2, neither noted for their defense. They were so similar that they even had similar nicknames. Lee was called El Caballo, meaning The Horse.
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The comp is Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda and he was called The Baby Bull.
There are really two big differences between Lee and Cepeda.
1. Money. Carlos Lee made more than 130 million dollars in his career. Cepeda made less than a million in his; even with inflation it only adjusts up to about $5 or so million.
2. Cepeda, in context, was a much better player.
This is not to knock Lee's career at all; he was, as mentioned, a very good hitter. He also had a gilded path. Lee played in the right era, an era when baseball's were flying out of ballparks like crazy. He came along at the right time too, a time when a consistent slugger could get obscene amounts of money even if slugging was pretty much their whole game.
Lee slugged from the start, literally. He homered in his first at-bat, a line drive smash off knuckleballer Tom Candiotti at Comiskey Park in 1999. By pure coincidence, his mother and fiancee -- both from his home country of Panama -- had been to Charlotte to see him when he got the call, so they were there for that first home run. Lee signed the baseball and gave it to his mother to take back home.

For the next six seasons, Lee hit 152 home runs for the White Sox, improving his homer total every year. Chicago traded him to Milwaukee, and he hit a career high 32 home runs in his first year and in 2006 was on pace for another career high when the Brewers dealt him and to Texas at the trade deadline. That's a lot of home run power Milwaukee dealt away there -- Lee and Cruz have combined for almost 700 big league home runs.
If you combine what he did in Milwaukee and Texas, Lee his best season in 2006, hitting .300 with 37 homers and 116 RBIs -- he even stole a career high 19 bases and was caught just twice. Lee was an aggressive hitter; he didn't walk much but as he got older and more experience he rarely struck out either. That year he walked 58 times and struck out 65, a superb ratio for a modern day slugger.

As usual, Lee's timing was perfect. He was a free agent at the end of the year and signed a six-year, $100 million deal with the Astros.
"This is a historic commitment to winning," Astros general manager Tim Purpura said.
"I won't disappoint you," Lee said.
The Astros did not win; they had only one winning season with Lee, and his last two years in Houston they were astonishingly bad (2011 and '12 being the beginning of the rebuild that led to the World Series this year). But it wouldn't be right to say that Lee disappointed; he simply declined as big power hitters in their 30s almost always do.

Lee declined in a pleasantly mathematical way hitting 32 homers, then 28, then 26, then 24, then 18. The year he hit 28 home runs, 2008, he was actually on pace to have his best ever season but injuries limited him to 115 games. That was a rare thing for Lee; he was throughout his career a very durable player. He played 150 or more games in 10 seasons and twice played all 162 games.
By the end, Lee's outfield defense was a significant problem for the Astros and they moved him to first base. Lee finished his career in Miami.
Lee made a couple of All-Star teams, hit 30-plus homers five times, had 100 RBIs six times, scored 100 runs four times, all of these season-totals match or surpass Cepeda. But, yes, context. Cepeda played in a much different time, a pitcher's time. You can see it if you compare their OPS+ (Cepeda 133; Lee 113) or their WAR (Cepeda 50.3; Lee 28.2), but perhaps the best way to see the difference is to see how they finished in the league.
Cepeda finished Top 10 in home runs nine times and led the NL once.
Lee finished Top 10 in home runs once -- he finished 10th in 2007.
Cepeda finished Top 10 in RBIs nine times and led the NL twice.
Lee finished Top 10 in RBIs four times and never led the league.
Cepeda finished Top 10 in total bases eight times (Lee 4), in slugging nine times (Lee once), in runs five times (Lee never finished Top 10). Cepeda won an MVP Award and finished second another year. Lee finished 17th and 18th in the MVP Award voting the only two years he got votes. Lee was a fine player in his time; Cepeda a great one.

It's not exactly fair to compare Lee with a Hall of Famer, but this is the Hall of Fame ballot and the point is that it's easy to get overly excited about statistics without considering what's behind them. Carlos Lee hit 358 home runs in his career, which puts him in the Top 100 all-time. He hit 17 grand slams, which ranks seventh.
And if you look on his Baseball-Reference page, you will see that his most similar batter is, yes, Cepeda. Lee was no Cepeda. But he was good.