By now you have surely heard that the Rays have made their first real splash in free agency with the signing of Asdrubal Cabrera to a one year, $8M contract. Everybody has some familiarity with the player even if it’s only name recognition. Cabrera spent all of his career with the Cleveland Indians before being jettisoned at the trade deadline in 2014, the last year of his control. His bat has been better than league average (104 wRC+) throughout his career, which has allowed him to be a solid contributor as a mostly bad defender at SS. While the glove always held him back from being a true superstar he has averaged 2.15 WAR per 600 Plate Appearances in his career. As you’ll see that was a much higher figure two years ago.
Go read what my friends at The Process Report think, while you’re at it. I strongly agree with their take.
Coming into 2013 Asdrubal was entering the last year of his arbitration hot off 6.5 WAR over the previous two seasons. He signed a two-year, $16.5M contract to avoid arbitration and in turn sold his first year of free agency at a cost of $10M. He went on to be pretty bad the last two years combining for a little over 2 WAR. The glove was a little worse, but the bat, the thing that allowed him to be pretty valuable was the real issue. Check out the top-left table below:
His wRC+ went from 119 and 112 down to 94 and 97 from 2011 through ’14, chronologically. You can start to form your own opinions using the table above, which I’ll explain in a minute. One hypothesis that certainly shows correlation is something Christina Kahrl pitched at the Sweet Spot Blog:
The biggest difference you’ll notice is in the results on his balls in play, which you might describe as luck looking at just that number — but I wouldn’t call it that. That big drop on balls in play is an outcome of what Cabrera was doing, which is hitting a lot more fly-ball outs. At his peak, he had a ratio of groundouts to fly outs of 1.06; in the last two years, that number went down to 0.77 as he started hitting a lot more catchable fly balls. And his strikeout rate is up in part because he’s reaching for more balls outside the zone. That isn’t “luck,” those are symptoms of problems with approach and execution.
I’ve listed his raw figures for categories that I think our important to hitting with color-coding across the years to show which years were his best and worst. You’ll notice that she’s right that he hit fewer balls on the ground and more in the air with a ton of those left on the infield. He’s whiffing on pitches more than ever while seeing fewer in the zone,while having a career high first-strike percentage. This approach speaks to a batter that is known to be taking first pitch too much. Pitcher gets ahead and then doesn’t have to come back in the zone much after that. Zobrist has a similar approach, but when things are going right he’s ripping the one he’s sitting on out of the park if he does get it. Run through the stats to see what you think stands out and please feel free to share in the comments your own interpretations.
In the top right I have the z-scores for that category for that year. Recall, that 0.0 is perfectly average and the distance from average reflective of how far above or below the norm the player performed. For instance, we can see that he was one full standard deviation above the norm in flyball percentage last year, and around the same the year prior despite being much, much closer to average during the rest of his career. We can also see that his swings at pitches in the zone was much higher than his peers. For years he swung at pitches out of the zone at a better than average rate than his peers, but we see he was below average the last two years. Again, go through and look for the things that you find interesting. I think this makes for a nice cheat sheet.
The bottom left shows his ranks in each category of the 5,745 player-seasons since 2002 for guys with at least 100 PA. The bottom right shows this as a percentile, which is probably easier to interpret. The same theme that Ms. Kahrl pointed out continues to ride everything. Let’s see if the heat maps can shed any light on what he’s doing differently from the high level of success that he saw previously.
The following heat maps compare his 2013-14 seasons to his 2011-12 seasons. I’m going to start with swing rates to get an idea of where he’s being more or less aggressive than in the past and then I’m going to show the run values to see if that’s paying off or not. Let’s start with all of the pitches:
Recall that swings are on the top and run values on the bottom. Against lefties he’s swinging similarly, though chasing a bunch inside and a bit more on the outer edge. Righties are owning him off the low-and-away corner while ‘s not swinging as much as he used to on stuff up-and-in. The RVs on the bottom show us that he’s not having as much success on and in against lefties and a nice mustache criss-crosses the zone showing a broad swath of where he’s now worse than he once was. There are a couple of hot spots, however, down-and-in and up-and-over. Against righties he was quite a bit worse off of the plate and down. Clearly the aggressiveness on that pitch is not paying off, and those aren’t the only spots. Laying off those pitches up-and-in appears to be beneficial, but being more aggressive above the zone is not helping, same with those couple of spots on the inner third. Let’s see if we can isolate which pitches are causing the most issues at which spots starting with the fastball:
Lefties are getting him to chase inside and belly button high a ton more than he used to, while you can see that he’s mostly swinging more everywhere, albeit generally not all that much higher of a rate. Similar story against righties, but again we see righties just pounding him arm-side. When I saw the first batch of charts I figured those had to be change ups taking him out there, but that low-and-away zone looks so enticing to him right now. That’s an area where if he could get more particular he might be able to see large gains. There’s just not a whole lot of good that can come even when you do make contact with that pitch so hopefully the org can beat it out of him. We can see him swinging at lot less when righties try to get up in his kitchen, which is probably smart.
Lefty fastballs up-and-in have been brutal to Cabrera’s output. This looks like an area where he’s being a bit more passive. It looks like he’s having more success when the ball is out over the plate or up, but low-and-away isn’t doing him any favors either. Against righties he does have a bunch more green and some brown in the zone indicating areas where he’s having more success, but it’s balanced by all that garbage on the outer third and off the plate. He’s probably not a negative against fastball, but you can definitely see areas that pitchers will look to exploit. Let’s move on to breaking balls:
We can see him swinging more than he used to on breaking balls up-and-in from lefties, but doing a good job of staying off the breakers that are above the zone from southpaws. Righties see kind of a mishmash with a couple of spots where he’s not swinging as much (inner third, up) and some where he’s much more aggressive (below the zone, up-and-over). We see a lot of blue in his lefty run values, but it’s mostly of the sort that is just ever so slightly below previous levels and a lot of the green in the same place on the other side of the zero, but he is showing better on that swath above the zone and that spot at the bottom of the zone. Righties see to have him chasing below and above the zone as those are particularly worse areas. Lastly, let’s close with the change up:
We can see him chasing the lefty change off the plate and away quite a bit, which means they’re doing their job. Righties have him chasing up for some reason while not swinging as much at a pitch that looks like a meatball. His run values against lefties are mostly worse within the zone which means empty swings or ball in play outs while he’s handling the righty change quite a bit better that he used to.
So on the one hand we know that he’s expanding his zone which is causing him to post higher strikeout and swing strike rates while also meaning he’s putting more weak contact into play. We can now see that he’s not just chasing breaking balls or change ups out of the zone, but he’s having a real tough time even laying off of fastballs that are low-and-away. He’s chasing breaking balls down more than he used to and change ups from lefties off the plate more, but that’s stuff that most batters do because pitchers are just so good. If he can tighten up his fastball discretion you could see some reversion to the guy that wasn’t just a good hitter for a shortstop, but one of the better all-around sticks in the game.