Asdrubal Cabrera has been the Mets’ best position player in 2018. You could have made a lot of money in Las Vegas if you wagered on that proposition prior to the start of the season. It was debatable if it was worthwhile to pick up Cabrera’s option when they had to do it shortly after the end of the World Series and then when the free agent market was slow to develop and bargains were to be found everywhere, it looked like a bad decision. But Cabrera is making Sandy Alderson look good here after 31 games.
It’s not like we saw this coming by what Cabrera did in Grapefruit League play. In Florida he basically looked like, well, himself. He posted a 277/.333/.404 line in 51 PA. Before the season, ZiPS forecasted Cabrera to post a .265/.327/.429 line. But he sits today with a .975 OPS after 132 PA, hitting for a better average and with more power than what could have been reasonably expected.
So, how is Cabrera doing it?
Obviously, the hits are falling in and it’s easy to look good when you’re sporting a .370 BABIP. But good luck on balls in play doesn’t explain an ISO 88 points higher than what was projected before the start of the season. Cabrera is hitting more balls in the air but it’s not like he has joined the launch angle disciples. Rather, it’s a return to his recent rates after an outlier season in 2017 in that regard. Here are Cabrera’s GB/FB marks in 2018 compared to the previous five years:
13 – 0.89
14 – 0.91
15 – 0.82
16 – 0.95
17 – 1.20
18 – 0.95
He’s currently riding a career-best in hard-hit balls but it’s not like this year’s 38.8 percent mark is significantly better than the 36.8 and 36.7 rates of the past two seasons. And it’s not like he’s pulling the ball every time up, either. His 44.9 Pull% is his lowest rate since 2013. Cabrera is also performing well in the traditional splits, hitting well both home and away and against both lefties and righties. Finally, his plate discipline numbers, such as swing and chase rates, are all in the ballpark of what he’s done recently. So, his hot start in 2018 is completely different than his hot finish to 2016, when he had a huge home/road split and a cartoon HR/FB rate.
The closest thing to something standing out for Cabrera are his results against individual offerings. Since 2013, the pitch that’s given Cabrera the most trouble has been the slider. But this year the hard breaking ball is not neutralizing him. In fact, instead of struggling against the slider, he’s had more success against that pitch than any other offering.
Texas Leaguers show him swinging more often against sliders this year. Last year he swung at just under 50 percent of the sliders he saw and this year that number is 60%. The graphs at Texas Leaguers show 23 sliders have been in the strike zone and he’s swung at 20 of those. And more swings has so far resulted in more balls in play, going from 16% to 24%.
Identifying which ones of these to swing at has led to greater results. On a per 100 pitches basis, Cabrera had a Linear Weights Pitch Value rate of (-1.76) last year, the third straight season he had been in negative numbers against a slider. But this year it stands at 4.12 and combined with the damage he’s doing against fastballs, a 3.00 rate, it’s easy to see why he’s been so successful. The only pitch that he’s struggled with this year has been the changeup, an offering which he historically does quite well against.
It’s early and it’s not a large sample and these Pitch Value results are more descriptive than predictive. Just because Cabrera’s been enjoying success against sliders so far is not any reason to believe he will continue to do so for the rest of the season. But when watching the games going forward, look to see how Cabrera reacts to the sliders he sees. Is he identifying which ones are strikes worth swinging at? If so, that’s probably a good indication that he’s seeing the ball well and if that’s the case, don’t be surprised if the good results continue to come his way.