Cabrera’s four-seamer may be getting smacked around and he may not be striking out as many hitters as we expected, but there are a lot of positive underneath the surface.
Man, Genesis Cabrera has been weird this year. He is nothing like what I, or probably most Cardinals fans expected him to be this year. A high-velocity strikeout guy with spotty control has become a pitch to contact guy, at least through his first 26 2⁄3 innings.
Perhaps I’m exaggerating. Maybe Cabrera isn’t intentionally pitching to contact, I doubt it, in fact, considering the pitcher he’s always been, but that’s exactly the kind of pitcher the numbers say he is. His 39th percentile strikeout rate and 58th percentile walk rate mean that an above average percentage of balls are put into play against him.
To add to the weirdness, let’s take a glance at some stats.
As I said earlier, that’s weird. Beacause Fangraphs uses FIP to calculate WAR, Cabrera has an fWAR of -0.2. That doesn’t scream “trusted arm” and go-to lefty”, but that’s exactly what Cabrera has been this year. According to Baseball Reference, who uses runs allowed per nine innings to calculate WAR, Cabrera has been much better. His 0.9 bWAR is based on his 2.38 RA/9.
Which of these is more accurate? Well, it’s probably something in the middle. All the expected stats have Cabrera in the 3.6-4.0 range, which is fine, but there are a lot of reasons for hope that he is better than that and a few reasons to believe that he may not be.
Let’s start with a positive first — Cabrera’s reduced walk rate.
This will go a long way in determining how effective Cabrera will be if/when he gets back to being the Cabrera that we all know. A high octane strikeout arm looks even better with a below average walk rate. If Cabrera can sustain that, then he could turn a corner and be a truly dominant lefty.
The weird thing about the weird thing (the reduced walk rate) is that Cabrera has walked fewer batters by throwing fewer strikes. In 2021, the left-hander’s walk rate was 12.2%, just above his current career average of 11.9%. 49.4% of his pitches were in the strike zone that year, which was actually above the league average. That’s changed in 2022, with his zone percentage falling to 46.4% and his walk rate dropping to just 7.5%.
That zone percentage is over 2% below the league average, so how is Cabrera walking fewer batters if he isn’t throwing even an average amount of pitches in the zone? Well, it starts with first pitch strikes. Cabrera is throwing a career high rate of first pitch strikes (61.3%) and is even above the league average of 60.7%. When he works from ahead, he’s at his best.
Take, for example, the fact that he has allowed a .201 wOBA after throwing a first pitch strike and a .351 wOBA after throwing a first pitch ball. After achieving an 0-1 count, Cabrera has walked just 3.8% of batters. That rises to 14.3% when he doesn’t start with a strike.
Simply put, when he pitches from ahead, he’s at his best and he doesn’t walk hitters. That’s true of pretty much every pitcher, but it’s especially important for Cabrera.
The divide was even greater last season. Through 0-1 counts, Cabrera allowed a .175 wOBA and 6% walk rate. Through 1-0 counts, he allowed a .364 wOBA and a 20.1% walk rate. the big difference is, of course, as I already mentioned, that he is getting more first pitch strikes this year.
When he’s ahead in the count, he can afford to nibble. If he misses, there’s nothing hurt, but hitters are a bit more desperate and willing to chase. That’s been a huge advantage for the flamethrowing lefty, who has a chase rate north of 30% this year, well above the league average of 28.3%.
I would expect that this is partly due to the increase in first pitch strikes. Logically, it makes sense that a hitter is more willing to expand the zone when behind in the count, but there is also correlation between the two statistics for Cabrera. Twice Cabrera has had a first pitch strike rate above 60%. In both those years, he had an above average chase rate. Twice Cabrera had a well below average first pitch strike rate and in both of those years, his chase rate suffered.
Keep in mind, of course, that in three of the four seasons (including 2022), Cabrera has thrown less than 30 innings, so it’s not like that’s a huge sample. We’ll call it correaltion and not causation for now, though it does logically make sense that working ahead in the count would lead to more chases.
There is another component to the increased chase rate and that’s the overall increase in nastiness. Cabrera has added horizontal movement to every pitch except his four-seamer, even adding up three inches of sweep to his curveball and changeup.
The pitches have the same general shape, but now they break more. That could be due in part to lower velocity, but while Cabrera’s fastball velo has faded a bit, his changeup is actually being thrown harder than it was last year.
He somehow increased the velocity AND the movement of the pitch. That’s quite the feat. It explains his 42.5% whiff rate and excellent results with the pitch. It’s also chased nearly 34% of the time, which only trails the chase rate of Cabrera’s sinker, a whopping 48.7% (which, admittedly, has a small sample size of just 77 pitches).
So Cabrera is working ahead and his pitches have gotten nastier. That’s great, but there’s more to the story. Cabrera is using his entire arsenal.
To see what I mean, take a look at this table, giving his usage rates of each pitch for every year he’s been in the majors.
Notice how the rate of 4-seamers drops every year. Cabrera seemed to slowly gain trust in his full arsenal, making a huge jump from 2020 to 2021 and then another one from 2021 to 2022. 2022 could be the first year that Cabrera breaks 20% usage on all his pitches. This would be huge considering he’s never broken 20% usage on more than two pitches in a single year.
The increase in usage of Cabrera’s secondary pitches has come at the cost of four-seam fastball usage. Perhaps not coincidentally, the left-hander has had great results with every pitch except for one — his 4-seamer.
This has been the problematic pitch for Cabrera. On paper it looks great. It’s got 88th percentile velocity (96.2 mph) and a rising effect that it 15% above average. That looks like a pitch designed to gets whiffs.
The only problem is that it isn’t getting whiffs. In fact, the pitch has the lowest whiff rate of any pitch in Cabrera’s arsenal, even lower than his sinker, and, as we know, sinkers aren’t exactly swing and miss pitches.
Cabrera’s four-seamer is the kind of pitch that typically thrives at the top of the zone, so let’s take a look at where he’s locating it.
Here’s Cabrera four-seam location in 2022.
There’s a little bit of red near the top of the zone but the darkest spot is in the bottom third.
Now take a look at Cabrera’s heat map in 2021.
Honestly, that’s pretty similar, but with a bit more red at the top of the zone. The numbers track with this too. In 2022, Cabrera has thrown 44.8% of his fastballs in the upper third of the zone or the higher regions off the plate. That’s only a slight decrease from 46.2% in 2021.
So, his the same has the same location, but is getting crushed to the tune of a .405 wOBA as compared to a .284 wOBA last year.
Cabrera has given up four home runs on the year and all four have been against his four-seam fastball. As you can see from the videos, three of the four were located right at the top of the zone.
For some more context, Cabrera had only allowed four home runs against his four-seamer in the prior three years of his major league career.
What’s changed? Why are fastballs at the top of the zone getting crushed now? It’s hard to say.
Cabrera’s fastball velocity has dropped from 97.6 mph in 2021 to 96.2 and he has lost about an inch of ‘rise’ from last season, but I don’t think that’s the answer. Cabrera is throwing just as hard as he was in 2019 and 2020 with similar movement and his four-seamer didn’t struggle nearly to this extent in those years.
The higher velocity likely played a part in Cabrera’s fastball having career best results last season, but a drop back to career normal levels shouldn’t tank his production with the pitch.
I can’t really give you an answer as to why the pitch is struggling right now. It’s a pitch built for the top of the zone, yet the top of the zone is exactly where it’s struggling. I know that’s an unsatisfying answer, but if you want total satisfaction then good luck being a baseball fan, and especially a Cardinals fan.
So, now, where does that leave us? With a pitcher who isn’t himself, or, at least, isn’t his old self. Will that be the case for the rest of the season? I don’t know. It all depends of if Cabrera can keep running an above average walk rate, if his fastball results normalize, if he’s now a more diverse pitcher capable of throwing four pitches well, and if he can start missing bats again.
One thing is for sure, his .183 BABIP will not hold and neither will his 93.5% rate of stranded runners. The question is if that gets counterbalanced with a better fastball and more strikeouts.
Now comes a choice? Do you want to bet on Cabrera finding more strikeouts or do you want to bet on Cabrera losing his control? The optimistic part of me wants to bet on the strikeouts. Cabrera has always been an explosive arm and he’s never had problems with Ks. I think a diversified arsenal can help him recover his lost strikeouts and I think the diverse arsenal is real. The above table with his pitch percentages by year makes me think that 2022 is just another step in the process to dust off all four pitches.
With four pitches and better movement on all his secondaries, it’s hard not to believe in him missing more bats. He has a fastball worth betting on too, so I don’t think it will be this bad all season. All that adds up to a strikeout rate that should tick above it’s current 20.6% and toward at least the MLB average of 25.1%.
Cabrera has always been a bit of a loose cannon, though, so it’s tough to tell whether the walk rate is real or whether it will normalize. Regardless, he has significant upside. If he has indeed solved his control issues and can keep his explosive stuff in the zone, he could be ready to anchor the bullpen down the stretch.
Right now, Cabrera has three strong pitches — sinker, changeup, and curveball and good control. If his four-seamer recovers, then he will not only begin to rack up strikeouts, but he will become a top bullpen option (moreso than he is now) for a St. Louis Cardinals team that is short on reliable bullpen arms.