Friday, July 25, 2008

Does Cabrera Have A Future?

It's hard not to be pessimistic about Daniel Cabrera. Even before being tagged for 14 tuns in his last two starts, Cabrera had yet to show much tangible improvement in his fifth season aside from a nice string of games in May and July which included two complete game victories over the Royals. If anything, Cabrera had gone the opposite way, missing fewer bats and in general looking less overpowering than he had in the past.

Let's look at some of the key Pitch Data Summary from baseball-reference relating to Cabrera's trends which show how "overpowering" he has been over the past three seasons.

%Strikes Thrown: 57%-->58%-->59%
%1st Pitch Strikes: 52%-->55%-->57%

Those are both nice trends for a pitcher that has notably struggled with his control as a young guy. Unfortunately, the average pitcher throws 62% of his pitches for strikes and 58% of his first pitches for strikes so even with steady improvement since 2006, Cabrera is still below average at throwing strikes and at getting ahead in the count.

%Strikes Swinging:18%-->14%-->10%
%Pitches StrS: 10%-->8%-->6%

The first number is the percentage of Cabrera's strikes that have been of the swinging variety while the second number is the percentage of all Cabrera's pitches that have been swinging strikes. That's quite a marked decline. Cabrera is missing fewer and fewer bats, a fact you would expect with his declining strikeout rates. But maybe this, combined with his slightly improved command, means that Cabrera is getting more called strikes, perhaps on the corners.

%Strikes Looking: 30%-->27%-->28%
%Strikes In Play: 26%-->31%-->34%

Nope. Cabrera is actually getting fewer of his strikes as called strikes when compared to 2006. He's simply become more hittable with an 8 percentage point increase in the number of his credited strikes being on balls put into play. The average pitcher, meanwhile, gets 14% of his strikes swinging and 31% on balls in play compared to 10% and 34% in 2008 for Cabrera. One more number.

%Contact: 75%-->81%-->87%

When hitters do swing, they're making contact some 87% of the time, far above the league average of 80%. Once again, Cabrera is simply not missing bats which, when combined with subpar (4.14 BB/9, 14 HBP), is a bad way to go.

Now to look at some fangraphs data. Simply put, Daniel Cabrera is fairly predictable. He's going to throw a heavy dose of fastballs with the occasional slider mixed in. Of all pitchers with at least 80 innings this season - 123 in total - none have used their fastball as often as Cabrera who has done so on 83.6% of his total pitches. Fangraphs says that most (14.1%) of the rest of Cabrera's tosses have been sliders, with the occasional change up being used, although Josh Kalk's Pitch F/X (more from there later). says that all of the surplus non-fastballs are classified as

All told, he's throwing tons more fastballs than he did in his best season, 2005, going from about 65% fastballs to nearly 84% fastballs. He has also, according to fangraphs, lost about three mph on his fastball, dropping from an average of a bit over 96 mph to just over 93 mph.

His slider is used most often as his out pitch. The three most likely situations for you to see Daniel Cabrera throw a slider is on 1-2, 2-2, and 3-2 counts. Here is a nifty chart which plots the movement on Cabrera's pitches:

What you're seeing here is how Cabrera's pitches move relative to a pitch thrown with no spin or movement. That green cluster of triangles are Cabrera's sliders. And as you can see, they're clustered somewhere very close to the origin of the graph. Looking at the numbers, Cabrera's slider has little movement, clocking in at (.79, .89) inches in the x and y directions.

Now that's not really all that good. Now I'll be the first to admit that I'm really just starting to learn about how to interpret these pitch F/X graphs and data, but it seems to me that a slider that doesn't really move is going to be troublesome, especially when

a) you use it about once every six pitches and
b) it's really the only thing you throw besides a fastball

Here are a few good pitchers who rely heavily on their slider, and the graphs of their pitch movement, C.C. Sabathia and Jake Peavy.

Sabathia's average slider (-5.04, -0.41) and clocks in at 81.2 mph while Peavy's slider breaks at (5.83, 0.92) while averaging 83.1 mph. Cabrera, meanwhile is at 82.1 mph on his velocity. It shouldn't come as any surprise that Daniel Cabrera's slider isn't as good as the sliders of two of the best pitchers in baseball, but looking at the different in movement is striking. Cabrera's fastball, at least in movement and velocity, does stack up well against that of Peavy and Sabathia, but those pitchers rely on the fastball far less, both having multiple other plus pitches.

For one last piece of information, here is Cabrera's pitch type-movement chart from last season.

Cabrera, last season, got about four inches of movement on his slider. Of course, that didn't lead to results that were notably better than this season's, but qualitatively, it seems logical that a slider with more movement is a key, especially for a two-pitch pitcher. [One note - the 2007 data was based on only about 650 pitches, a small sample of Cabrera's total work. The 2008 data is far more complete.]

So does Cabrera have a future? Unfortunately it would seem unlikely that he'll ever be even a consistently average starter. He's still under team control until after the 2010 season so if he can avoid completely falling off a cliff, he'll have a chance to stick around, at least as a fifth starter, given his cheap price tag. But 138 starts into his Major League career, it's definitely time to stop thinking of Cabrera as a young guy with great stuff who only needs to harness his immense potential. It's just not the case anymore.

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