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Why Asdrubal Cabrera Could Be Primed for a Breakout Year

By Robbie Knopf
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The Tampa Bay Rays are much better known for their ability to turn relievers around, but their success with position players cannot be overlooked either. While positive results with them have not come as consistently, they managed to get breakout years from Casey Kotchman in 2011, Jeff Keppinger in 2012, and James Loney in 2013. Asdrubal Cabrera‘s story has a different setup given that he will make more than those three did combined in 2015, but could he also be set for a year to remember?

The first thing to note is that the Rays don’t need Cabrera to have that breakthrough season. If he combined his solid hitting from the last two years with improved defense as moves to second base full-time, he will be a productive player and his salary will be worth paying for the Rays.

However, the team’s dream is that Cabrera delivers a season reminiscent of his All-Star years in 2011 and 2012 and is so good that they can give him a qualifying offer next offseason. The Rays were only willing to pay Cabrera such a large salary by their standards knowing that such a season is within the realm of possibility. There is a high probability that Cabrera will turn out fine for the Rays, but what especially intrigued them was the chance that 2015 could mark his resurgence.

Asdrubal Cabrera has now managed a 96 OPS+, 4% below the league average adjusted to ballpark, each of the last two years. A pair of seasons with such similar results makes it tempting to believe that he is playing to his true talent level. On the other hand, there are several underlying statistics that could suggest that his performance is set to rebound.

For whatever reason, Cabrera’s plate discipline looked excellent after he was traded to the Washington Nationals last season. His strikeout to walk ratio improved from 79-27 in his 416 plate appearances with the Cleveland Indians to 29-22 in 200 PA’s in Washington. Did Cabrera make some real breakthrough?

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Of course, we are dealing with a small sample size here, and the most plausible explanation might be that pitchers threw just 39.2% of pitches within the zone to Cabrera with the Nationals compared to 43.4% when he was in Cleveland. That former number would been the fourth-lowest in baseball had he sustained it for the entire year, trailing only Pablo Sandoval, Jay Bruce, and Giancarlo Stanton. Cabrera faced less strikes, so it makes sense that he didn’t strike out as much and drew more walks.

Even when we look at Cabrera’s overall numbers on the season, however, we still see notable progress in regards to his plate discipline. He struck out in 17.5% of his plate appearances while walking in 8.0%, rates much more reminiscent of his 17.0% strikeout percentage and 7.5% walk percentage from 2011 to 2012 than his 20.3% and 6.2% marks in 2013. Even if Cabrera’s overall performance stayed level from 2013 and 2014, his approach at the plate showed signs of improvement.

The other thing to talk about is Cabrera’s batting average on balls in play. After he had managed a .302 BAbip in 2011 and a .303 mark in 2012, he slipped to .283 in 2013 and just .272 last season. That by itself indicates a certainly amount of bad luck, but it stands out even more when we look at Cabrera’s infield hits.

Referring back to the research we did three weeks ago, Cabrera did a much better job running out weak groundballs in 2014 than he had in years past. After he had been 21% below-average on weak grounders in 2011, 43% below in 2012, and even 51% below in 2013, he was actually 2% above-average this past season. Maybe there was some amount of luck involved, but for a change of such large magnitude, it seems reasonable to suggest that Cabrera realized that he wasn’t the player he used to be and needed to show more hustle.

Cabrera also delivered 8 bunt singles after managing just 3 in the previous three years. Once again, he may have benefited from chance, but given that also bunted more than he had previously, clearly he was trying to do everything he could to get on base. Unfortunately for Cabrera, all the efforts he made beating out infield and bunt singles were canceled out by misfortune on his harder-hit balls in play.

Luck confounds everything, but it seems clear that Asdrubal Cabrera made a concerted effort to improve his game in 2014. He worked on his approach at the plate and did everything he could to get on base, and those endeavors will only bode well for him moving forward. The Rays believe that they are signing a player trending in the right direction, and there is a real chance that his signing will look brilliant by the time the 2015 season draws to a close.

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