2015 has been a bizarre season for Asdrubal Cabrera with the Tampa Bay Rays. After signing a one-year, $7.5 million contract with the team in hopes of securing a multi-year guarantee following the year, the season began and Cabrera looked nothing like the player he had been in years past for the Cleveland Indians and Washington Nationals. Previously a much-maligned defender, Cabrera was suddenly above-average at shortstop, but on the other hand, his bat had fallen off entirely.
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If you only saw Cabrera when he delivered one of the top five Web Gems on Baseball Tonight on ESPN, you would have thought that he was a great defender. No shortstop was better at barehanding groundballs, and he even added the occasional flip from his glove. When he wasn’t making those spectacular plays, however, Cabrera was considered a poor defender by most metrics. Cabrera began as the Indians’ regular shortstop in 2009, and from then until 2014, he was considered 5 runs below the average MLB shortstop each season by Ultimate Zone Rating. Defensive Runs Saved thought he was decent for a while, giving him a 0 rating in ’09, -1 in 2010, and +3 in 2011, but even they later turned on him, rating him at least 5 runs below-average each year from 2012 to 2014.
This season, though, it became clear quickly that Cabrera was just fine. He was making plays on everything hit at him as a shortstop, and the metrics suggested that his range had improved dramatically as well. Cabrera’s UZR is +2.9 (compared to -6.6 in 2014 and -12.8 in 2013) while even his -2 DRS is a huge improvement over his -7 mark from 2014 and -16 rating from 2013. If we weight the opinions of the two statistics equally, Cabrera has been about an average shortstop, far better than what he was previously and what Yunel Escobar gave the Rays in his defensive debacle in 2014 (-17.0 UZR, -24 DRS).
Based on what we know now, it seems reasonable to say that the Rays signed Cabrera thinking that they could improve his fielding while maintaining his solid bat, giving them a strong starting shortstop. But at the beginning of the season, it appeared that their latter prediction was entirely wrong. Through June 13th, Cabrera had managed just a .205/.266/.307 line for the Rays, going from a bat-first shortstop to a glove-first one whose glove wasn’t quite good enough. He began the year as the Rays’ number three hitter in their batting order in front of Evan Longoria, but after a rough April, he received a grand total of one plate appearance higher than sixth in the order from May 3rd through June 27th.
People were clamoring for Cabrera to be moved to the bench, especially when Tim Beckham was hitting well to begin the year. Luckily for the Rays, Cabrera’s defense made it easier for them to keep playing him as they waited for his bat to come around. And after enough time, it finally did. Since June 14th, Cabrera has hit to a .320/.358/.547 line with 12 doubles, 5 homers, and 15 RBI in 138 plate appearances across 35 games. He missed time with a hamstring strain and now his supposedly minor head contusion also has to put fans on edge, but he has been incredibly productive for a while now.
In addition, this isn’t a case of Cabrera delivering too little too late. On the year, Cabrera now has a .249/.301/.399 line that closely resembles his .241/.303/.394 line from 2013 to 2014. Cabrera’s OPS+ is 95, meaning that his output has been 5% below what an average hitter would do playing half of his games at Tropicana Field. Bear in mind, though, that major league shortstops as a whole are actually 10% below league average adjusted to ballpark, meaning that Cabrera is actually a good hitter for a shortstop. Add in the fact that Cabrera’s defense is fine, and he has given the Rays exactly what they were hoping for: a strong shortstop on both sides of the ball.
We will have to see what happens from here for Asdrubal Cabrera. The Tampa Bay Rays are certainly hoping that he can sustain his hot streak and make his overall numbers even more impressive by the end of the year. On the other hand, we will have to see what happens with his head, and there is always the chance that his performance will fall back to earth. Pending an end-of-season collapse, however, the Rays can say that they are pleased with what Cabrera has given them without a hint of sarcasm. Between to his usual solid hitting and his improved defense, he has reemerged as an above-average major league shortstop.