Wednesday, May 21, 2008

It Used To Be True

People are starting to notice :
"The sky is blue. Water is wet. Daniel Cabrera has command problems. All of these things have been inarguable truths forever, and they’re so clear, there’s been no reason to state the obvious. His career BB/9 is 5.14, which is just one shade south of abominable. He’d walked 100 or more batters in each of the last two seasons. During the 116 starts he made from 2004 to 2007, he’d gotten through without walking a batter just three times.

Well, after last night’s 7 IP/2 R performance where he didn’t walk anyone against the Yankees, he’s now accomplished that same feat three times in his last six starts. He did it three times in 116 starts prior to this year, and he’s already done it three times in the last month. In his last four starts, he’s thrown 30 1/3 innings and walked just three batters. Three walks was a normal inning for Cabrera last year, but now he’s walking three guys over a three week stretch? This is baseball’s version of cats and dogs living together.

Is this command improvement (3.21 BB/9 on the year is a huge improvement for Cabrera, believe it or not) based on some identifiable change in Cabrera’s skillset? Well, to start off, we see that Cabrera isn’t throwing nearly as hard as he did when he came up three years ago. In 2005, his average fastball was 96.2 MPH, making him the hardest throwing starting pitcher in baseball. This year, he’s at 93.1 MPH, which ties him for just the 9th highest average fastball in among starters. He’s still a power pitcher, but it appears he’s (intentionally or not) taken something off of his fastball, and this reduced velocity correlates very well with lower walk rates.

Also, we note that Cabrera has essentially become a one pitch pitcher. In fact, he’s taking the idea that a pitcher needs secondary pitches and throwing it out the window. He’s thrown 87 percent fastballs this year. Eighty-Seven Percent. That’s up from 74% last year, and the difference is almost entirely from the slider, which he’s using half as much as he did a year ago. Instead of throwing one of every five pitches as a breaking ball, he’s now throwing one in ten.

These two shifts represent a real change in approach for Cabrera. He’s gone from a big time power fastball/slider guy with no idea where the ball is going to a fastball pitcher with an occasional slider and decent command. Not surprisingly, he’s posting the highest ground ball rate of his career, which is directly related to the amount of fastballs he’s throwing. However, those extra ground balls and fewer walks have come at the expense of his strike out rate, which is now a below average 5.48 K/9. He ranked in the top five in strikeout rate in both 2005 and 2006, racking up nearly one per inning over those two seasons. The move away from the slider and the reduced velocity has allowed hitters to make more contact, but he’s counter balanced that drop with the improvements in walk rate and ground ball rate.

Cabrera seems to be learning that his pitch selection and velocity is a sliding scale. By throwing more fastballs at a reduced velocity, he’s getting ahead in counts and keeping runners off the bases. He might not lead the league in strikeouts anymore, but he might have finally figured out how to be an effective major league starting pitcher."
Daniel has been somewhat of a punchline for national baseball people. I'm glad that is coming to an end, and if he can keep up his production then I think people may go back to thinking he could be a top starter "next year", as they used to say (every year, before being proved wrong). An increase in his strike-out rate once he learns to harness the breaking-ball in certain situations could jump him into legitimate #1 starter territory. The stat about zero-walk games is pretty amazing I think.

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