MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves

Asdrubal Cabrera and the Unexpected Expected

When the Mets inked shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to a two-year $18 million contract during the winter meetings in December, the response was reasonably tepid. Sports Illustrated’s winter report card for the Mets was titled “Mets focus on short-term moves in the off-season,” but Cliff Corcoran identified the Cabrera signing as “less encouraging” than other signings, such as Yoenis Céspedes and Bartolo Colón. Amazin’ Avenue claimed that Cabrera “might not be a drastic improvement over either [Ruben] Tejada or [Wilmer] Flores.” But the contract “looks fine.” And Maggie Wiggin, writing for MetsBlog, asserted that Cabrera is a “middling player” who should be hidden in the lineup because he might be “the biggest weakness on an otherwise strong team.”

These weren’t misguided opinions. In fact, all of the analysis of Cabrera as a player was pretty accurate. He’s a decent hitter who can hold his own at shortstop, but won’t be mistaken for a particularly good shortstop. Additionally, the consensus was that nobody should expect Cabrera to replicate his peak years, when he was a three-win player for Cleveland.

In fact, Cabrera has been an utterly unsurprising player. He’s currently hitting .268/.327/.418. Cabrera’s career batting like is .267/.328/.412. He’s walked in six percent of his plate appearances, which is down from his career 7.4 percent rate, but is almost exactly in line with the 6.5 percent he posted in 2015. The same can be said about his strikeout rate. In 2015, it was 19.4 percent; it’s been 19 percent in 2016, and his career rate is 17.4 percent. According to FRAA, his defense has stayed about the same as it’s been for the past several years: below average, but not dramatically so.

Cabrera has shown different tendencies in his batted ball profile, but the messages there are mixed. First, his hard hit rate, as measured by Baseball Info Solutions, is higher than it’s ever been in his career: 35.5 percent. His career hard hit rate is 29.8 percent, and it was 26.4 percent in 2015. His balls in play measured as softly hit sits at 16.6 percent, which is in line what he did last season but is higher than his career 13.4 percent rate. That means that balls he’s hit classified as medium have gone down.

It looks like a positive re-distribution of batted balls, but Cabrera, on the whole, doesn’t appear to be hitting the ball harder. According to exit velocity data collected by Statcast, Cabrera’s average batted ball velocity is essentially unchanged. In 2015, Cabrera’s average exit velocity was 88.6 mph. It is 88.4 mph in 2016. Additionally, his batted ball type distribution is almost exactly in line with his career averages. Cabrera’s 2016 line drive rate is 22.6 percent, while his career rate is 20.6 percent; his groundball rate in 2016 is 42.8 percent, against a 42.3 percent career rate; and Cabrera has a 34.6 percent fly ball rate in 2016, while he has a career rate of 37.1 percent.

Cabrera is neither defying expectations, nor is he proving the doubters wrong. And yet, he’s provided immense value to the team. That’s because while Cabrera is, essentially, what we thought he’d be, the Mets are not. Injuries have thrown the corner infield spots into disarray, whereas Cabrera (along with Neil Walker) have proven to be steady forces in the middle. It is true that Cabrera is miscast in the batting lineup, though it’s out of necessity. As noted before, Maggie Wiggin suggested that Cabrera would fit best as an eight-hole hitter. Instead, 51 percent of Cabrera’s plate appearances have come from the two-spot. It’s still true that he probably shouldn’t have anything to do with that part of the daily lineup, but it’s also true that the daily lineup has been so discombobulated as to make his appearances there justifiable.

A better situation would be Cabrera and the two-win season he’ll likely produce being overshadowed by the rest of the team. But that’s simply not how things have shaken out. He hasn’t been the shining star that Céspedes has been, but he’s provided what the team has lacked in other areas: the precise fulfillment of expectations. It has turned out to be an excellent off-season signing.

Photo Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

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