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In The Beginning

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A quick look at Genesis Cabrera’s First Start

St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

In a pretty dismal month for the Cardinals, Wednesday’s game held my attention. It was Genesis Cabrera’s major league debut, and if there’s any player that the Cardinals front office wants to be good, it’s probably Cabrera. He was the headliner of the Cardinals’ return for Tommy Pham, a trade that was controversial at the time and that hasn’t looked great with Pham returning to form in Tampa. As the first member of the Pham haul to reach the majors with the Cardinals, Cabrera had the first chance to make St. Louis fans feel a little bit better about losing an All-Star outfielder.

Now, I’m pretty solidly Team Pham, but I also love seeing players make their major league debuts. When it comes to minor league baseball, I’m pretty firmly in the scout-the-stat-line camp; I don’t watch nearly enough minor league games to develop opinions on players, so I pretty much constrain myself to reading the Baron’s minor league reports and looking at numbers. Before Cabrera came up, I only knew that he threw hard and had been awful in Triple-A this year after being okay with the Rays in Double-A last year. Since this was my first chance to see him live, I thought I’d do a quick scouting report of a player the Cardinals hope can be part of their rotation plans in the years to come. Without further ado, here’s that scouting report.

Fastball:

Cabrera’s fastball is excellent. He has a low-effort delivery that makes it look like the fastball explodes out of his hand. He sat around 96-97 mph on Wednesday, and was still hitting 97 at the end of his outing. He touched 99 at points, though when he adds a little extra it looks to me like he doesn’t have the same command that he does when he’s closer to 96. When the fastball is high in the zone, batters have a lot of trouble catching up to it -- it has more ride than it looks like it should given his stride and arm slot.

When the fastball is low, it’s eminently hittable. It doesn’t have enough movement for him to get away with missing location low -- if it’s in the zone, batters basically don’t miss it. He seems to understand where his bread is buttered -- he leaned heavily on his fastball throughout the start, and for the most part kept it high. About half of the fastballs he left low were in the first inning, so I’m willing to chalk it up to jitters for the time being.

Changeup

Cabrera’s changeup is a hard, Mets-style (or Felix Hernandez style if you’re more of that bent) pitch that looks a lot like his fastball out of his hand and even in horizontal movement. It misses bats pretty well when batters are loaded up for fastballs, but is probably best as a third pitch, because it doesn’t have the kind of where’d-it-go drop and fade that lets pitchers like Michael Wacha and Luke Weaver lean on the change as a key part of their arsenal.

While I don’t think that the change will ever be a dominant pitch, his feel for the pitch suggests to me that he could make make further improvements down the line. His release point and arm action on the changeup do a good job of disguising it, and aside from one center-cut changeup that still got a swinging strike against J.T. Realmuto, he consistently put the pitch where he wanted.

Scouting reports before 2018 didn’t consider Cabrera a three-pitch pitcher. Aaron’s offseason update noted it as a work in progress but a positive development. It looks like the work is paying off -- the pitch looks like a big league pitch to me. It also benefits from being a reasonably unique angle of attack. There aren’t that many lefties that throw hard changeups in baseball, and the one that most springs to mind, Felipe Vazquez, is more of a wipeout pitch than Cabrera’s. The closest pitch I could find was Will Smith’s changeup, and that’s not a terrible comp to have.

Slider/Curveball

Coming into this game, I was expecting to like Cabrera’s breaking pitch a lot. Reports on it last year had it as a slider/cutter combination that could push 90 at times, a Warthen-style slider that could give him a Steven Matz-esque ability to throw sliders to both lefties and righties. The pitch he threw in this game was emphatically not that. It was a nearly 12-6 curveball that was in the low 80s basically all game, and Cabrera was hesitant to go to it.

These sharp 12-6 curveballs sometimes work (Nick Anderson is doing good work in Miami with the pitch), but Cabrera’s pitch doesn’t have that flat and suddenly dipping look -- it seems to almost have a hump midway to home plate, and hitters seemed to pick up on it quickly. I might be seeing things, but it felt to me like the slider/curve didn’t come out of his hand quite as naturally -- his arm seemed to be further extended horizontally at delivery, which might explain the zero swinging strikes he got with the pitch.

If this is Cabrera’s best breaking ball, it’s going to be a struggle to start in the majors. His changeup is a nice third pitch to have, but in its current state it’s not a great second pitch. Maybe Cabrera just didn’t feel that he had command of the harder slider on this start, but for a pitcher whose profile is a live fastball and a complementary breaking pitch, it’s a little worrisome to see only one of two.

Command

If there’s a worry about Cabrera, it’s definitely this. While his mechanics are loose and look offhand like they should be repeatable, Cabrera can get a little out of his delivery at times and deliver the ball from marginally different arm angles, which is probably a nightmare for batters concerned about facing a 97 mph fastball, but can lead to intermittent wildness. He looked unsettled to start the game in walking Andrew McCutchen on four straight pitches, and he periodically struggled to find his mechanics.

When his mechanics are right, Cabrera’s fastball is precise. He peppers the top of the zone with it, and his misses leak up slightly, which is what you’d rather have. The danger is that when he comes out of his delivery a bit, it seems to almost invariably lead to leaving the ball low. Until he can repeat his delivery more frequently, he’s going to groove his fair share of fastballs, something that will limit his upside.

When it came to the breaking ball, Cabrera’s command was considerably spottier. Of the eight curves he threw, he left two in the middle of the strike zone and bounced three. That ratio isn’t going to work, though again hopefully it’s just first-game jitters. The low-horizontal-break nature of the pitch also means that he doesn’t have a go-to pitch to attack lefties with -- I don’t have any minor league split data to look at, but the combination of not much break and not much command saps his platoon advantage.

His changeup command was very encouraging. Though he sailed the odd changeup and left one over the middle of the plate, he mostly was able to put it where he wanted while keeping his delivery similar to his fastball. I often notice pitchers who pick up changeups late have noticeable arm speed differences, so Cabrera’s ability to make the pitch work speaks well to his potential to further develop.

Overall

I was biased to not like Cabrera going into the game. As I said, I’m a scout-the-stat-line guy, and his stats have been lackluster. I see the reason people want Cabrera to be a bullpen arm -- he could be an acceptable high-effort short-burst left-hander right now with just his fastball and changeup, though he’d still be prone to control lapses at times. That said, he was able to keep his fastball velocity high for fifty pitches, and if he can get anything going with his breaking ball, he’ll probably have enough variety to get through an order twice.

I’m going to give Cabrera the benefit of the doubt with his breaking pitches for now, because the promise of a left-hander who can hit 99 while also throwing 50 pitches at a clip is enticing. While he didn’t get an overwhelming amount of swinging strikes with the fastball, he was able to locate it in good areas and elevate it when he needed to. I wonder if he might be well-suited to focus a little more on repeating his delivery at the expense of a tiny bit of velocity, but that’s obviously easier said than done, and the delivery is simple enough (and Cabrera is athletic enough) that I could see him growing into it and greatly improving his command. I still don’t like the Pham trade, but Cabrera looked encouraging as a 22-year-old making his major league debut.