With Genesis Cabrera really coming into his own last year, the St. Louis Cardinals finally have a shutdown lefty in their bullpen. This is a bit uncommon for the team, but Cabrera is not just a weapon against left-handed hitters, he is also more than capable of dominating right-handers as well.
In total last year, Cabrera had a 3.73 ERA and 3.28 FIP. Against same-sided batters, Cabrera had a solid 3.65 FIP and allowed a .339 wOBA. Those numbers improved mightily against right-handed batters as the flamethrowing southpaw allowed just a .248 wOBA and compiled a stellar 3.08 FIP.
Before I go any further, it is important to mention that we aren’t dealing with the largest sample size here as Cabrera only threw 25 innings against lefties and 45 innings against righties. Still, there was a significant difference in the way that he pitched to the different-sided hitters.
In 2021, Cabrera turned two forgotten pitches into weapons against right-handed hitters. In 2020, sinkers made up just 6% of Cabrera’s arsenal. The pitch jumped to 19.6% usage in 2021, with nearly 70% of them being thrown to righties. The left-hander also bumped his changeup usage from 13.1% to 16.8%. At the expense of these increases, Cabrera threw fewer four-seamers and fewer curveballs. Those pitches were still his primary offerings against left-handed hitters, but he expanded his arsenal against right-handers and that helped him overcome his platoon disadvantage
Last season, Cabrera threw 347 sinkers and changeups combined to right-handed hitters. Those batters had just a .208 wOBA and 84.1 mph exit velocity against the two offerings, which made up over 46% of Cabrera’s arsenal against righties.
The most effective pitch against opposite sided hitters was clearly the changeup (.144 wOBA). The pitch also generated a 54.1% groundball rate, which is the highest rate of any of Cabrera’s pitches. Since he threw the pitch more often, he got more groundballs last year, which helped him increase his groundball rate from 34% to 42%. The other factor in this increase was obviously his increased sinker usage, though his sinker did not generate as many groundballs as you might think (45.5% overall GB%, 34.4% against RHBs).
The main reason Cabrera doesn’t get more groundballs with his sinker is that it’s not exactly a movement based pitch. The offering drops just 13.8 inches, which is actually less than Andam Wainwright’s four-seamer. This is 5.5 inches below average. His pitch is also 2.3 inches below average in terms of horizontal break. Much of this below average movement can be attributed to Cabrera;s elite velocity. Because the pitch is so fast, it simply has less time to break before it crosses the plate.
Still, velocity cannot be the only reason that his sinker doesn’t have great movement. Jose Alvarado of the Rays throws a 99 mph sinker and he gets average movement in both directions despite his elite velocity. His sinker has a groundball rate of 53.3%, which is much higher than Cabrera’s.
The fact that Cabrera keeps his sinker at the top of the zone could also influence his below average groundball rate with the pitch. This would make him similar to Steven Matz, who is a sinker baller with a lower-than-expected groundball rate.
Here is a profile of Cabrera’s sinker location.
This is a more balanced concentration that most pitchers have with their sinker. THe location that is up and out to right-handers is his favorite zone to work in with his sinker when he faces RHBs. Against lefties, he targets the bottom of the zone a bit more.
So, it seems that some combination of elite velocity (read “less movement”) and unusual pitch location has led to Cabrera having a below average groundball rate with his sinker. The fact that he targets the top of the zone more with the pitch against righties probably contributes to the lower groundball rate against righties, but the simple platoon disadvantage should also be considered a factor.
Despite this, the pitch generates the second highest GB% for Cabrera (45.5%), behind only his changeup (53.7%). Cabrera’s four-seamer tends to surrender a lot of contact in the air (34.8% GB%), so the fact that he cut his four-seam usage to below 50% (44.7%) for the first time in his career certainly helped him increase his groundball rate.
As I mentioned earlier, this arsenal adjustment mostly happened against right-handed hitters, so it was this new strategy against RHBs that most directly led to the increased groundball rate.
Besides an increased groundball rate, Cabrera learned how to create weak contact against righties, instead of only going for whiffs and strikeouts. He still gets plenty of those, but his sinker is more of a contact oriented pitch. With the pitch he generated just a 14.8% whiff rate against RHBs. This is a far cry from his 31.6% whiff rate against RHBs with his four-seamer, but he had surrendered a lower wOBA against his sinker (.275 against RHBs) than he did against his four-seamer (.284 against RHBs).
A large reason for this is that he did not allow a single barrel against his sinker to hitters on either side of the plate. He also conceded much less hard contact (31.3% hard hit rate against RHBs vs. 39.4% with his four-seamer). Even though Cabrera could do better at creating contact on the ground with his sinker, he still did not allow much high quality contact against the pitch.
Having the ability to throw two fastballs well with different intent allows for Cabrera to be much less predictable and much more versatile. He can pitch to contact with his sinker or he can go for whiffs with his four-seamer. What’s even better is the fact that the two pitches look almost identical when they leave his hand as they both have a spin-based sin direction of 11:00. The observed spin directions are a little different, but they still look similar enough to fool hitters. One has more of a rising effect, while one breaks a little bit more in both directions, but with the same velocity and the same spin, it can be tough to tell the difference.
It gets even harder for the hitter when Cabrera mixes in his changeup. The pitch has a spin based spin direction of 10:30 and an observed spin direction of 10:15. This means that each of the three pitches has practically the same spin based spin direction and they all have an observed spin direction between 10:15 and 11:15. These three pitches make of 86.7% of Cabrera’s arsenal against right-handed hitters, so it can be really difficult to tell which pitch is coming.
Just when the hitter is completely confused, Cabrera mixes in a curveball with opposite spin (which looks the exact same to hitters) and 2.8 extra inches of vertical break. This is a pretty devastating four-pitch combination, so it is no surprise that right-handers struggled last year. Cabrera’s ability to dominate right-handed hitters makes him a matchup proof lefty, which should give new manager Oli Marmol much more flexibility when finding ways to deploy the 25-year-old.
For further improvement, Cabrera may want to tighten up his observed spin so that there are not slight differences between all his pitches. He also may want to target the bottom of the zone a bit more with his sinker (especially against RHBs) to see if he can get more groundballs that way. He should not abandon the high sinker, but simply throw a few more at the bottom of the zone.
I would also like to see Cabrera make some changes with how he pitches to left-handers. Against righties, Cabrera fully expanded his aresenal, as his least used pitch (curveball) still had a usage of 13.3%. Every other pitch (4-seam, sinker, changeup) had a usage above 20%. This was not the case against lefties, though. Against same-sided hitters, Cabrera threw his changeup just 3.3% of the time, and he was much more reliant on his four-seamer (51.8%). He also bumped his curveball usage to over 28% while cutting his sinker usage down to 16%.
Against lefties, just two pitches make up over 80% of Cabrera’s arsenal. This make him much more predictable and it basically leaves two useful pitches on the bench. I would like to see Cabrera expand his arsenal in a similar manner when he faces same-sided hitters. Many pitchers can be reluctant to throw same-sided changeups because it has been considered tabboo for a while, but with the success that Cabrera’s changeup had against RHBs last season, I would be curious to see if he can use it effectively against both sides of the plate.
He did throw 17 of them to lefties last year and surrendered a single, a double, and a home run. Despite his lack of success, I want to see what he can do in a larger sample size. I would also like to see him throw more sinkers. Those two pitches have the same movement profile and they have almost exactly the same horizontal break (in terms of both amount and direction of the movement). The main difference is that Cabrera’s changeup is eight miles per hour slower and has an extra nine inches of drop.
If he can have success with his sinker against lefties, then it is possible that he can have success with his changeup against lefties too. In fact, throwing more sinkers may help disguise his changeup better.
With an expanded arsenal, Cabrera had a lot of success against right-handers. If he can do that with a platoon disadvantage, then I want to see him expand his arsenal when he has a platoon advantage. His arsenal tweaks may be the reason that he had reverse splits last year, but I am not yet ready to call him a reverse split pitcher. An expanded arsenal may help him dominate lefties next year as much as he dominated righties this year.