Is St. Louis Cardinals flamethrowing lefty Genesis Cabrera the worst reliever in baseball? Is he better than he was last season? The answer to that depends on you.
Do you value FIP, meaning you think strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed are a better indicator of talent or value than pure ERA? Then you probably think Cabrera has been the one of the worst pitchers in baseball, given his 5.63 FIP.
Or do you prefer overall runs allowed as the best indicator of talent and value? Then you probably think Cabrera is fine and perhaps even better than he was last year. His 3.51 ERA is an improvement from his 3.73 ERA last year.
Fangraphs’ WAR calculaton, which is focused more on FIP than ERA, pegs him at -0.8 fWAR. That’s tied for the second worst in all of baseall.
Baseball Reference’s WAR calculation uses runs allowed per nine innings instead, so it paints a much rosier picture. Cabrera was worth 0.2 bWAR last year and he’s already topped that with 0.3 bWAR so far this season.
Is he slightly better or so much worse? Or somewhere in the middle? I’ll let you decide, though I know what I believe.
(I think Cabrera is much worse this season. His ERA may be fine, but a below average strikeout rate does not pair well with an above average walk rate and a lot of home runs. This season it feels like he’s walking a tightrope whereas last season I was much more confident in him.)
Regardless of what you think, something has clearly changed. Here are his numbers from this season and last season.
Genesis Cabrera Stats
|Year||Strikeout Rate (%)||Walk Rate (%)||HR/9||FIP||ERA|
|Year||Strikeout Rate (%)||Walk Rate (%)||HR/9||FIP||ERA|
Fewer walks but also fewer strikeouts and more home runs. Progression in one area has been coupled with a decline in two other areas. I’m encouraged by the lower walk rate but concerned by everything else. And I mean everything. Here’s his Baseball Savant page to show you why.
Those contact numbers look great, don’t they? Maybe that’s enough. He may have a terrible FIP but he gets weak contact and that keeps his ERA down.
Well...actually that’s not enough. Take a look at his numbers vs. his expected numbers.
Genesis Cabrera Actual Stats vs Expected Stats
Sure, he doesn’t give up a ton of hard contact, but, according to the expected stats, he’s still been lucky.
There’s really not a lot to like except for the fact that his xFIP is much better than his FIP. That should be expected, though, considering that his home run rate is much higher than the league average home run rate.
His xFIP is basically telling us what his FIP would look like with a normal home run rate. So, in that case, 4.60 really isn’t that great even though it is better than 5.63.
Here’s the funny thing. Do you know what Cabrera’s xFIP was in 2021? 4.39. That’s better than 4.60, but not by much. So, it appears that much of Cabrera’s decline can be contributed to a higher than average home run rate.
He allowed 0.39 home runs per nine innings last year and his career average is 0.94 HR/9. His current home run rate is almost double his career average. Home run rates can fluctuate a decent amount from year-to-year, so the question now becomes — Has Cabrera really gotten much worse?
I’ll examine that question, but I’ll also examine another. With Cabrera’s minuscule home run rate last season, is his true talent level worse than what he showed last season? Basically, is he a 4ish ERA/FIP pitcher with a really good home run rate one year and a really bad home run rate the next?
Let’s dig in.
I’ll start by identifying what has changed.
The first thing that stands out in that Cabrera is throwing his four-seamer much lower in the zone.
Here’s his heat map from 2021.
And here’s his heat map this year.
Notice how the red zone changed from high and arm side to low and glove side. That’s quite the change. I don’t like the change either.
Cabrera has a fastball that it built for the top of the zone. He has 87th percentile velocity and 14% more ‘rise’ than the average fastball. I have no idea why he has moved down in the zone.
Since making the change, his four-seamer has seen a 10% decline in whiff rate and a nearly 60 point increase in wOBA allowed. That’s not great. Pitchers use chase fastball whiffs up in the zone and Cabrera seems to be made for that so I’m not surprised to see that his fastball isn’t getting as many whiffs this year.
Throwing his fastball lower in the zone affects more than just his fastball, though. A high fastball, and especially one that profiles so well at the top of the zone, sets up a lower curveball.
Cabrera’s four-seamer rises more than the average fastball. That means when it’s throwing high it will stay higher than most fastballs. When Cabrera throws a curveball, it drops an average of 54 inches. So, if he starts the two pitches up the zone, one will stay there while the other dives below a hitter’s knees.
That’s an effective combination, but it doesn’t work with down and in four-seamers. That’s why high fastballs can be so effective for Cabrera.
Here’s where Cabrera throws his curveballs.
And here’s where he puts his fastballs.
If those finish in the same place, it means they aren’t starting in the same place. That’s not deception.
There’s another factor in play, though, and that’s worse stuff.
His four-seamer has lost a tick and a half of velocity and an inch of rise. That certainly plays a role in his fastball’s decline. In fact, most of Cabrera’s decline can probably be attributed to the decline in his fastball.
He’s always been an explosive, high-octane, fastball-first pitcher. The heater is what his arsenal is built around. Last year, he threw fastballs (four-seamers and sinkers) over 64% of the time. His two fastballs were his two most common pitches.
That’s not the case this season. The lefty is throwing fastballs just over half the time (51.4%) while his sinker is his least used pitch and his four-seam usage has declined 10%.
His fastball is worse this year, and, as a result, he’s using it less. In fact, it has less of everything. Less ‘rise’. Less velocity. Less height. That’s a solid recipe for less production.
Fastball Velocity vs. Walk Rate — Are They Connected?
I want to discuss the decline in his velocity too because that plays a big role.
Cabrera’s velocity decline has coincided with a decrease in his walk rate, so maybe the two are connected. Let’s see if we can find out.
Perhaps Cabrera is taking a little something off his fastball in an effort to throw more strikes. That would certainly explain the nearly 2% drop in walk rate and 1.5 mph drop in velocity.
Except...that’s not the case. At least, it doesn’t appear to be.
That’s because Cabrera is actually throwing fewer pitches in the zone and more meatballs. The reason for the improved walk rate is a much improved chase rate. Now, you might be thinking that taking something off the fastball may be helping him throw more pitches off the edge of the plate, leading to more chases.
That’s not the answer either.
Genesis Cabrera Walk Rate
|Year||Walk Rate (%)||In Zone Rate (%)||Chase Rate (%)||Edge Rate (%)|
|Year||Walk Rate (%)||In Zone Rate (%)||Chase Rate (%)||Edge Rate (%)|
So, how is it that he’s getting more chases with a worse fastball? It’s honestly difficult to say but I’m not sure that it’s sustainable. What is clear is that hitters are making much more contact when they chase. 18% more.
That’s a huge change and it explains both his walk rate and his strikeout rate. He’s (somehow) inducing hitters to chase more often but giving up much more contact on those occasions. That means fewer walks but also fewer strikeouts.
The problem is that his stuff is simply too hittable when it’s in the zone. So, to answer the question, I don’t see any connection between walk rate and velocity in the numbers. Maybe Cabrera is dialing things back intentionally, but I doubt it.
I’ve already harped on Cabrera’s fastball and how it’s getting fewer whiffs, but the other factor in his decline has been his changeup.
I really don’t like what Cabrera has done with his fastball, but his changeup has been even more catastrophic.
I talked about Jose Quintana’s changeup recently. In that piece I highlighted how he basically throws it exclusively down and out to righties but when he misses his spot he gets hammered.
Ditto for Genesis Cabrera.
There’s a little more location variance here, but he loves the arm side changeup and especially the low arm side changeup.
Now look at what happens when he doesn’t throw his changeup there.
He has yielded three home runs against the pitch already this season after yielding just three home runs all of last season against any pitch.
There’s a clear pattern when someone hits a bomb off his changeup.
Look at this one from Brendan Rodgers.
And this one from Josh Bell.
And finally this one from Yu Chang.
What’s the pattern? None of those finished down and out and they all caught a lot of plate.
The pitch simply hasn’t been good this year and I expect that part of that is due to Cabrera’s fastball being worse. I’ll discuss this more later.
Arsenals are connected and Cabrera’s arsenal is built on his heater. A worse fastball is going to have an effect on everything else.
Part of it is also just worse control. His edge rate has gone down 12%, declining to 35.6%, while his zone rate has declined to just 32.3%. The changeup is usually a chase pitch, but Cabrera clearly isn’t confident enough in the pitch to attach the zone with it.
So, for those of you counting at home, his fastball is worse, his sinker is worse, and his changeup is worse. That’s not a great combination,
With that being said, I want to close by looking at how he might improve. A few things come to mind
How He Might Improve — Better Fastball
Yes, I am telling you that Cabrera could improve by being better. I know this is the kind of hard hitting analysis that brings you all to VEB.
In all seriousness, when I say “better fastball”, I mean a few things.
First, Cabrera should throw his four-seamer higher in the zone. He’s actually not far from having a pretty comprehensive arsenal. It’s really only the four seamer that’s out of place.
Cabrera’s sinker is high and to his arm side while his changeup is low and to his arm side. That’s perfect. He can throw those in the same spot and let the changeup dive eight inches lower.
Now if he could get his four-seamer higher in the zone, then he could throw his four-seamer, changeup, and sinker in the same spot and let his sinker and changeup run to the arm side with his changeup diving down in the zone. That would also set up a low curveball perfectly.
While we’re talking about how each pitch in an arsenal is connected, I want to point out that both Carbera’s sinker and changeup have gotten worse. Those are pitches that are thrown almost exclusively to the arm side.
That means Cabrera needs a pitch to establish the glove side. That’s supposed to be his four-seamer, but the pitch hasn’t been good enough, Part of that is because he throws it down and in to right-handers instead of up and in, where I think the pitch belongs.
His curveball thrives in that down and in location which is yet another reason why Cabrera should seek to throw his fastball at the top of the zone.
An up and in four-seamer for a pitch built to be thrown high and a dominant down and in curveball would fully establish the inner half and leave his sinker and his changeup to thrive on the outer half when the hitter is worried about getting jammed.
Besides location, some more velocity would be nice too. I don’t know what happened to the tick and half that he lost, but adding it back could make him much more effective.
Earlier in this piece I speculated that he may be holding something back in an effort to limit his walks. I honestly don’t think that’s the case, which makes me wonder how a 25-year-old suddenly has a slower fastball.
Cabrera’s two best months of the season were May (2.25 ERA, 4.96 FIP) and June (2.53 ERA, 4.15 FIP). Those were also the only two months that his average fastball velocity broke 96 mph. In June, it even broke 97.
Still not convinced that velocity is key for Cabrera? Hitters are batting just .211 with a .308 wOBA against fastballs thrown 97 mph or faster.
Finally, better fastball control would help. Brooks Baseball registers 11.48% of his four-seamers as being “grooved”. That’s up from 7.77% last season. That definitely plays a role in his fastball decline this year.
Much like his velocity, I don’t think that’s a simple fix. Telling a pitcher to throw harder is about as helpful as telling him to command better. It just doesn’t work.
The control loss feels a lot like reliever volatility to me.
Both velocity and command can be improved but I can’t say that will happen this year. Location can be changed, though. Lower fastballs seems strategic, and it’s not a strategy I am particularly fond of. Instead of throwing fewer fastballs, Cabrera should simply throw his fastbal higher.
It remains to be seen if he will make the tweak during the season.
How He Might Improve — Better Home Run Luck
Home run rates tend to fluctuate but I can’t recall the last time I saw such a drastic change. Going from 0.39 home runs per nine innings to 1.70 is ridiculous. So too is going from an HR/FB% of rate of 4.5% to 18.2%.
He’s throwing more meatballs but not that many more. It shouldn’t cause such a massive increase in home run rate.
The bad news is that I don’t think he’s quite as good at supressing home runs as he was in 2021 but the good news is that he shouldn’t be as bad as he has been in 2022.
I expect his home run rates to stabilize, but it remains to be seen if that will happen this year.
Genesis Cabrera falling off a cliff after a great 2021 season is something I didn;t expect. But he’s a fastball dependent pitch who has seen his fastball get worse. I don’t think he’s a 5.56 FIP pitcher but he may not be a 3.28 FIP pitcher either. An elevated home run rate has hurt but that’s not the whole story.
I don’t think he’s completely lost. Rather, he seems to be a tweak or two away from returning to his normal self, whatever that is. I expect it’s a mid-to-high 3 FIP pitcher but he needs to make some changes if he’s going to get there.
Cabrera has the stuff to be the best lefty on the staff and the Cardinals need him to be. Hopefully he can get right come playoff time, otherwise the Cards may be short on shutdown lefties.