There was a lot of competition for roster places with the St. Louis Cardinals this Spring and one of the biggest competitions was for the second bullpen lefty spot. Packy Naughton won the job initially and threw the ball well in his first four outings but since going down with injury, Genesis Cabrera has been the next man up.
As you probably know by now, one of my favorite things to analyze are changes that a player makes in an effort to find more success and after a season in which Genesis Cabrera was worth -0.8 fWAR, he’s made a number of changes.
This isn’t the Genesis Cabrera of old and that’s what I want to discuss today.
A New Pitch
For starters, Genesis Cabrera is flashing a new pitch this year. And by flashing, I mean he’s thrown it more than any other pitch in his arsenal so far this year. We’re all used to Cabrera’s fastball/curveball combination but this year it’s the slider that has earned an arsenal leading 39.3% usage rate.
I guess I kind of lied about this being a new pitch, because, technically speaking, it’s not completely new. Cabrera actually threw 8 sliders last season, the first year in which he threw the pitch in competitive action.
I’m calling it a new pitch, though, and that’s because last year it was an afterthought and nothing more. An experiment, perhaps. But it’s more than just an experiment this year. It’s seeing heavy usage, and that usage has been against both lefties and righties almost equally.
And that’s a key for a lefty as Cabrera isn’t likely to pitch with the platoon advantage as often as a right-hander might. Pitch shape is likely the reason that Cabrera will use his slider against both righties and lefties and it’s a harder slider with downer action and less than 2 inches of sweep.
Generally, the sweepier a pitch is, the heavier the platoon splits are going to be. So if Cabrera had added a sweeper instead of a slider, he would likely be throwing it heavily against left-handers, against whom the pitch would be most effective.
But now he has a weapon to use regardless of who has the platoon advantage, and a weapon it has been so far. I don’t want to get into the numbers too much since we’re only talking about 44 pitches but I do have a few key points to touch on.
For starters, Cabrera has been able to put the pitch in the zone consistently, at a healthy 47.7% rate. That can be difficult for a pitcher to do when using a brand new pitch but Cabrera has had no issues locating the pitch. He’s also inducing chases at a 47.8% rate when he does miss the zone, which has been a huge part of the pitch’s early success.
The pitch has thrived outside the zone, often getting hitters to expand the zone and when they do expand the zone they don’t stand a chance, whiffing at a rate of 81.8%. The pitch is pretty good in the zone too, getting hitters to whiff 33.3% of the time.
So that’s 3 early tests that this pitch has passed. He can throw it for strikes, he can get hitters to chase, and he can miss bats. Those are 3 huge steps for having an effective pitch. The sample size is still too small for these numbers to mean a whole lot but the early signs are good with this pitch.
Now, Cabrera still needs to prove that it (and he) can be effective over the course of a full season.
Adding a slider isn’t the only adjustment Genesis Cabrera has made to his arsenal this year. The left-hander has also favored one type of fastball much more heavily than the other; namely, he’s favored his four-seamer over his sinker. Of the 40 fastballs that Cabrera has thrown this year, 37 have been of the four-seam variety while just 3 have been sinkers.
Cabrera has always favored his four-seamer, but never to this extent. His sinker usage has decreased from 17.5% to 2.7% so far this season, making it a pitch that has essentially dropped from his arsenal entirely.
The two pitches have generally provided similar results but the decision to focus on one may be due to a number of factors. To begin with, Cabrera throws two vertically oriented breaking balls and focusing on a four-seamer up in the zone may create better tunneling with those two offerings.
The other reason may be that Cabrera’s four-seamer can be expected to get more whiffs than his sinker. That makes sense due to the nature of the two pitchers, but Cabrera is also a pitcher who gets high rate of active spin with his fastball. That gives him the potential to throw a really effective up-in-the-zone four-seamer.
And that’s another change he’s made this year. It seems that he’s starting to target the top of the zone more exclusively with his heater.
Here’s a map of his four-seam fastball location last year:
And, now, here’s where he’s throwing the pitch this year:
Cabrera’s fastball got hammered last year to the tune of a .378 wOBA and .388 xwOBA. The left-hander also had just a 16.5% whiff rate with the pitch so one thing is clear - something needed to change. I’ll touch more on why he’s locating his fastball differently in the next section.
The slider and the fastball usage are big stories with Cabrera, but the bigger story is that he’s giving hitters a completely different look.
There’s always a lot of discussion about Genesis Cabrera’s diminished velocity, and for good reason. Velocity is important and the lefty’s average fastball velocity is down about a tick and a half from last year. But the radar gun doesn’t tell the whole story.
Cabrera is getting more extension this year, and by more extension, I mean noticeably more extension. Last year, Cabrera averaged 6.2 feet of extension on his fastball and 6.0-6.1 feet of extension on his other offerings. This year, he’s averaging 6.4 feet of extension across the board (except on his changeup which he’s only thrown twice).
The benefit of that is that his pitches look faster because they have less distance to travel. So, Cabrera’s 94.7 mph fastball actually has a perceived velocity of 95.0 mph. That’s only a slight increase, but it helps.
Last year, his fastball had a perceived velocity of 95.8 mph (which was actually slower than his 96.1 mph average velocity). So, while Cabrera’s velocity may be down 1.4 mph, his perceived velocity is only down 0.8 mph. Essentially, he’s made up 0.6 mph simply by striding further. That makes a difference.
And by comparing Cabrera’s mechanics this year to his mechanics last year, it’s clear that he’s not getting more extension by accident. Take a look at his mechanics from last year:
And now compare them to his mechanics this year:
Now let me drop some freeze frames to really show the difference that I noticed. I’ve pulled two videos - one from 2022 and one from 2023 - and paused them at the point of highest leg lift.
The first image is from 2022 and the second is from 2023.
Notice how Cabrera doesn’t stand as tall on the mound in the second image? And how his back leg is bent more and his leg lift isn’t as high? This is all tied to his efforts to get more extension.
While you watched the videos above, you may have also noticed that Cabrera has a different arm slot. It’s not completely different but it is a bit lower this year. This is what his release point looked like in 2022:
And here’s what it looks like this year:
That’s a bit of a subtle difference but his arm slot is noticeably lower. The data supports this as well.
Genesis Cabrera Release Points
|Pitch||Vertical Release Point (ft)||Horizontal Release Point (ft)|
|Pitch||Vertical Release Point (ft)||Horizontal Release Point (ft)|
|2022 Four-Seam Fastball||6.08||1.13|
|2023 Four-Seam Fastball||5.78||1.30|
My apologies for the giant table, but to make things easier to understand I kept each pitch grouped together by year to highlight the changes for each individual offering. The clear takeaway is that Cabrera has dropped his arm slot a bit to come at hitters more from the side.
To me, this change seems like an effort to help Cabrera’s fastball play better at the top of the zone as it will give him a lower vertical approach angle, meaning the angle at which the ball crosses home plate. To put that in clearer terms, it means that Cabrera’s fastball is now flatter than it was last year. And that’s generally a good thing for pitchers who like to target the top of the zone with their fastballs as it can contribute to creating a rising effect with the pitch.
I am always concerned about control with pitchers who have added a new pitch or changed their arm slot but Cabrera hasn’t had many issues throwing strikes this season, walking just one batter in his first 8 innings. He’s also struck out 13 so he hasn’t done anything to diminish his swing-and-miss stuff despite a lower fastball velocity.
The goal of this piece was to highlight some of the changes that Cabrera made, look at why he may have made them and then try to figure out what kind of impact they may have. Whether or not Cabrera will be able to play a key role in the bullpen again after these changes remains to be seen, but I am hopeful that he can after all the changes he’s made.
I do expect his fastball to be improved from last season as I think the combination of a lower arm slot, better extension, and top-of-the-zone location all work well together and an improved fastball should lead to an improved Cabrera and help set up his breaking stuff.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a fantastic Tuesday.