Cabrera Makes Friends With Right Field

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Miguel Cabrera is an amazing hitter, and that makes him an awesome baseball player. He’s hitting .358/.460/.589 in 404 PA this year, which is good for a 186 wRC+. Per plate appearance this is the second best offensive season of his career, second only to 2013. This isn’t his best year when it comes to extra base hits, but he’s getting on base more often than he ever has. Some of that is his 15.6% walk rate, which is narrowly the second best mark of his career, and some of it is his .408 BABIP, which is the highest BABIP he’s registered to date.

Cabrera is a high BABIP guy. You generally expect a .350 or so BABIP based on his talent level and over 400 PA it’s not crazy to see a number 60 points higher than expected. It’s not common or likely to continue at quite this rate, but it’s not like he’s going to crash back to Earth when his BABIP “luck” runs out. He’s having a great year at the plate and it’s skewing a little more toward singles and walks than doubles and homers, but it’s great all around.

The thing about Cabrera is that when it comes to hitting, he’s great at everything. He’s not an effective base runner because he’s slow and he’s not a great fielder, also because he’s slow, but in the batter’s box he is one of the five best hitters in the game and heading toward a late July speech in upstate New York. He’s incredible.

Due to that dominance, it can sometimes be hard to find interesting things to say about him. He is good and consistently so. Writing about him too often is akin to Homer’s everything’s okay alarm.

simpsons

But given that there’s a lot of depressing baseball going around, we do have to circle back on the things that are going well from time to time. Cabrera is one of those things. We know about his great season overall. He’s missing some plate appearances due to the calf injury, but that 186 wRC+ is impressive.

One thing that’s worth pointing out is that Cabrera’s batted ball distribution is taken a bit of an interesting turn this year.

Screenshot 2015-08-31 at 12.35.53 PM

Cabrera is hitting the ball the other way much more this year than he has in recent seasons. It’s the highest number of his career and his first time over 30% since 2010. He’s consistently been hitting 25-28% of his batted balls to right field during his career with a couple of years in the 30-31% range. This year, it’s 33.5%.

I think a lot of people think of Cabrera as being an “opposite field hitter,” but he actually hasn’t been a big outlier in his career. the Average hitter is around 40-35-25 and his typical season is 40-32-28. The real reason you believe Cabrera is an a guy who hits to all fields is that he absolutely crushes the ball the other way and most hitters don’t. Here’s his career directional splits compared to 2015 league average.

Screenshot 2015-08-31 at 12.48.04 PM

Take these with a grain of salt. It’s been a long career and there are no controls for handedness of pitcher, etc. But you’ll notice that Cabrera has generally stood out more to the pull field than the other way. He’s one of the best handful of opposite field hitters when it comes to damage done, but he’s actually been better compared to average when pulling the ball.

So what does this mean, exactly? Cabrera is hitting the ball the other way more often – a lot more often – this year. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? If you use his career directional splits as a proxy for the better directions, you’d want to avoid adding extra batted balls the other way, even if he’s still very good in that direction. This year he’s 216-287-189, FYI.

BABIP-wise, he’s killing it to center and right (120 and 80 points above career norms) and is right around his career average to the pull field. Keep in mind this doesn’t count home runs. His ISO to the pull and opposite fields are normal-ish and it’s way up to center. Package it all together and you have a pretty normal set of batted balls to left, more average and power to center, and more average to right.

Generally, over 400 PA I would say this doesn’t mean a whole lot. My theory is that there was a certain population of pitches that he’s decided to push the other way instead of trying to pull them. That’s probably an obvious statement, but if you read into it a bit more closely it makes some sense. Cabrera has the ability to crush baseballs, but going to the pull power swing has its tradeoffs. You run the risk of whiffing or being out in front and generating weak contact. If Cabrera is waiting back a little more often, he’s going to set himself up for more hits the other way, but they will be a little less forceful overall. Theoretically, if you take his worst swings to center away and give them to right field, it has the effect, potentially, of increasing production in both directions.

Each hitter has a perfect balance of power/contact for their own skill set which will maximize their offensive value. A guy with already low contact ability might want to really sell out so that he can get a couple extra homers or a high contact guy might want to avoid too many big swings because his best contact is warning track power.

Cabrera, being an elite hitter, has a tougher decision and he has to react to the new ways pitchers try to pitch him. That’s why it’s kind of hard to know for sure. Is Cabrera hitting the other way more often because he’s being forced to or because he wants to? The pitch locations don’t look much different, but he’s generally being more selection this year as well.

It’s hard not to notice how often he’s gone the other way this year, and it’s helped him a put together a great season. Is this happening because he feels like he doesn’t quite have the power he once did and is adapting, or is he simply making the most out of the pitches he’s received?

Sorry I don’t have a definitive answer to the question. I really just wanted to point it out and call attention to where he stands as an opposite field hitter. He’s one of the best there is from a value standpoint, but until this year, he wasn’t a particularly likely candidate to hit a ball to right field relative to league average.  But this is a thing he’s doing more this year and it’s working so far. The main takeaway, I think, is that this is a roadmap for an aging Cabrera.

At some point, he won’t be able to deliver the consistent bat speed needed to be an elite hitter. It’s coming. Probably not next year, but he’s under contract until his 107th birthday, so it will happen eventually. His ability to go the other way more and more often might allow him to offset some of that loss. This might be practice. Albert Pujols went with the all dingers-no OBP model of aging, but Cabrera might be able to implement an all hits-fewer dingers model that will serve him well.

I’d treat this opposite field thing as a beta test. Cabrera is flashing a tool he generally hasn’t flashed. He hits well the other way, but now he’s doing it more often without hurting his results. It could always be randomness and pitcher fluctuation, but it could be a trial run for a smooth landing into old age.

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