Several years back, Daniel Cabrera was one of the more intriguing young arms in the American League East. A hulking 6-9, 270 pound righty who missed plenty of bats (and often the strike zone) while generating some grounders, Cabrera appeared to be Baltimore’s best hope at cultivating a home-grown starter to front the club’s rotation. If you squinted really hard, you might have even seen a Carlos Zambrano starter kit on the mound for the O’s.
After a wobbly introduction to the big leagues in 2004 (0.85 K/BB ratio, 5.10 FIP in 147 IP) in which his upper-90’s heater often missed the mark, Cabrera turned in an impressive campaign as a 24 year-old during the 2005 season. The Dominican Republic native punched out 8.76 batters per nine innings and kept his infielders busy with a 52.7 GB%. His walk rate remained tenuous at 4.85 per nine innings, but the overall result of those whiffs and grounders was a tidy 4.02 FIP. With 96 MPH cheese, Cabrera figured to establish himself as Baltimore’s ace if he could pare those free passes down to a more reasonable level.
Instead of building off of that promising season, however, Cabrera seemed to take a step backward in 2006. His K rate climbed all the way to 9.55 per nine innings (3rd among all starters tossing at least 140 frames), but his already-high propensity to issue ball four rose to an untenable level: 6.32 BB/9. After posting an above-average groundball rate in ’05, Cabrera found his pitches being lifted more frequently, with just a 40.7 GB%.
His FIP was still a decent-looking 4.20, but that figure was held down by a low home run/flyball rate: after surrendering a homer on 10.4% of his flyballs in ’05, Cabrera lucked into a 7.6 HR/FB% in 2006. If we adjust for that HR/FB rate by using Expected Fielding Independent ERA (XFIP) from The Hardball Times, we find that Cabrera’s XFIP rose from 4.20 in ’05 to 4.83 in ’06.
In 2007, Cabrera essentially made a trade-off, swapping some strikeouts for (relatively) improved control. His K rate fell to 7.31 per nine, with his walk rate falling from cartoonishly bad to just mediocre (4.76 BB/9). The result was a nearly unchanged strikeout-to-walk ratio, as Cabrera posted a 1.54 K/BB that mirrored his 1.51 showing in 2006. His groundball rate recovered (49.5%), but Cabrera didn’t experience the same good fortune with the longball, surrendering 1.1 HR/9. His FIP rose to 5.01, with his XFIP ticking up slightly to 4.89.
If the 2007 season was a disappointing showing from a stagnating pitcher, then 2008 was an unmitigated disaster for the 27 year-old Cabrera. Once a high-octane, high strikeout hurler who walked more than his fair share of batters, Cabrera lost the velocity and strikeout portions of that equation while still showing little ability to paint the corners. In 180 innings, the big righty saw his K rate plummet to 4.75 per nine innings, while his walk rate remained a ho-hum 4.5 per nine.
Once capable of reaching the upper-90’s with his fastball on a consistent basis, Cabrera averaged a more tame 92.6 MPH in ’08, down nearly 4 MPH since his solid 2005 campaign. Cabrera has actually become more reliant on his heater despite its loss of zip: after throwing his fastball about three-quarters of the time in 2006 and 2007 (an already lofty rate), he used his diminished heat 82.5% of the time in ’08. No other starter in the majors relied on his fastball as much as Cabrera.
With waning stuff that led to a nasty 5.61 FIP and 5.41 XFIP, Cabrera was pretty easy to make contact with this past season. He hit the DL in September with a sprained elbow, after barely cracking 90 MPH with his fastball during two ineffective late-season starts. Courtesy of Josh Kalk’s pitch F/X tool, let’s take a look at the difference in Cabrera’s arsenal between 2007 and 2008:
Fastball: -5.16 X, 10.06 Z, 4.2 Swinging Strike%
Slider: 6.16 X, -0.9 Z, 18.5 Swinging Strike %
Fastball: -8.49 X, 8.02 Z, 3.2 Swinging Strike%
Slider: 0.68 X, 1.13 Z, 13.5 Swinging Strike%
(X is horizontal movement. A negative X number means that the pitch is moving in toward a right-handed hitter, while a positive X means that the pitch is moving away from a righty hitter (in to a lefty). Z is vertical movement- the lower the Z number, the more the pitch “drops” in the strike zone.)
Cabrera’s fastball was never a big swing-and-miss pitch to begin with (the average Swinging Strike% for a fastball is about six percent), but batters whiffed at the pitch even less in ’08, as the offering tailed in on the hands of right-handed batters more but featured less vertical break. Cabrera’s slider, a pretty lively pitch in ’07, didn’t have near as much jump this past season and saw a five percent dip in swinging strikes. Perhaps in an effort to preserve his elbow, Cabrera mixed in his slider just 15.3% of the time in ’08, down from 23% the previous year.
Basically a one-pitch starter with an occasional hanging slider, Cabrera saw his Contact% rise considerably. He was once pretty difficult to put the bat on the ball against, but hitters made contact with 87.6% of pitches thrown by Cabrera this past year, up from 81.9% the previous season. Those figures are a far cry from the mid 70’s contact percentages that Cabrera compiled in 2005 and 2006.
That high-80’s contact figure placed Cabrera among groundball machine Aaron Cook, as well as recently retired control artists Mike Mussina and Greg Maddux. Suffice it to say, Cabrera does not fit in among this group. And, not only are opponents putting the ball in play often against him, but they just plain don’t chase his offerings out of the strike zone. Cabrera’s 18.9 O-Swing% in ’08 was by far the lowest rate among all starters.
Despite receiving a major-league worst 5.38 FIP from the club’s starting pitchers and resorting to allowing Steve Trachsel to make eight starts, the Orioles cut ties with Cabrera this off-season by non-tendering him. Scooped up by the pitching-starved Washington Nationals, Cabrera will team with the equally enigmatic Scott Olsen in hopes of reviving the promise of years past.
It was pretty easy to be optimistic about Daniel Cabrera’s future following his 2005 showing. However, he stagnated for two seasons after that, before doing a Wile E. Coyote style cliff dive in 2008. Perhaps an offseason of rest will heal his elbow and restore his stuff, but it’s best to just pass on Cabrera at this point- 2005 seems like an awfully long time ago for this hurler.