When Asdrubal Cabrera came up in 2007, the then 21-year-old middle infielder lit the American League on fire, posting a .283/.354/.421 line, and earning a reputation as a clutch hitter. When 42,000+ witnessed Cabrera launching a home run in game one of the Division Series, helping lead a rout of the Yankees, there was no doubt we were witnessing the birth of a star.
Who would have guessed that seven years later, still only 28-years-old and theoretically in the midst of his prime, Cabrera would have worn out his welcome, with many fans loudly clamoring for the Tribe to be rid of him, and for Francisco Lindor to take over at shortstop? Cabrera has had an up-and-down run of it with Cleveland, and after a mostly down 2013, his start in 2014 seems pretty concerning, on the surface. Digging a little deeper though, I see signs that 2014 may be more up than down for Cabrera.
Let's start with the obvious - Cabrera's results so far are putrid. His OBP is sub-300, and while you can get away with a weak bat a SS, that only works if you back it up with a stellar glove (Asdrubal doesn't).
But take a look at what he is actually doing at the plate, and things look rosier. Cabrera's walk rate is up to 7.4%, compared to 6.2% last year. Cabrera's walk rate has been above 7% four previous times in his career. His OPS those four years: .775, .712, .799, .761. Last year he was at .701. Meanwhile, his strike out rate is down three and a half percentage points from last year, to 17.1%, lower than his 25-home-run-extravaganza in 2011.
And he is doing it by making better contact. Cabrera is swinging more often than he did last year (in fact, more often than he ever has), but he is focusing those swings on pitches over the plate. This is at least partially to thank for an 85.2% contact rate (up from 79.9% last year) and his swinging strike rate is down to 7.7% (from 9.5% last year).
It is early, the sample sizes are small, etc., but plate discipline numbers stabilize much earlier than most other statistics (strike outs around 100 PA, walks around 170). In the meantime, Cabrera is showing a career low .269 BABIP and a HR/FB rate at it's lowest since 2010, despite an average fly ball distance over 299 feet, compared to 278 feet last year and 279 in his 2011 power binge. That number is too early to analyze deeply (he has only 15 fly balls in the dataset), but he is hitting the ball with enough authority to have at least one or two more home runs by now.
Does this mean that Cabrera is going to be an All-Star? Has he returned to his peak form? Is likely to play for the Indians beyond this season? No, no, and no. But when you look at the numbers this way, there is reason to think he'' put up better numbers than he did in April, and can do more than just keep shortstop warm for until his replacement arrives. And if it happens that replacement comes knocking before July, Cabrera might be able to up his trade value before then.