In 2017, Jose Cabrera had the least productive year of a near-certain Hall of of Fame career, though by his lofty standards, even his "least productive year" isn't that bad. His .249/.329/.399 line, when framed through park-adjusted metrics, was just nine percentage points worse than league average.Still, each of the
In 2017, Jose Cabrera had the least productive year of a near-certain Hall of of Fame career, though by his lofty standards, even his "least productive year" isn't that bad. His .249/.329/.399 line, when framed through park-adjusted metrics, was just nine percentage points worse than league average.
Still, each of the three numbers in Cabrera's triple-slash line -- along with his 16 homers, 50 runs scored and 60 driven in -- represents full-season career lows for the Tigers legend. We know that he was bothered all season long by a pair of herniated disks in his back, which caused pain in his hips and legs, and we know that sluggers headed into their late 30s with back problems offer some serious concerns. So if you're worried about Cabrera, Tigers fans, you're not wrong to be.
Yet if you're looking for some hope, there's this: Per the Statcast™ quality of contact metrics, there was no hitter in baseball with a bigger gap between his quality and amount of contact and his actual outcomes. Based on how hard, how high and how often Cabrera hit the ball, he was still a top-20 hitter, similar to Corey Seager or Gary Sanchez. Based on actual results, he was outside the top 200, more like Yunel Escobar or Daniel Descalso. It's a huge gap.
But why? What caused such a big difference? To some extent, it's speed, as Cabrera is never going to beat out hits or run singles into doubles, but it's not like he's ever been fast. That wasn't new in 2017.
The first thing you're probably thinking before we even start is "Comerica Park." We've talked a few times about how the enormous center field gives outfielders plenty of room to track down blasts. But despite the park's reputation, this isn't entirely a story about Cabrera's home park, because he actually performed far better at home in 2017.
Cabrera home/road splits, 2017
Home: .288/.340/.493 (.833 OPS)
Away: .213/.319/.308 (.627 OPS)
Instead, Cabrera led all of baseball in the number of outs that came on batted balls with at least a 50 percent Hit Probability, but they were evenly split: 28 at home, 27 on the road. In Detroit, he underperformed his expected production by 51 points of wOBA (an OBP-like stat that gives more credit to extra-base hits than walks or singles); on the road, he underperformed by 68 points. The park often doesn't help, but this is not just about the park.
What it basically comes down to is this: At home, the 2017 version of Cabrera was somewhat worse than usual, but still good; his .410 expected wOBA and his .359 actual wOBA still both outpace the Major League average of .314. Then on top of that, the ballpark cost Cabrera some of his highest-value batted balls, as it had in the past. On the road, Cabrera performed much worse (i.e., lower xwOBA), and his outcomes (wOBA) underperformed even that.
We can't explain Cabrera's road woes, other than to point out that "hitting on the road" isn't exactly a skill in and of itself, and therefore shouldn't be considered to be a thing he can't do again.
What we can do, at least, is show you some of his most high-value batted balls that probably "should" have been hits and instead became outs. Cabrera was tied for second behind Aaron Judge for most outs on batted balls with an Expected wOBA of 1.000 or more, with 10. (What's that mean? Michael Trout led the Majors with a .451 wOBA this year. A single home run is worth 2.000 of wOBA.) Put another way, based on how hard and high he hit these six balls, Cabrera should have had 5.4 hits, most for extra bases. He got zero. Baseball is unfair.
Here are the most crushing of those high-value outs.
1. April 10, 108.2 mph / 30.4 degrees / 389 feet
1.911 Expected wOBA
They're not all about Comerica, but this one is. Cabrera crushed this ball, at 108.2 mph, and when batters got up to 108 mph or above in 2017, they hit at a .736 clip. He hit it at a 30.4 degree launch angle, very near the "ideal" home run angle of 28 degrees. For all intents and purposes, Cabrera did hit a homer here. Ninety percent of the time this ball was hit, it leaves the park. Just not this park.
2. Sept. 1, 106.4 mph / 27.6 degrees / 423 feet
1.848 Expected wOBA
Four hundred and twenty three feet! Imagine hitting the ball 423 feet for an out. You can barely do it, because it basically never happens. In 2017, we saw 1,348 batted balls hit at a projected distance of at least 420 feet, and 1,343 of them were hits, mostly homers. That's a .996 batting average. If you do that, you've earned a hit. You deserve a hit. Not only did Cabrera not get a hit, but center fielder Austin Jackson didn't even need to make it look difficult.
3. April 7, 111.5 mph / 22.2 degrees / 406 feet
1.823 Expected wOBA
We promised this wasn't going to be all about Comerica, and it won't be, but here we are again. This is a fat knuckleball that Cabrera pulverizes, at 111.5 mph off the bat -- his hardest-hit out of the year -- requiring Jackie Bradley Jr. to make a jumping catch of a ball projected to go more than 400 feet. In what's going to be a recurring theme, all Cabrera can do is to look on in disbelief. What else can you do?
4. May 9, 101.8 mph / 26.3 degrees / 375 feet
1.432 Expected wOBA
This is a home run, or at the very least extra bases. This is a hit, is the point. Cabrera took a 95-mph fastball from Tom Wilhelmsen, and he drove it a projected 375 feet to right field in Arizona, with an exit velocity near 102 mph. That exit velocity, with that launch angle, becomes a homer two-thirds of the time. It becomes a hit more than 80 percent of the time. It would have here, too ... if not for David Peralta.
5. June 28, 108 mph / 19.8 degrees / 383 feet
1.416 Expected wOBA
Now we're back in Detroit, and that's part of it. A ball hit a projected 383 feet to right-center generally ends well, but the other part of it is that Lorenzo Cain was the center fielder on this day, and Cain remains one of baseball's best outfielders. Does a lesser outfielder fail to get to this ball? Maybe. Is it comfort for Cabrera? The look on his face says, "probably not."
6. Aug. 11, 109.2 mph / 19.1 degrees / 410 feet
1.332 Expected wOBA
Cain, for what it's worth, is one of the best outfielders in baseball. But he's not the best outfielder, because that's Byron Buxton, and unfortunately for Cabrera, this blast -- hit a projected 410 feet -- was hit with Buxton in the outfield. This ball is a hit 86 percent of the time, and a home run over 40 percent of the time. Not, however, when Buxton is around. The best part about this entire thing is how Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson, at first certain he'd allowed a homer, reacts:
Gif: Kyle Gibson wow
None of this guarantees a return to form for Cabrera in 2018, of course. We might not see the MVP version of him again, as the years advance; his hard-hit rate did drop from 53.8 percent in 2015 to 47.8 percent in '17. It's just that Cabrera, for the most part, still hit the ball hard, because a 47.8 percent hard-hit rate was still elite. The outcomes weren't there. The skills seem like they might still be.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.